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Monday, September 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 70.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Tragedy looms in Madison Opera's Madama Butterfly
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Puccini loved Madama Butterfly's heroine the most.
Puccini loved Madama Butterfly's heroine the most.

Giacomo Puccini was always searching for a good story. He favored ones that put vulnerable heroines in believable turmoil, so in 1900 when he saw David Belasco's play about a geisha's tragic love for an American naval officer, he set his librettists to work. This weekend, in honor of the 150th anniversary of the composer's birth, the Madison Opera presents Madama Butterfly, the heroine Puccini loved most.

Puccini lavishes beautiful melodies on 15-year-old Cio-Cio San, a.k.a. Butterfly (soprano Maria Kanyova), who is overjoyed when she marries Lt. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton of the U.S. Navy (tenor Arnold Rawls). Her love for him is so boundless that she gives up her religion for Pinkerton's, causing a rift with her family, but her maid Suzuki (mezzo-soprano Heather Johnson) remains faithful. Pinkerton goes back to America, years pass, and then comes tragedy.

This weekend's production of Butterfly will be the third for set and costume designer Jun Kaneko and stage director Leslie Swackhamer. Kaneko, originally from Nagoya, Japan, is based in Omaha, Neb., and designed the set for Opera Omaha. He exhibits worldwide and is famous for his ceramic dangos (steamed sweet dumplings) that stand over 8 feet tall and weigh over 2,000 pounds. Bright, bold colors and patterns of stripes, spirals, dots and zigzags permeate his work.

"Nature is very important to the story, so as we puzzled over the natural elements, we let the scenic concepts develop organically through the music," says Swackhamer. "Jun was incredibly devoted to learning about the opera and not deviating from it. The sun represents Pinkerton, the moon represents Butterfly, and we will see the night sky as Jun would paint it. The set is minimalist, and there's not a lot going on, so the audience's imagination will play a major role in the visual experience."

Swackhamer is known for her work in theater, including her stage directions of Wit and What Corbin Knew for the Madison Repertory Theatre. She came to opera later in her career, but in each genre she likes to probe deep beneath the skin of the characters and discover what makes them tick.

"Butterfly is young and grows up fast," Swackhamer says. "She has incredible spirit and strength, and she doesn't do anything half-way. When she marries Pinkerton, she sees herself as free from the strict customs of early Japan, and she finds a core of fierceness that she didn't know was there. She's a fierce and devoted mother, and since I'm a mother, too, I'm mining this aspect of the story."

Young Pinkerton, meanwhile, does not think about consequences. "When he leaves Butterfly to return to the States," Swackhamer says, "he gets caught up in our social structure and marries an American woman. He can't face telling Butterfly the truth and sends Sharpless, the American consul [baritone Grant Youngblood], to read her a letter explaining it all. He's a coward. He's human."

Conductor Leonardo Vordoni will bring Puccini's score to life with its masterful fusion of bravura and mystique. After Butterfly's death aria, the orchestra paces the tension slowly and deliberately until the music rushes forward as if the accelerando might quicken Pinkerton's steps to save Butterfly before she plunges the knife. But he is too late. Butterfly ends not only in European style, with horns blaring and cymbals crashing, but also in the Japanese style that finishes on a chord other than the tonic, leaving us in a state of suspended fascination.

The play that inspired this Madama Butterfly was in English - and, strikingly, Puccini didn't understand a word of it. He relied on his instincts for the stage to weave his music into a timeless story.

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