Lyric Opera of Chicago

A New Butterfly Alights at Lyric

by Jack Zimmerman

If you compiled a list of the most popular operas seen throughout the world in any given year, Madama Butterfly would be at or near the top.

Giacomo Puccini’s 1904 East-meets West tragedy fires up the same emotions as it did more than a century ago.

Madama Butterfly began as a short story, written in 1898 by American lawyer and author John Luther Long. The famously flamboyant Broadway playwright/director/producer David Belasco dramatized it. Puccini saw Belasco’s tear-jerker in London and was deeply touched, even though his understanding of English was limited. “The more I think of Madama Butterfly,” he wrote to his publisher Ricordi, “the more irresistibly am I attracted.” His librettists for La bohème, Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, did the honors for Madama Butterfly as well, and the opera premiered at Milan’s La Scala in 1904.

Here’s how Puccini biographer Mosco Carner views Madama Butterfly

Though couched interms of a melodrama, it contains an element of true tragedy. The catastrophe is the inevitable corollary of the geisha’s character; ecause she is what she is, she cannot act otherwise than she does. Faced by three alternatives—marriage to Prince Yamadori or resumption of her former profession or death– she makes the most courageous choice. Caught in a moral conflict, she solves it by self-annihilation and thus grows to a heroine in the true sense of the word. 

Madama Butterfly will once again come to Lyric in 2013-14, the fifteenth season in company history that has included this Puccini opera. It made its first appearance here in 1955; in the only staged performances of the role that she ever sang, Maria Callas portrayed Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly). This season Lyric audiences will be treated to a new-to-Chicago production by debuting director Michael Grandage, with sets and costumes by Christopher Oram and lighting by Neil Austin. This is the creative team responsible for Red, John Logan’s play about artist Mark Rothko, which swept the 2010 Tony Awards.

This Madama Butterfly production was first seen at Houston Grand Opera in 2010, when Lyric’s current general director, Anthony Freud, held that position with the company. “Michael Grandage is a director whose work I’ve known for years,” says Freud. “I’ve seen many of his shows and gotto know him when he was artistic director of an important regional theater in the north of England.” Freud discovered that Grandage had an interest in opera, and soon the two were thinking about a new Butterfly for HGO. “The most challenging operas for new productions are the operas that are most popular and familiar,” says Freud. “What’s necessary in offering a new production is finding a way of both satisfying our audience’s expectations and at the same time, recapturing something of the energy, intensity, and theatrical impact that these great pieces had when they were brand new. In Michael I felt we had a director who would be absolutely true to the text, the music, the narrative, and the characters. And he would breathe life into Butterfly’s relationships with Suzuki, Sharpless, and Pinkerton. The idea was for us to see the piece with fresh eyes and hear it with fresh ears.”

The results were thrilling, as Lyric audiences will discover when Butterfly opens October 15 and runs for five performances with South African soprano Amanda Echalaz as Cio-Cio-San and American tenor James Valenti as Pinkerton (both Lyric debuts).The six January performances have American soprano—and Lyric favorite—Patricia Racette as the ill-fated heroine, opposite the Pinkerton of Italian tenor Stefano Secco (debut). The remaining cast members, who sing alperformances, are MaryAnn McCormick as Suzuki, Christopher Purves (debut) as Sharpless, and David Cangelosi as Goro. The conductor is Marco Armiliato (debut). Michael Black is chorus master.

“The point of the production is to go back to the basics and tell the story simply, clearly, and in a very detailed way,” says Louisa Muller, who assisted Michael Grandage for the 2010 Houston production and will direct it at Lyric. “Visually the production is stunning, but going beyond that, it focuses on the relationships and the characters in a nuanced way. There’s nothing extraneous in it. You go away from this Butterfly feeling that everything in the production is completely necessary.”

“It’s a production that looks incredibly beautiful,” says Freud. “Fairly spare in appearance but unequivocally set in 19th century Japan, it’s not a production that seeks to transplant the story to a different era.That’s not Michael’s way of working. But in its sparseness and lack of clutter it develops the intensity of Greek tragedy. The stage in all its simplicity and beauty is evocative of 19th-century Japan, and the characters are always in sharp focus.”