Cold comfort for a new breed of butterfly

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 September, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 September, 1994, 12:00am

F IRST Act Opera's Mister Butterfly is a modern-day sequel to Madama Butterfly, transferred by librettist Michael Powell to Vietnam and the United States. However, for all the Fringe Club's air conditioning knew, it might have been set in the permafrost. First Act Opera is a small British touring group which has been performing in the territory at charity evenings with La Traviata, Zuniga's Story (adapted from Carmen) and, lastly for these two performances, Powell's and composer Ken Roberts' work at the Fringe.

The grandmother of Benjamin Pinkerton III was Japanese, and the original Madama Butterfly. An American serving in Vietnam during the war, Ben takes pity on a young Vietnamese, Sara Lee, who faces death and a few other pains besides for working for the US military. So he marries her, takes her home to the States and she bears him a son, another Ben. But that is not enough for her.

She blooms in her job at a bank, while he wilts as an odd-job man who takes in his troubled war buddy Sam, a victim of drink and drugs. So Sara Lee takes the kid to Kansas City and Ben takes the same sad suicidal exit that his Japanese grandmother took before him. The singing was excellent for the most part (notably Rosemary Ashe as a powerful Sara Lee and Paul Badley as a tortured Ben). John Morgan was a menacing Colonel Smith. And although the accompanying music was defeated just once or twice by the electronics, it was nevertheless haunting and deftly executed by Ken Roberts.

Even so, the staging, or lack of it, was conspicuous. It is not easy to make that leap of imagination to see English opera singers as vulnerable little Vietnamese women. And parts of the libretto lapsed into triteness. But this was a small-scale production and as such was brave and challenging. One can only wish First Act Opera well and hope that they share their more accessible productions with the public when they come to Hong Kong again, which they hope to do in October 1995.