Fleeting Beauty – Opera Santa Barbara brings star power to Puccini’s classic ‘Madame Butterfly’

Kimonos have multiple layers of fabric, but even so, they are light and airy. Or at least they should be. Whoever made one of the kimonos for Opera Santa Barbara’s upcoming production of “Madame Butterfly” didn’t get the memo.

“It’s so heavy! It feels like wearing a futon,” laughs lead soprano Mihoko Kinoshita as we chat about the production. Heavier than any 19th-century outfit, heavier than any armor worn by a Wagnerian goddess — it’s a big costume, but thankfully she has the power to sing past it, a power noted by the London Daily Express and others reviewing her star turn in the lead role of “Madame Butterfly” at the Royal Albert Hall.

Alexey Sayapin plays Pinkerton and Mihoko Kinoshita plays Cio-Cio-San in Opera Santa Barbara's production of "Madame Butterfly." Kevin Steele photo
Alexey Sayapin plays Pinkerton and Mihoko Kinoshita plays Cio-Cio-San in Opera Santa Barbara’s production of “Madame Butterfly.”
Kevin Steele photo
And now Ms. Kinoshita has another chance to own Cio-Cio-San in this upcoming production.

Opera Santa Barbara last mounted Puccini’s classic in 2003, and counts this as its third production. In 2003, The Granada had not been remodeled, so this really will look new, with different sets and costumes. Opera companies like our own, by the way, rent their sets as a full package from out of dozens available, as they do their costumes. It’s not like there’s an art department full of carpenters working full time backstage to recreate 19th-century Nagasaki, Japan. (That only happens when Opera SB mounts a brand new work.)

“I like to cast operas with established recognized singers and people that are just getting to sing these roles for the first time,” says Jose-Maria Condemi, artistic director. “It’s a way of energizing the cast.”

Mr. Condemi’s plan explains the casting of Ms. Kinoshita, who has played Butterfly on and off for 10 years, as well as bringing in Nina Yoshida Nelson, playing her maid, Suzuki, from that recent Royal Albert Hall production, to reprise the role. Add to that Alexey Sayapin, a rather fresh young Russian tenor, cast as Colonel Pinkerton.

“It’s a gut feeling,” says Mr. Condemi. “It’s believing who will work well together, and how they will look together on stage.”

It’s good to have a Pinkerton who is both young in age and experience, as the character is both 20-something and naive, especially when it comes to empathy for others. Butterfly, on the other hand, has spent her time waiting for the return of Pinkerton while raising their child. And although she puts all her hope in his return, she’s progressed in life more than him. But Puccini makes Pinkerton neither the cad nor the hero, and that’s one of the reasons the opera has such staying power.

“I’m around the same age as Pinkerton,” says Mr. Sayapin. “He’s charming and, well, it’s not too hard to play him. I cannot accuse him of being a bad guy. He came into another culture and doesn’t understand how deep the other culture is. That is his problem. He realizes at the end that he has made a big, big mistake.”

Mr. Sayapin just finished L.A. Opera’s Domingo-Thornton Young Artist Program — the place where Mr. Condemi spotted him. He hails from Saratov, Russia, a city on the Volga river southeast of Moscow. His family visited the opera when he was a child, and when he was in high school he loved the “Three Tenors” CD so much that while other friends were joining rock bands, he was trying to match Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras. Now married, he lives in Vienna, the home of opera. “Music is everywhere,” he says of his new city.

“He’s very honest and fresh,” says Ms. Kinoshita of Mr. Sayapin. “Which I think is essential for Pinkerton.

“He is also very … sexy!” Ms. Kinoshita adds with a laugh. So that helps. The sexier he is, the better. “Sometimes a Pinkerton is boring. And we have a 20-minute love duet. It’s long. Sometimes in the past I have felt bored. But this time it’s very good. The director is very good in staging. But after that it’s a sad story. So that moment is my happy time; it’s important for me.”

“In this particular case I wanted to cast a Japanese singer,” Mr. Condemi says of Ms. Kinoshita’s lead role. “I’ve directed an Italian singer in the role too, and in the end all actors are inhabiting characters. There’s no advantage to it. Let’s say it’s interesting to have a Japanese singer this time.”

There is a very romantic and tragic dimension to “Madame Butterfly,” but there’s just as much a political side to the tale. Just three and a half decades after Japan opened to the West, Puccini critiques both imperialism and orientalism, though the opera indulges in the latter with its sets and costumes. (It has to, really.)

“There’s a sense of entitlement in the American characters,” says Mr. Condemi. “They show up in Japan and they think they own the world. The first scene where Pinkerton is introduced to Japanese culture and Cio-Cio-San is mentioned for the first time, there is a beautiful duet between him and Sharpless. And Sharpless cautions him that these are people with real feelings but Pinkerton brushes him off.

“Now, you can see that as political, but it’s also human nature. Pinkerton is a boy, almost. It’s up to the director. It can be about young people just being unaware about other cultures.”

So Opera SB’s version lies someone in the middle of political and sociological. Mr. Condemi says to look for its next production, “Aida,” which gets outré political.

“But that’s what keep opera so relevant 200 years later. If you want to delve into those issues, they are there.”

‘Madame Butterfly’
When: 7:30 p.m. tonight, 2:30 p.m. Sun.
Where: The Granada, 1214 State St., Santa Barbara
Cost: $28-$188
Information: 899-2222 or www.operasb.org

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