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UAO looks to past for new staging of 'Butterfly'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Puccini’s "Madama Butterfly," one of the most beloved and most often performed operas, comes to Union Avenue Opera Friday with singers who have become UAO favorites.

"The ‘Madama Butterfly’ story has so much joy and love in the first act," soprano Ann Hoyt Wazelle, who sings the title role, said. “Butterfly is very young, 15, and so faithful to (U.S. Naval Lt. Benjamin Franklin) Pinkerton. All its music is so beautiful.”

It’s an excellent first opera for newcomers to the art form in part because of its soaring, familiar melodies, she said.

"Even people who think they don’t know the opera will recognize its music," Hoyt Wazelle said. "Butterfly" can be heard in "movie background music yes, but also its music is stolen by ‘Les Miz,’ ‘M. Butterfly’ and more," she said. Cary Grant even made a non-singing movie of the same title with Puccini’s music in its background.

A fresh approach

Both Scott Schoonover — UAO founder, artistic director and conductor of this opera — and stage director John Truitt wanted to display "Butterfly" through a slightly different prism. But they did not move the story from Japan to, say, Afghanistan or Zombie-land. Several singers said they appreciate that Schoonover and Truitt decline to use staging distractions that can diminish singing abilities.

Instead, they went to the source.

Schoonover said he listened to its earliest recordings and studied the early score. Truitt dug into the opera’s 1904 original stage directions. Both tried to remove traditions of the past 50 years that they believe have become barnacles. And the UAO Butterfly may seem to be more fragile and youthful than has become standard, Schoonover said.

"Early Butterfly sopranos had brighter, lighter, almost childlike soprano voices," he said.

That voice quality makes the character more fragile, which a 15-year-old would be, he said. Big opera companies settled for less delicate sounding lyric soprano voices to suit huge opera houses, he said.

"We have the real luxury of an intimate theater; the (orchestra) pit rarely overwhelms the singers even when the singers’ music is soft and low." Schoonover said.

After auditions did not produce what he wanted, he phoned New Yorker Hoyt Wazelle, who has a strong record of well-received performances at UAO. She sang Dido in Purcell’s "Dido and Aeneas" here in 2004, Suzanna in Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro” in 2006, and Valencienne in “The Merry Widow” in 2009, all under the name of Ann Hoyt. Five days after that last gig she married fellow cast member tenor Tommy Wazelle.

"I never considered auditioning for Butterfly," she said. She teaches voice (including sopranos who want to sing the role) at New York’s 92nd Street YMCA, in addition to her opera and concert career. She and her husband are also raising their two children, who are under the age of 3.

"There is brightness to my voice that is not associated with a full lyric soprano voice, usually cast in Butterfly,” she said.

She said yes to Schoonover, as she believed he knew what her voice could do and would not force her to strain it.

Butterfly is a demanding role. She’s on stage for all but the opera’s initial 14 minutes and one short break near the end.

"I love it," she said. "Now, I would love to sing it again."

Truitt, the stage director, is pleased that the change in voice quality stresses the vulnerability and fragility of the teenage Butterfly. In addition to directing, Truitt continues his own singing career and heads the voice section at the University of Evansville. This is his UAO debut.

An American story

Librettists Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica borrowed the "Butterfly" plot from Philadelphia lawyer John Luther Long’s 1898 short story and California playwright David Belasco’s play based on Long’s tale. Some say Long based it on a true story.

"I love all Puccini operas but this is better written, more concise than some of his,” Schoonover said. “His music language always fits the characters."

The opera will be sung in its original Italian with English super titles projected above the stage.

He says the opera’s straightforward plot is easy to follow.

"Sometimes Mozart, whose operas we all love, goes on for 10 minutes with the same three phrases, over and over," Schoonover said. "Puccini had more modern stage sensibilities. The characters are singing actual conversations to each other. They are not thinking aloud, not singing soliloquies. The story moves forward."

In the opera, Pinkerton sails into Nagasaki harbor on a U.S. battleship and hires an all-purpose local broker, Goro. He finds Pinkerton a small house on a harbor island for foreigners. (The Japanese did not want culturally inferior foreigners to live among their families.) Goro also brokered a marriage for Pinkerton to a young, impoverished, orphaned geisha, Cio-Cio-San. Her first name is a play on the word Butterfly. 

Pinkerton signs up for a 999-year contract he can cancel with just a month’s notice. The naïve teenager doesn’t seem to understand the potential problem. She is madly in love — at least with the idea — of marrying this handsome American in a white naval uniform. 

In reviewing the 1904 production notes, Truitt said he found that “Puccini has great subtlety."

"I connect with Pinkerton as a man with youthful bravado, swagger," he said. He does not see Pinkerton as an ugly, jingoistic American. "He’s brash, not celebrating nationalistic ideas."

