It’s the same old story: Girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl throws herself on her father’s sword.
OK, it’s the same old story if you’re attending a performance of Madame Butterfly, Giacomo Puccini’s famous opera about Cio-Cio San (Miss Butterfly) and her temporary marriage to an American naval officer, B.F. Pinkerton, who’s briefly stationed in her home country of prewar Japan.
Pinkerton’s a player who can claim a girl in every port — and while he’s in Japan, he’d like the company of a pretty young local girl. Butterfly, a Geisha girl, is “procured” through a marriage broker to be Pinkerton’s “wife.”
While he finds Butterfly both pleasing and compliant — she readily gives up her religion and her family to be with her American “husband” — Pinkerton has no intention of staying with her permanently. Unfortunately, Butterfly falls in love with him, becomes pregnant and wrongly believes he’ll take her to America.
Those attending The London City Opera’s production of Madame Butterfly in Asheville will get this traditional plot line along with the much-loved musical score.
However, Director Terry John Bates has dared to make the opera’s classic characters more three-dimensional.
“Traditionally, there’s lots of vague, pretty music, and [the audience isn’t] so sure what’s going on,” Bates explains. “I’ve tried to think about what the layman comes to see, so I’ve tried to create more visual pictures to communicate the story.”
In particular, Bates says he’s attempted to “create an environment” for the character of Butterfly.
“In most productions, she just runs around and [the story line] is filled up with music,” he says. “I think Butterfly wants to be somebody else; she wants to escape her culture.”
To help create this environment, Bates notes that he’s also “fleshed out the other characters — I’ve developed the character of Goro, the marriage broker, who traditionally is kind of a pimp.”
The director says he’s even developed story lines for the chorus.
And then there’s Pinkerton, who is usually portrayed as arrogant and selfish, an utter cad who’s just out for a good time at Butterfly’s expense. In this production, however, he’s merely a befuddled playboy.
“Pinkerton doesn’t set out to be awful,” Bates explains. “[He] doesn’t realize how far [Butterfly’s feelings] will go; he doesn’t think about anything.”
Bates’ production highlights the extreme cultural gap separating young, naive Butterfly and Pinkerton’s American wife, who travels with him to Japan toward the end of the opera, and whose presence forces Butterfly to face reality.
“Butterfly has only seen Americans through magazines and films, so I want [Pinkerton’s] wife to be a glamorous-looking American,” he explains. “I want Kate [the wife] to come on as a kind of Hollywood star.”
This contrast between glamorous, cosmopolitan Kate and the lovely but sheltered Butterfly serves to magnify differences between 1930s-era America and the same period in Japan.
The London City Opera tours extensively in the United States, and has stopped in Asheville three times in the past five years, according to Jan Milin, executive director of Asheville Bravo Concerts. Previous productions here have included Die Fledermaus and Carmen.
Bates, who joined The London City Opera last year, says the mostly British company is a good working team.
“We seem to have found where we’re going,” he declares.
Milin speculates that opera is popular in Asheville perhaps because the city is already predisposed toward theater in general. Opera, she points out, “has all the elements of theater — scenery, plot, characters.
“Plus,” she adds, “it has music.”
And that’s a cultural bridge in any era.