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article imageYouthful passion fuels 'Madama Butterfly' Special

By Cate Kustanczy     Oct 9, 2014 in Entertainment
Toronto - Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” has been accused of racism, misogyny, and gross stereotyping. But at its heart, the opera is really about the passion of youth, and the consequences of choice.
Madama Butterfly is a unique if troubling work that touches, consciously and not, on notions of cultural exoticism, misogyny. subservience, and something author Edward Said famously termed “Orientalism.” Its main character is frequently portrayed as meek, tragic, and submissive. For some, this characterization has nothing to do with Cio-Cio San or who she is, much less the choices she and her lover make.
“It’s about the excitement of youth, of not considering consequences,” explains soprano Patricia Racette.
Premiered in 1904 and based in part on a short story by American writer John Luther Long which was later turns into a one-act play by American theater producer David Belasco, the opera tells the story of teenaged Cio-Cio San. The young geisha marries US Naval officer Pinkerton, having already shocked Japanese society by converting to Christianity in anticipation of her American life. After one night together, the soldier leaves, whereupon the geisha waits for him, spurning other offers of marriage, convinced of his return. Three years later, Pinkerton does return, with an American wife, not realizing Cio-Cio San had his child. The reunion is tragic, bitter, the main character’s heart-rending demise a stark symbol of cultural (and some might argue, emotional) polarization.
“Neither thinks they’re doing something wrong,” says soprano Kelly Kaduce of the ill-fated romance.
Kaduce and Racette are set to make their Canadian Opera Company debuts as Madama Butterfly in a production (with two almost entirely different casts) running October 10th through 31st at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. This will be the COC’s sixth revival of Brian MacDonald’s popular production, the last being in 2009.
The work, though not initially a success, has since gone to be a staple of international operatic repertoire. According to comprehensive website OperaBase, it’s ranked 7th in the list of most frequently-performed operas in the world. The work was modernized in the 1989 musical Miss Saigon, which transferred the original Japanese setting into 1970s Saigon during the Vietnam War, with Pinkerton as a young GI. That transformation, wholly apart from Puccini’s sad, poetic score, kept one key component of the original: the recklessness of youth. It's a theme both Racette and Kaduce underline as central to understanding the opera.
(L-R) Elizabeth DeShong as Suzuki and Patricia Racette as Cio-Cio San in the Canadian Opera Company ...
(L-R) Elizabeth DeShong as Suzuki and Patricia Racette as Cio-Cio San in the Canadian Opera Company production of 'Madama Butterfly', 2014.
Veronika Roux-Vlachova
New Hampshire-born Racette doesn’t see the work’s characters as cliches. “Her fortitude is unique," she says of the titular geisha, "I don't like to play her as a victim. But I do like it when Pinkerton isn’t played as a cad. What he’s guilty of is being careless, impulsive, young, overly-passionate, not thinking about consequences for a second. Pinkerton isn’t thinking, “I'm going to spend the rest of my life with this woman.” He’s thinking, “Who is this exotic unique creature, this flower?” He’s charming, and that validates Butterfly's choices to be with him. If he's played as a cad, she looks like an idiot… and he looks like a cad, and gets booed.”
“I know Pinkerton gets a bad rap in this show,” says Kaduce of the oft-portrayed (and frequently booed) villain, “but he’s if you think of him being seventeen or eighteen, a young soldier… they were all doing it, all taking advantage of this Japanese law that you only had to sign a contract for a year. All of the American soldiers were doing it — it was part of the group mentality, part of peer pressure.”
Minnesota-born soprano Kelly Kaduce has sung a variety of roles in works by Mozart  Puccini  Massene...
Minnesota-born soprano Kelly Kaduce has sung a variety of roles in works by Mozart, Puccini, Massenet, Bizet, and Britten, among many others.