Ten years ago at UAO, tenor Mathew Edwardsen sang Pinkerton. It was his first principal role on the professional opera stage. Now he will be singing the role in his ninth production.

"Ten years ago I only understood (Pinkerton) superficially," he said. Previous performances "and life have given me an understanding of Pinkerton’s depth of character," Edwardsen said.  "Pinkerton is not heartless, but he is totally naïve. He has money and is used to buying what he wants. He is totally interested in pleasing himself. He’s excited by the exotic Japan culture and wants to experience it."

Edwardsen calls himself a latecomer to opera. He grew up singing in high school in Springfield, Ill. At Millikin University in Decatur, he focused on Broadway-style singing and subsequently moved to Los Angeles. There his acting teacher, Betty Garrett, dispatched him to opera vocal specialist Joann C. Zajac. She helped him carefully move his voice higher up the vocal range from baritone to tenor and switch his focus to opera. 

"I fell in love with opera," he said. He participated in two prestigious opera apprentice programs, with Santa Fe Opera and then with Opera Theatre of St. Louis’ Gerdine Young Artists. All of those experiences and learning Italian have helped him give depth to Pinkerton on stage.

In the opera, the U.S. Consul Sharpless warns Pinkerton about the dangers to the young bride of this arranged marriage. Butterfly won’t regard her marriage vows so lightly, something to be dashed with a month’s notice, he tells the young sailor.

"Sharpless is a dignified, polite, wise, diplomat who understands the Japanese," said baritone Robert Garner, who sings the Sharpless role.

The lieutenant sings that he is smitten with Butterfly but not sure he is in love. Butterfly does take her wedding seriously. She tells Pinkerton she has converted to Christianity to please him. He is not moved.

"He just thinks that is what geishas are supposed to do, to please a man in every way." Edwardsen said. However, her family ostracizes the newly married teen because of her conversion leaving her alone except for husband and servant.

The opera’s second act begins three years later. Butterfly has been awaiting her sailor’s return, eager to introduce him to their son, Sorrow. The broker Goro tries to marry the lonely and near destitute Butterfly to Japanese Prince Yamadori. But she only dreams of the American.

Butterfly recalls that he promised his bride that he would return “with the roses, when the earth is full of joy, when the robin makes his nest." 

On stage there is a robin’s nest. She sings that the robin built his nest three times since her husband departed. The naïve young woman asks if robins in America nest less frequently.

Truitt emphasizes the passage of time: Her house has weathered. Its paper curtain walls are tattered. Her garden is stunted.

But the real mark is their 3-year-old son, whom Pinkerton has never seen. Asian-American Vincent Perez of Evanston, Ill., plays the son. The upcoming second grader sat quietly during a recent three-hour rehearsal. Four times he was called for few minutes of silent appearances on stage. He’s a “super,” an unpaid player with no speaking or singing role. His maternal grandfather, UAO board president Jack Swanson, sat beside the boy.

At last Pinkerton’s ship returns. Butterfly sits vigil throughout the night, as the audience is treated to some of Puccini’s most beautiful, and most borrowed, orchestral music. Her hopes are not to be realized. 

Joyful family reunions

In real life, several cast members are enjoying family reunions. Edwardsen is staying with his parents, Alison and Raymond Edwardsen of St. Ann, who moved there after retirement. Their daughter Brittany E. Garcia teaches in the Pattonville School District. The tenor said he’s enjoyed three weeks of family and good food.

Swanson said he’s exploring St. Louis with his grandson between rehearsals. "The best part is that we get to have Vincent here with us,” Swanson said. “We get to spoil him."

Hoyt Wazelle’s parents drove in from their Wisconsin home and are staying in a borrowed downtown condo lavishing care on her two children while she rehearses. "My parents are loving being with the children," she said.

An actor is supposed to stop thinking about the character as "other," she said. And she is beginning to identify with much of Butterfly but not the dramatic last minute abandonment of her son. The singer returns each night to her children’s hugs. "I have a son who is not quite 3," she said with a crack in her voice.  

UAO plans

Near summer’s end the company will present “Die Walkure” the second production in the company’s four-year Wagner “Ring” cycle using the Jonathan Dove edited and reduced score. It runs Aug. 16, 17, 23, 24.

Next year to mark the company’s 20th anniversary, Schoonover expects to start a spring semester apprenticeship program. College and graduate students chosen from about eight area universities’ vocal departments would make up about half of next year’s chorus of about 30 singers, he said. Longtime UAO chorus members, mostly local residents, would continue in the expanded chorus, he said. In addition, to singing in the chorus, UAO apprentices will attend master classes on various aspects of opera stagecraft from make-up to diction to audition planning.

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.