Amid all the words and music that make up “Madama Butterfly,” there is one line that never fails to give Maria Natale chills.
It’s not one of the opera’s famed arias, such as “Un bel di vedrema,” that Natale will perform when she portrays the young geisha Cio-Cio San in Tulsa Opera’s production of Giacomo Puccini’s opera. It’s not one of the romantic duets, or the drama and tragedy of the opera’s final scenes.
No, the moment that has an outsized emotional impact on Natale occurs in the second act, when Sharpless, the U.S. Consul, arrives to present Cio-Cio San with news about Pinkerton, the U.S. naval officer for whose return Cio-Cio San has been patiently awaiting for three years.
“She is so excited at news from the man she believes to be her husband that she can’t stop talking,” Natale said. “She’s so oblivious to the fact that the news Sharpless has to tell her isn’t good. Finally, he gets through to her, and she says, ‘Taccio, taccio, più nulla,’ which means, ‘I’ll be quiet, I won’t say anything more — I’ll listen to you now.’
“It’s just this one little line — it’s really more spoken than it is sung,” Natale said. “But it gives me chills every time. This is the moment that her dreams are going to come crashing down, and she has no idea. It’s a moment that’s always had the biggest impact on me.”
Practically since its premiere at La Scala in Milan, Italy, in 1904, “Madama Butterfly” has had a profound impact, not simply on opera audiences, but on popular culture. Puccini’s opera is one of the most performed works in the standard opera repertoire. Tulsa Opera’s upcoming production, which opens Friday, Feb. 28, at the Tulsa PAC, will be the 10th time the opera has been performed in the company’s 72-year history.
In addition to Natale as Cio-Cio San, Tulsa Opera’s “Madama Butterfly” will feature Matthew White as Pinkerton and Renée Rapier as Suzuki, all of whom are performing with the company for the first time.
Aleksey Bogdanov, who performed as Nourabad in Tulsa Opera’s recent production of “The Pearl Fishers,” will sing the role of Sharpless, and two members of the Tulsa Opera Filstrup Resident Artist Program — Alexander Boyd and Keely Futterer — will appear as the Imperial Commissioner and Kate Pinkerton, respectively.
John de los Santos is the stage director for this production, which was originally created by renown director Francesca Zambello, and James Lowe returns to conduct the Tulsa Opera Orchestra.
This will be Natale’s second time to perform as Cio-Cio San. She made her debut in the role in a production in April 2019 with Opera San Jose.
“Fortunately, we had a very long rehearsal time for that production, and we did six performances, which gave me the chance to take a really deep dive into this character,” Natale said. “One thing the San Jose company did was bring in a Japanese dance teacher, who was so helpful in teaching me about fan work and how one should hold oneself physically. She was like a drill instructor but in a good way. She gave me a lot of tools that I could bring to this production.”
The whole story
While Puccini’s opera may be the best known, it is hardly the only version of a story about a highly fraught romance that symbolizes the clash between East and West.
In 1887, a French naval officer and writer named Pierre Loti published “Madame Chrysanthème,” which Loti based on the journal he kept that detailed his affair with a Japanese woman while stationed at Nagasaki.
Loti’s novel inspired a short story titled “Madame Butterfly” by American writer John Luther Long, published in 1898, which playwright David Belasco adapted into a one-act play with the subtitle “A Tragedy of Japan,” which premiered in 1900.
Puccini happened to attend a performance of Belasco’s play while he was visiting London, and he immediately saw its operatic potential. Puccini completed the first version of the opera, with a libretto by frequent collaborators Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, in 1904.
The original two-act version of the opera was not a success, but Puccini rewrote the work into a three-act opera, which was premiered a few months later to great acclaim. Puccini would continue to tinker with the opera until 1907, when he completed what is now the standard version of the work.
And while “Madama Butterfly” contains some of the most beautiful music Puccini ever composed, that beauty only heightens the dark and troubling nature of the story the opera tells — that of an innocent girl’s exploitation and how her belief that her arranged, temporary relationship with a visiting U.S. sailor was in fact a legitimate marriage leads inexorably to tragedy.
Playing the character, Natale said, requires walking a fine line.
“It’s made very clear that she’s 15 years old,” Natale said. “And while she certainly doesn’t have all the experiences of an older woman, she’s lived a very hard life. Her father committed suicide, and she had to take over the role of matriarch, of being the one to take care of the family.
“She tries to project this air of confidence, of experience,” she said. “She’s putting on a good show for the Americans. But then, she’s suddenly thrust into a situation that’s beyond anything she knows — of being in a marriage, of being with a man, of being with an American. So that innocence of a young girl has to be there.”
In the blood
While the character of Cio-Cio San presents its challenges for any singer, for Natale, the actual act of singing the role is surprisingly comfortable.
“This is a role that just fits my voice well,” she said. “And Puccini — who is my favorite composer — lays it out for you so perfectly. The music I sing at the beginning is pure and silky, but as it goes on, it gradually becomes darker and heavier and requires you to sing more fully.
“And that’s the genius of Puccini,” Natale said. “There has to be that gentleness at the start because if you sang it to be dark or weighty, it contradicts the music.”
Natale said opera was a big part of her growing up because “my grandfather was an aspiring Sicilian opera singer. He would always tell me, ‘You’re going to be an opera singer!’ And so I guess I’m fulfilling his dreams now. And I’ve always loved Puccini — it’s as if his music is in my blood.”
Her first experience with hearing “Madama Butterfly” was a recording of the opera’s arias by Mirella Freni. Yet she never pursued the role as her career began to take off.
“I was looking more at roles in operas such as ‘La Boheme’ and ‘La Traviata,’ ” Natale said. “I just thought it was beyond the realm of what I should or could do early in my career.
“It wasn’t until Opera San Jose asked if I would sing ‘Butterfly’ that it really crossed my mind,” she said. “At first, I thought to say no, that I can’t sing it, but my agent told me, ‘Yes, you can.’ And I think that was a good thing because I hadn’t had the time to create a lot of preconceptions about the role before I began working on it. And it’s turned out to be not as challenging a sing as I thought it would be.”
Outside the ‘little house’
The physical production that Tulsa Opera is using was created in 1998 by renown opera director Francesca Zambello for Houston Grand Opera. De los Santos worked with Zabello as an assistant on that original production.
“This is very much a traditional production,” de los Santos said. “But one thing that Francesca did was to set much of the action at the American Consulate office. She opened up the action beyond the ‘little house’ where Butterfly lives.”
The result is that audiences are confronted with the reality that such arranged “marriages were not uncommon in Japan at that time,” he said. “It’s really a bold move because it kind of turns people’s expectations upside down. You also don’t need to make radical changes to offer something different, something more profound, within a traditional production.”
De los Santos’ wide-ranging career, which began as a dancer with the Alamo City Dance Company in his hometown of San Antonio, Texas, has included stints as resident choreographer with the Fort Worth Opera, as a director of opera and musical theater, and as a librettist, collaborating with composer Clint Borzoni on award-winning operas “When Adonis Calls” and “The Copper Queen.”
“The great thing about opera is that it draws from all disciplines,” de los Santos said. “And as a director, it’s your job to bring all these disciplines together to interpret the vision and intent of the composer as completely as possible.
“The music and singing always come first in opera,” he said. “But in the case of this show, we strive to be respectful and aware of the culture we’re presenting, so that what we do fits into the historical context in which this story plays out. And I think Francesca’s vision for ‘Butterfly’ is extremely faithful to Puccini.”