A cautious love story
Manitoba Opera tiptoes around cultural sensitivities with its production of Madama Butterfly
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/11/2017 (1732 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
One thing that renowned Japanese soprano Hiromi Omura wishes to make perfectly clear when she portrays the lead role, Cio-Cio San, in Manitoba Opera’s production of Madama Butterfly is about that which makes the world go round.
“This opera is about love,” Omura states simply, when asked about the elephant in the room — the swirling controversy over Puccini’s 113-year-old masterpiece and issues of cultural appropriation and racial stereotypes.
“But it’s not only a love story… it’s also about how to live. Cio-Cio San lives in love, hope, faith and courage,” the Tokyo-born artist explains backstage during a rehearsal break. “She has a very strong personality, and makes her own choices. And though she has to live in bitter circumstances, she still is a very happy person right until the end. That’s a very important point, and is why this opera is not a sad opera, but a very joyful opera.”
The three-show run that launches Manitoba Opera’s 45th season was last staged here in 2009. The 2017 version is directed by Winnipeg’s Robert Herriot and also features the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra performing Puccini’s achingly lush score led by maestro Tyrone Paterson.
The three-act tragedy sung in Italian (with subtitles) and premièred in 1904 at Milan’s La Scala tells the tale of 15-year-old Cio-Cio San (a.k.a. Madama Butterfly), who falls in love and weds American naval officer B.F. Pinkerton, who is based in Nagasaki. After he returns home to the U.S. to find a “proper” wife, Cio-Cio San bears his son, little Sorrow, and awaits his return during one of the opera’s most notable musical highlights, its hushed, wordless Humming Chorus. When Pinkerton finally arrives with new American wife Kate to collect his child, Cio-Cio kills herself for reasons of honour, performing another of the show’s haunting arias, Con onor muore.
“It’s fair to keep your ears open to all voices, but there are lots of stories that depict people in different cultures in a less than glowing way, that are part of history,” Herriot says. “But if we forget or negate that part of history — and I’m not saying glorify it — then we’re in danger of repeating ourselves.
“In the end, this is an Italian opera about a beautiful love story, that still resonates today on a deeply human level.”
He also notes Manitoba Opera general director and CEO Larry Desrochers’ decision to partner with the Japanese Cultural Association of Manitoba for several satellite events during the production, including a public panel discussion on cultural appropriation in the arts presented earlier this month. Most importantly, two key roles in the show: Cio-Cio and her maid, Suzuki (mezzo-soprano Nina Yoshida Nelsen) have been cast with artists of Japanese heritage to ensure greater authenticity.
Herriot, who is tackling his first Butterfly, invited Omura to help guide his artistic choices throughout the rehearsal period, resulting in a more respectful, culturally sensitive production.
“Even after researching this opera for over eight months, I told Hiromi right off that there would be things that I don’t know about this particular culture,” Herriot is first to admit. “I said if I’m doing something that you find isn’t authentic, or is offensive in any way, then I want to engage with you.”
For example, during one scene, the principals and Manitoba Opera chorus members happened to be wearing shoes indoors — a taboo in traditional Japanese culture. Omura gently suggested that their choreography be re-staged. The matter ultimately became moot after both realized the production’s set design evoked a more palatial setting where footwear would be acceptable instead of a cosy Japanese home.
This weekend also notably marks Omura’s 101st performance of the 15-year old geisha — her all-time favourite character — having made her debut in the role in 2004. She has since performed to critical acclaim in 12 countries throughout the world, including productions at the New National Theatre Tokyo, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Opera Israeli (Tel Aviv), Montreal Opera, Lausanne Opera, Polish National Opera (Theatre Wielki) and the Savonlinna Opera Festival in Finland, among others.
“I never get tired of this role, because every time I feel freshness in my body and in my spirit. It brings up the energy and love from the bottom of my heart. It’s a very beautiful thing,” Omura, who lives in France with her husband, says of the notoriously difficult part. Its challenges range from intense vocal demands, as during the Flower Duet, a.k.a. Scuoti quella fronda. sung with Suzuki, to having to dramatically craft a believable character who consummates her love with Pinkerton during the swoon-inducing Viene la sera, morphing from lovesick girl to noble young woman dying for honour.
Canadian lyric tenor David Pomeroy is also staring down his own cultural biases as Cio-Cio San’s 19-year old lover, Pinkerton. His boyish character has been sharply criticized over the years for reinforcing a “crass and brash” American stereotype, seen as arrogantly swooping in to take advantage of the Japanese girl and marrying her for convenience.
“Pinkerton for me is a kid,” Pomeroy explains. “You could imagine a naval officer at 19 with young feelings and immature aspirations, but I find him to be a charismatic, fun guy just looking for romance and a good time,” he responds when asked if his character is more villain or victim.
“What he did is bad behaviour, but at the time it was acceptable, and even welcomed as it brought money to the country and the geishas,” he elaborates. Pomeroy also affirms that his character suffers his own tragic circumstances, gutted by remorse during his heart-stopping aria Addio fiorito asil, and arriving too late to save Cio-Cio San.
“That’s one of the most powerful moments in the entire show,” he says of the opera’s dying moments. “He does come back for her and realizes she’s gone. That’s the great sadness for him, and it’s absolutely devastating.”