Los Angeles Opera in 2004 unveiled Robert Wilson’s concept production of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly”, incorporating the ideas from a previous Wilson “Butterfly” created a decade earlier for Opera National de Paris. In the subsequent L. A. season, Wilson’s thoughts on Wagner’s “Parsifal” introduced in Hamburg in the early 1990’s were the basis for another new Los Angeles Opera production.
With more than casual homage to the rules and conventions of classical Japanese theater, Wilson’s “Butterfly” and “Parsifal” proved controversial in Los Angeles, as elsewhere. Yet, even among the productions’ detractors, there was usually the feeling that Wilson was no “Jack the Ripper” concept director out to shock audiences. Even those who could not agree with his approach could concede that there was an underlying rationale for his unique approaches to staging opera.
For the sesquicentennial of Puccini’s birth, L. A. revived its production and secured Liping Zhang, the Beijing (and Vancouver)-trained soprano who had performed in a revival of Wilson’s interpretation in Paris four years earlier, for six of the seven scheduled L. A. performances. With persons whose opinion I value split on Wilson’s “Butterfly” ideas (as they were on his “Parsifal”), I journeyed to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to see what the shouting was about.
The shouting turned out to be bravos for an extraordinary performance. Even though I had expressed reservations about Wilson’s spellbound “Parsifal”, I found myself unreservingly enthusiastic about Wilson’s spellbinding “Butterfly”.
[Below: Butterfly (Liping Zhang) with Lieutenant Pinkerton (Franco Farina); edited image, based on Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of Los Angeles Opera.]
Notes on the Performance
The Wilson stage sets for boths Acts I and II are minimalist. The principal Act I feature is a curving stone path across the floor of the stage. Act II is basically the flooring of the house in which Butterfly resides, for which there are no walls and only the sparsest of furnishings. In fact, there are no structures, other than a wall-sized screen in mid-stage onto which are projected colors, which might include orange mixed with red, or, later, shades of blue, depending on the mood.
Franco Farina appears as Pinkerton in a white robe, with Keith Jameson in a black costume as Goro. When Stephen Powell, the Sharpless, arrives, his robe is grey. The robes worn by Pinkerton and Sharpless wrap around their bodies but each has a fold like a turn of the 20th century American jacket lapel.
Presenting the Americans B. F. Pinkerton and Sharpless (and later Kate Pinkerton) as Japanese abstractions does impact the story. No longer is the emphasis of the first scene on Pinkerton’s desire to “go Native” on his shore leave during the extended times the Abraham Lincoln is apparently required to sit in Nagasaki harbor.
Nor is the focus on Pinkerton’s enlistment of Goro to find the right home and woman for his diversions ashore, and the cautioning of Pinkerton’s behavior by the American consul. Pinkerton in the Wilson conception seem to be a generalized bogeyman and Sharpless an elemental spirit that cries out warnings.
This website contains reviews, cited below, of the performances of both Farina (2006) and Powell (2008) in their respective roles in the far more traditional San Francisco Opera production.
Farina proved able to perform creditably even when standing in the austere poses that Wilson requires. Powell, whom this reviewer commended for a nicely sung Sharpless, acted with appropriate gravitas last December in San Francisco, performed well in Los Angeles also, and sings the first three performances. (Vladimir Chernov performs the final four).
[Below: Keith Jameson is Goro; edited image, based on Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of Los Angeles Opera.]
Of all of the opera’s characters, the greatest transformation in the Wilson approach is of Goro, the “marriage broker”. He no longer seems to be the sleazy operative as he appears in most traditional productions. He now seems to represent a societal essence, performing a function that cannot easily be described, but which seems indispensible to the smooth running of things.
Jameson, whom I had just seen as the Novice in Santa Fe Opera’s production of Britten’s “Billy Budd” was a superb Goro. Jameson’s Goro moves across the stage in small steps. Although he moves in the ancient Noh tradition, his movements appear robotic to contemporary eyes.
For the entrance of Butterfly, four women in white with box headdresses are part of the ceremony. This is when we become conscious of Liping Zhang. At first, she seems in possession of a soubrette voice, rather smaller than expected for the role of Butterfly. But as the evening progresses, her voice’s size appears to grow, and in the second act it dominates the performance.
All props in the production are imaginary. Goro uses hand gestures to serve drinks to Sharpless and Pinkerton. When Butterfly shows her personal possessions to Pinkerton, they are invisible. In the final scene, Cio Cio San’s harakiri is performed without any visible weapon.
[Below: the entrance of Madama Butterfly, Cio Cio San (Ziping Zhang, far right); edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of Los Angeles Opera.]
All of the performers in a Wilson production have physically demanding stage assignments, requiring unusual hand motions and body positions, as well as tightly choreographed movements. Special mention is deserved for Andrea Silvestrelli as the Bonze, Matthew Moore as Prince Yamadori and Erica Brookhyser as Kate Pinkerton.
[Below: Butterfly (Liping Zhang), rejects the marriage proposal of Prince Yamadori (Matthew Moore) that is encouraged by Sharpless (Stephen Powell); edited image, based on Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of Los Angeles Opera.]
Catherine Keen, a former San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow who had risen to the role of Venus in 1994’s San Francisco Opera “Tannhauser”, before pursuing her career elsewhere, is the Suzuki for the first three performances. (Ning Liang, still performing LuLing in the San Francisco Opera production of “Bonesetter’s Daughter”, will appear as Suzuki in the four performances beginning October 10th.)
The most extraordinary feature of the Wilson “Butterfly” – one, I suspect that any lead tenor would instantly notice – is the ascendancy of a minor character, into what seems to be the lead male role throughout the final act (in this production, the second and third acts performed without a break). The small boy who is the product of the love affair between Butterfly and Pinkerton, in what some may discern an Oedipal significance, becomes the center of attention for much of the time from the intermission forward.
[Below: Cio Cio San (Liping Zhang) with her Boy (Sean Eaton); edited image, based on Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of Los Angeles Opera.]
Persons who experienced Wilson’s “Parsifal” will recall that a young boy appears in the first and third acts who moves slowly and rhythmically in a linear path. Butterfly’s Boy, played by Sean Eaton, projects a similar image, although one we see for a much longer time onstage.
Eaton, a precocious but small-framed 11-year old, excelled in a highly choreographed performance that would have been beyond the physical capacity of a boy whose age approximated that of Pinkerton’s offspring. (I suppose one cannot be too insistent that performer’s ages in “Butterfly” are matched with the ages of their characters, since no 15-year old soprano would likely have an operatic voice with the maturity to sing the title role.)
Eaton spends much of the last act on stage, sometimes at play with Suzuki and Butterfly, sometimes eyes fixed in what appears to be a staring contest with Sharpless, on several occasions moving slowly about the stage, scooping up imaginary morsels from the ground to place in his mouth.
Both producer and audience recognized the importance of the boy’s contribution to Wilson’s concept. In an extreme departure from tradition, Eaton took his solo curtain calls (to enthusiastic ovations) AFTER all of the cast except for Liping Zhang.
Thoughts on the Wilson “Butterfly” and “Parsifal”
Usually a review of a performance of “Butterfly” does not allot much space to discuss “Parsifal”, but it may be useful to think through the similarities and differences between the two operas that underlie the two Los Angeles Opera Robert Wilson productions.
Both “Parsifal” and “Butterfly” are great masterpieces, whose underlying structures follow Wagnerian principles. In fact, Puccini, in my opinion, is hands down the most successful post-Wagnerian. He incorporates fundamental Wagnerian ideas from the leitmotiv constructionto the primacy of the orchestra into the matrix of his operas, and, all the while, chooses stories that resound with operatic audiences.
What Robert Wilson demonstrates is that the music and orchestration for both operas is of such a high level that you can move the operas’ stories and the accompanying stage business (i.e., the stage directions specified by respectively by Wagner and by Puccini and his librettists) to a higher level of abstraction, and through this process, illuminate the brilliance of the orchestral writing.
Even so, there are some practical reasons to be wary about attempting to graft classical Japanese or Chinese theatrical conventions onto “Parsifal”. The opera’s protagonist is an Arthurian knight of medieval legend, hailing from a time when Christendom had only tentatively spread into the lands of Central and Northern Europe.
If one wants to delve more deeply into artistic traditions that illuminate Wagner’s story, there are centuries of European art and history to explore, as Wagner himself did to find his source material. He did not look far to the East for his inspiration, and neither need we.
Wilson’s concepts can lead to spirited discussion, but ultimately there are too few performances and far fewer productions of “Parsifal” to endorse the idea of presenting “Parsifal” through the eyes of an alien culture. It deprives those who wish to see the work presented as Wagner intended of a profound experience.
Furthermore, the story of “Parsifal” is sufficiently mystical to begin with that to introduce new levels of abstractions and to translate it into another culture’s form for artistic expression can make it seem ever more inaccessible. This is an opera whose fan base needs to be increased, rather than eroded.
On the other hand, “Butterfly” is performed more often and in more productions than any other 20th century opera. One can depart from the way the opera has been “traditionally” presented without doing it much harm.
Los Angeles Opera subscribers that wish to see a more mainstream “Butterfly” will be able to drive down the Coast for the San Diego Opera’s mounting next May with a fine cast and elegant production. Or, if they prefer to see San Francisco Opera’s exemplary production before it is revived again in the Bay Area, they can fly to Denver to see Opera Colorado perform the San Francisco production in a few weeks.
Puccini fully embraced the incorporation of ideas from Japan, and, in fact, important musical themes in the opera are based on Japanese folk songs. I suspect that Puccini would have found the Wilson approach interesting and provocative (and profitable, since he would have drawn royalties from all performances).
For those in the vicinity of the Los Angeles Music Center, I recommend this extremely interesting production as a way to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Puccini’s birth.
For reviews of other productions of “Madama Butterfly” see: The Remaking of San Francisco Opera Part III “Madama Butterfly” – December 8, 2007, and
For a discussion of Robert Wilson’s “Parsifal”, see: “Robert Wilson’s Parsifal” in L A: Whose Spell is it Anyway? and