Tragic Butterfly strikes a familiar note in Asia
Chinese soprano says the famed opera is sad according to western values of love and romance, but in eastern culture it has a common, almost inevitable conclusion
When Edo de Waart raises the baton to launch his third season with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra next month, it will be with a phenomenal international cast in a concert performance of the much-loved opera, Madama Butterfly.
Puccini's timeless operatic masterpiece of love, betrayal and sacrifice will be told in the voices of Chinese soprano He Hui as Cio-Cio San, American tenor Andrew Richards as Pinkerton, Russian mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova as Suzuki, Australian baritone Peter Coleman-Wright as Sharpless and Hong Kong-based tenor David Quah as Goro.
Madama Butterfly, a favourite with opera-lovers for its exoticism, touching story and breathtakingly beautiful music, carries a special meaning for the Philharmonic.
The first reason is historic. It was the first opera presented by the Urban Council, 30 years ago, with Lo King-man directing the Philharmonic. The second reason is sentimental. The opera is very dear to the heart of de Waart, the Philharmonic's artistic director and chief conductor, who recently conducted it over a run of 18 performances with the Netherlands Opera.
'What a joy to conduct this great Puccini opera night after night!' the conductor enthused. 'I am sure Hong Kong audiences will enjoy it as much as I do.'
As with Salome and Elektra, the Richard Strauss operas presented by the Philharmonic over the past two seasons, Madama Butterfly will be performed as an opera in concert. Unlike a fully staged opera production, with elaborate sets and costumes, an opera in concert is performed with the singers and the orchestra sharing the concert stage. This format allows for a full appreciation of the music.
With the orchestra placed on the stage rather than in the orchestral pit of a theatre, the music can be enjoyed in all its richness, nuance and detail.
The audience can concentrate on the music as the main event, without any visual distractions.
'With opera in concert you just focus on delivering the plot, without having to worry about lights, makeup and complex staging,' explained de Waart. 'Opera in concert can be as gripping as fully staged opera.'
Madama Butterfly is set in Nagasaki, Japan, in 1904. The opera tells the tale of a tragic love between a young geisha, Cio-Cio San, or Butterfly, and a United States lieutenant, B.F. Pinkerton. The pleasure-loving Pinkerton marries Butterfly in the knowledge that the contract can become void with a month's notice from either side.
Despite strong opposition from her family, Butterfly goes ahead with the marriage in the hope of starting a new life. After Pinkerton returns to America, she faithfully awaits his return. In the meantime, she bears him a son. Pinkerton finally returns after three years, but with an American wife in tow, hoping to adopt the boy and to bring him back to the US. Butterfly is devastated, and uses the same knife her father used to commit hara-kiri to kill herself.
Soprano He has already appeared in five different productions of Madama Butterfly, and all to rave reviews. According to the singer, Butterfly is not a difficult character to understand.
'We grew up hearing a lot of Chinese tales like hers,' He Hui said. This way of thinking - of committing to a partner for life - is quite common in Chinese culture, she adds.
'What she did [committing suicide] may seem very sad according to western values of love and romance, but in Asian culture it is almost inevitable.'
Richards, a tenore spinto with a dashing stage presence who will debut in the same role later this year at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, said his character Pinkerton would be damaged goods for the rest of his life.
'His tragedy is that his thoughtlessness caught up with him, and that he will never again enjoy his life, never feel so deeply as he did with Butterfly,' the tenor explained.
Madama Butterfly will be performed on 16 and 18 September at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall