On the Wings of ‘Madame Butterfly,’ Opera Returns to Honolulu

April 10 – More than two years after the curtain fell on ‘The Marriage of Figaro’, opera is finally back in full swing at the Blaisdell Concert Hall with the Hawaii Opera Theater’s production of ‘Madame Butterfly’.

Although it opened on Friday, there are still two more stagings, today and Tuesday, of HOT’s lavish staging of Puccini’s tragic masterpiece about desperate teenage geisha, Cio-Cio -san, also known as Butterfly, who is sold as part of a “package” – wife, house and servants – to a wealthy but flaky American naval officer, Pinkerton.

“Butterfly” has been a favorite in Hawaii since HOT debuted as an opera company in 1961. HOT had hoped to stage it last year to celebrate its 60th anniversary, but the pandemic delayed that plan.

This year’s production features a few firsts. The cast will be more racially consistent with the story, with singers of Asian descent playing the roles of the Japanese characters. While the opera is sung in Italian, another nod to the story’s setting in Japan is that the supertitles will be in English and Japanese.

In the role of Cio-Cio-san for the first time, soprano Karen Chia-Ling Ho from Taiwan will make her HOT debut. Her character is romantic at heart, immediately falling in love with Pinkerton, but Ho also sees a certain maturity in her.

“She changes from a naive girl, but she changes from a 15-year-old girl, then she becomes a wife, then a mother,” Ho said. “And then she decides to let her child have a better life in America. . … It’s sad, but I can also see the motherhood, the love of the mother.”

Tenor John Pickle will play Pinkerton and sees him not so much as a boor but as a “product of his upbringing”.

“He comes from a wealthy family and he thinks he can buy whatever he wants,” Pickle said. “At the moment, he’s not thinking about the damage he might cause later. … Right now (in Act 1) he really thinks he’s going to be with her, especially once she’s shunned by his own people.”

At a rehearsal earlier this week, the two singers were in top form, with Ho’s pure, powerful voice soaring through Cio-Cio-san’s most famous aria, “Un bel di vedremo” (“A beautiful day”) in act 2. She sees Cio-Cio-san’s last tune “Tu? tu? tu?” (“You? you? you?”) as “very hard”, because of his emotion. “It builds to the limit” of her abilities, she says.

She and Pickle were enchanting in the Act 1 love duet “Bimba, Bimba, non piangere” (“Honey, honey, don’t cry”), a Pickle favorite, with the trio “Io so che alle sue pene”, (“I know her pain”) in Act 3, which occurs when Pinkerton sees her child for the first time.

“It’s that really moving and heartbreaking moment, which is underscored by some of the most beautiful music on the show,” he said. “It’s a beautiful juxtaposition.”

The opera features costumes by fashion designer Anne Namba, who is a frequent contributor to HOT productions. In an email, she said that in designing Cio-Cio-san’s silk and layered costume worn during the Act 1 love duet, she envisioned “a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis to expose a vulnerable and fragile girl”, while in Act II, when she prepares for Pinkerton’s return, “she is then transformed from the hardened, abandoned woman to the original butterfly by the added layers of silken wings one at a time.”

Puccini’s gorgeous score, which has Asian musical overtones and quotes “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Sakura,” will be conducted by Benjamin Makino. Gregory Keller is the director.

About Madeline J. Carter

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