Madama Butterfly: Traditional Opera Returns to San Antonio

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Scene from Madama Butterfly. Photo by Karen Almond for OPERA San Antonio.

The Tobin Center for the Performing Arts will host OPERA San Antonio‘s first completely traditional opera, Madama Butterfly, by Giacomo Puccini. The performance opened on Thursday evening and there will be an encore on Saturday evening at 7:30 p.m. With technical support provided by Glimmerglass Festival, this production features period costumes and classical staging. No new ground is broken during its presentation; a boon for opera purists.

This stands in stark contrast to last year’s production of Salome, which featured an Edwardian setting, rather than the traditional ancient Roman theme. That opera featured the esteemed Patricia Racette in the title role. As OPERA San Antonio Executive Director Mel Weingart commented in a recent interview, “Everything in an opera production can change, except for the music. That always stays the same.”

From a technical standpoint, this production of Madama Butterfly shone brightly. Both Maria Kanyova as Cio-Cio-San and Adam Diegel as Lt. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, along with the rest of the cast, provided strong performances. Under the baton of Sebastian Lang-Lessing, the San Antonio Symphony performance flowed smoothly out of the orchestra pit.

Not that the production was without its quirks. “Who were all the white women on stage?” asked veteran arts critic Mike Greenberg during the intermission. He went on to note that these women, who were presumably the officers’ wives, were singing the parts normally sung by the women in Japanese costume. In this production, the family of Cio-Cio San were supernumeraries – non-singing roles. In addition, it seemed that when praises were being sung by the chorus toward a particular character, that person was joining in as well.

Scene from Madama Butterfly. Photo by Karen Almond for OPERA San Antonio.

Courtesy / Karen Almond for OPERA San Antonio.

Scene from Madama Butterfly. Photo by Karen Almond for OPERA San Antonio.

The other problem with traditional opera is that it is…well…traditional. No new ground is being broken in this production, the only fully-staged opera to be performed this season. According to Weingart, market research has shown this is what San Antonio opera patrons prefer.

During an interview before Thursday’s premiere, Weingart had mused that he would have liked to see the Glimmerglass production of Verdi’s Macbeth staged at the Tobin. However, Glimmerglass Artistic Director Francesca Zambello indicated that she didn’t think that the opera, based on the Shakespearean play, would do well in the San Antonio market.

Having produced operas in many key locations, Zambello is something of an authority figure. With only one opportunity to do a full-blown opera this season, the decision was made to present a traditional classical opera rather than a somewhat more avant garde choice.

And therein lies the quandary. Traditional operas are like anchovies – either you like them or you don’t. Certainly, key opera patrons have voted with their pocketbooks. A significant deficit from last season was erased, and this production was fully funded. As such, proceeds from ticket sales can be used to buttress OPERA San Antonio’s balance sheet.

Scene from Madama Butterfly. Photo by Karen Almond for OPERA San Antonio.

Scene from Madama Butterfly. Photo by Karen Almond for OPERA San Antonio.

Another observation is that some traditional operatic presentations tend to be quite lengthy. Madama Butterfly is a three-act opera (originally two acts), as opposed to Salome, which is one act, coming in at approximately 90 minutes.

At the end of the first act, the protagonists are preparing for their first night in bed together. As the only characters on stage, they perform something of a vocal pas de deux…which seemed to last a solid 20 minutes. Nodding heads and drooping eyelids could be seen up and down the rows of seats.

At other times, it seemed as though there was a cinematic quality to the production, as if one were watching a movie of an opera, as opposed to a live production. What caused this odd disconnect is a mystery, but it highlights a certain lack of engagement with the audience. Perhaps this was caused in part by the subtitle monitor, which was placed so high above the proscenium that people sitting in the orchestra section had to literally bob their heads up and down repeatedly in order to read the titles – a serious distraction.

Regardless of the quirks in the production, Madama Butterfly was obviously a delight to opera purists. With a realistic set of goals and a knowledge of budget limits, Weingart was wise to make a safe bet. But now that Weingart has OPERA San Antonio’s financial house in order, perhaps next year he will take a chance on the maturity of San Antonio audiences and present Macbeth or a similar production. San Antonio has a deep history with the art of opera. Perhaps some of the traditional purists can be persuaded to stretch their aesthetic wings and give more contemporary fare a chance to flourish here. We can hope.


*Top image: Scene from Madama Butterfly. Photo by Karen Almond for OPERA San Antonio.

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5 thoughts on “Madama Butterfly: Traditional Opera Returns to San Antonio

  1. This is a review seeking to find flaws with a great production. Was there anything about it you liked? Sounds like negativity permeated your intermission.

    • Please allow me to quote myself from the article: “From a technical standpoint, this production of Madama Butterfly shone brightly.” The job of a true reviewer is indeed to point out the flaws, in a constructive manner, so that the performers and technicians can do an even better job next time. For example, having subtitles at stage level would be a huge plus for the poor folks sitting in the orchestra seats.

    • This is a valid comment about reviews for performances that from either the low number of performances, high cost of ticket, and any other attribute that restricts the number of people who would see it (and the number of people who would read the review BEFORE going). Some feel those reviews are more of a description of the performance itself — sort of like taking a video before there were videos — so that people who couldn’t by schedule or couldn’t by income — somehow participant in the program and keep or increase their interest in the art form or troupe. In those reviews, the highlights and lowlights are more of an afterthought where the negative is seen more of an insult.

      The other type of review, if it is really meant for the performers and technicians, would be to send them a letter afterwards like production notes. The comment about high subtitles in the first review type would be as a warning to future attendees. The comment in the second review type would be to provide info that maybe the troupe doesn’t know because they don’t sit in those seats when they perform in their show – and their friends aren’t going to bring it up afterwards because it sounds trivial but really very important to how one remembers the experience.

      Mr. Graham is using his review for both types. I would have liked to have heard more about why the “white women” were signing in the chorus. Why were they the officer’s wives? Isn’t that a reinterpretation? Isn’t this new Greek Chorus breaking new ground? How did the fact that the people were signing when the others were signing about them affect the show? Is it because the audience didn’t know what they were signing anyway and were there just for the music that they didn’t care? Maybe the nodding off during the show is part of the fun of sitting up close. Like swaying to the music – they obviously didn’t know what the words meant anyway, and if they were trying to find out – they probably gave up cramping their necks. And that picture above makes it seem like a cross between Madama Butterfly and Mother Courage based on the costumes and characters standing around (from what a “purist’s” Madama Butterfly would look like standpoint.)…

      Overall, this review leaves me very intrigued. I will need to see it for myself. I’ll get my ticket now. Oh wait, it’s already over. Have they ever thought about maybe, say, 2 weekends??? That’s the problem with opera in small towns. It’s over before you know it, so it comes across as you have to be “in the know” to see it, and then people are they just to be seen and could really care less about the show if it makes them think too much or the music is too loud for them to take a nap after the drinks before the drive home.

      • sorry, probably too subtle. I actually meant signing..not singing..
        I had this image when he wrote it of a chorus signing with the music – groups of women with hands swaying evocative of butterflies and rice fields… LOL

        • LOL! My wife’s first language is actually sign language. Both of her parents were deaf. That would have been an interesting adaptation. In any case, thank you for your insightful comments…

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