Veronika Roux-Vlachova
Kaduce has shared the stage with her husband, baritone Lee Gregory, in a number of celebrated roles, including the wandering wife in Leoncavallo's beloved Pagliacci, the lonely Countess in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, and Mimi in Puccini's other popular opera, La Boheme. Kaduce estimates she has sung Cio-Cio San more than sixty times now. OPERA NEWS wrote of her performance (in a 2012 production) that Kaduce captures “both the vulnerability and the flintiness of her character.” She echoes Racette’s feelings around youth being central to the identity of the role.
“My idea of a young fifteen-year-old is the energy, the way (Butterfly) reacts to uncomfortable situations,” she explains, “so maybe there's more giggling. There's moment in Act 1 after the wedding where we’ve stated that Pinkerton kisses her. And for her I think that’s a very giddy, girlie moment, to have a man do something so manly for her. She's proud but shy at the same time. “
Racette, known for her intense stage presence as well as her hosting work with the Metropolitan Opera's Live in HD series, has been to Japan four times, and studied with a former geisha in San Francisco. “I went to her house, worked on movement and fans,” the singer recalls. “She had her kimono on, and we basically explored the physicality of this culture and what this person would display […] I do see, sometimes, this opera done when the physicality is not adhered to — because its such an Italianate score. But I think it misses something if it does not have the Japanese flavor or physicality. I try to be as strict with myself as possible to make sure that is adhered to.”
Frequently described as a “singing actress ” Racette has been hailed for her artistry and her de...
Frequently described as a “singing actress,” Racette has been hailed for her artistry and her deeply-entrenched commitments to both singing and acting. Known for her Puccini roles as well as performances in Italian classics, modern operas like 'Dolores Claiborne' (based on Stephen King’s book) and cabaret, Racette’s primary concern in approaching a role isn’t directly related to personal desire or ambition.
Veronika Roux-Vlachova
“My concern is, can I serve it? does it give me an opportunity to offer something that is unique? Something that is for me? I usually make a decision based on that. I eliminate roles when I feel I can’t.”
Kaduce, for her part, told Barcza Blog last month that her secret to approaching any role is “you do it ‘as yourself,’ not as the character. How would YOU respond given the situation and circumstances.” This honesty, combined the vocal changes she’s experienced the last few years, lend a unique insight into singing the role of Cio-Cio San.
“Certainly with age and then having a child, my voice has gotten fuller, that makes the projection easier than the first few times I did the role,” she remarks, “but most of all it’s the understanding of the pacing, understanding how my body responds to the role, knowing how to pace myself energy-wise.”
Madilyn Miller as Sorrow and Kelly Kaduce as Cio-Cio San in the Canadian Opera Company production of...
Madilyn Miller as Sorrow and Kelly Kaduce as Cio-Cio San in the Canadian Opera Company production of 'Madama Butterfly', 2014.
Veronika Roux-Vlachova
Being mom to a three-year-old in real life has deepened Kaduce’s approach to the role, if also made her more conscious of those energetic demands. “I think of Butterfly’s child and how he is supposed to be three,” she says with clear affection. “I think I interact even more than I did before and even more using a playful tone of voice, more physicalities. I have more ideas of entertaining a child and holding their attention span — and that's exactly what it is with a three-year-old: you have to be animated and very engaged.”
Engagement is something that the role demands, along with a certain grace. For her performance as Butterfly this past June, the San Francisco Gate wrote that “Racette blended vocal ardor and sensitive phrasing with a fearless air of dignity.” She told OPERA NEWS last month that “as a singer you offer a more potent individual performance when you look at things through your character’s eyes.” Thus is singing just one part of understanding Madama Butterfly as a whole.
“I've heard others say, before, ‘Oh, opera's about singing,’” Racette says passionately. “It’s not just about singing; it’s very vacant if it’s just about singing. It’s about this collision of theater and music and design and stagecraft ... to make an art form unlike any other. If you ignore one aspect of that, you shortchange the entire artform.”
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