Audio Introduction for Madama Butterfly – Opera North, January 2018 Welcome to this introduction to Puccini’s Madama Butterfly performed by Opera North, which will be audio-described.
The following introduction includes a synopsis, descriptions of the sets and costumes, a list of the cast and production team, and some final information including venues, dates and times of the audio-described performances.
Lieutenant Pinkerton of the United States Navy has taken out a 999-year lease on a house in the hills above Nagasaki, where he intends to live with his bride-to-be, a geisha called Cio-Cio-San, or Madam Butterfly. The marriage-broker, Goro, shows him the house while wedding preparations get underway. Pinkerton revels in the elasticity of Japanese marriage contracts, under which the husband’s absence, even for so short a time as a month, constitutes a divorce. He laughs off the attempts of the American Consul, Sharpless, to warn him that Cio-Cio-San is taking the marriage seriously.
Cio-Cio-San arrives with a crowd of friends and relations and shows Pinkerton her few treasured belongings. It emerges that she comes from a noble but poverty-stricken family and has had to earn her living as a geisha. Her father committed suicide on the orders of the emperor. The marriage ceremony takes place but the celebrations are interrupted by the arrival of Cio-Cio-San’s uncle, the Bonze, a Shinto priest, who denounces her for converting to Christianity. Her family and friends turn on her and reject her. Cio-Cio-San is left alone with Pinkerton. She assures him that he is all that matters and rejoices in her love for him.
Pinkerton has been gone for nearly three years and no word has been heard from him. Cio-Cio-San and her devoted servant Suzuki are still living in the house that he bought but have almost no money left. Scorning Suzuki’s doubts, Cio-Cio-San is convinced that Pinkerton will return and turns down the marriage offer of the wealthy Prince Yamadori. Sharpless has had a letter from Pinkerton, saying he is returning to visit Nagasaki, but does not want to see Cio-Cio-San. When she realises she has been abandoned, Cio-Cio-San shows Sharpless the child she has had by Pinkerton. As he leaves, Sharpless promises to let Pinkerton know.
Suddenly the harbour cannon is heard, signalling the arrival of Pinkerton’s ship, the Abraham Lincoln. As night falls, Suzuki, the child and Cio-Cio-San settle down to wait. Dawn breaks and Cio-Cio-San is still waiting. Suzuki persuades her to go and rest. Sharpless arrives with Pinkerton and his new American wife, Kate. They have now decided to adopt the child. Pinkerton, belatedly realizing the extent of Cio-Cio-San’s devotion, rushes away, unable to face her. Cio-Cio-San wakes to find a strange woman in her house and finally understands the truth. She agrees to give up her child on condition that Pinkerton comes in person to fetch him. Left alone, she takes a last farewell of her son.
In this production, first produced for Opera North by director Tim Albery in 2007, the set is simple yet cleverly fluid. As the audience take their seats, a shiny blue screen covers the stage with what looks like two windows, one with pictures of young women in it, and a doorway. It lifts as Goro claps his hand to reveal a set consisting of simple black and cream geometric shapes based on a traditional Japanese house that can be moved around by the performers. Along the back of the stage are three large black and cream panels like paper screens that are pushed on and off stage, creating the doorway and the back wall of Butterfly and Pinkerton’s house, and when pushed off to the sides, revealing a huge black framed picture of mountains in the distance, painted in traditional Japanese style.
Leading down to the front of the stage on the left, and sloping down along the back of the stage, is a black path. Beneath both inclines are cream square drawers outlined in black with small handles creating the low walls of the bedroom. Where the path ends at the front of the stage, it floats a foot in the air and there is a large stone used as a step down into the room. Next to the stone is a driftwood low shelf on which people leave their traditional wooden stilted shoes.
In front of the sloping path along the back is a solid tall black and cream wall that can be pushed off to the right-hand side. This contains the cupboard where Suzuki keeps Butterfly’s toiletries, the moneybox and her prayer tray. In the second act, an American flag hangs in it, with framed pictures of Pinkerton displayed. In front of it is a large low black table which doubles as the bed.
When we first meet Butterfly, she is wearing a traditional pale orange silk kimono and a heavy and long pale silk kimono jacket covered with traditional images of blossoms and ornate patterns with bright orange lining which trails behind her. She wears traditional wooden soled shoes on two small stilts with a thong, and socks. Her black hair is up with a traditional hair piece with adornments hanging off both sides, one, strands of white jasmine flowers and the other a golden tassel, and she has a short fringe. Her face is heavily whitened with small bright red lips. On the wedding night, she disrobes down to a white silk nightdress and a white silk kimono jacket over the top covered in orange and red flowers, her long dark hair now down, but still with the elaborate headpiece at the back of her head. She is small and petite, with a shy turn of the head but a commanding presence.
In the second Act, three years later, we now find Butterfly in western clothing. She wears a mid-length white dress with a sailor colour and wide skirt, covered in large red flowers. Over it, a black cardigan, black mid-height shoes with an ankle strap and her hair in a short black bob. As she awaits Pinkerton’s return, she dons the original heavy kimono coat she wore on her wedding day and pins a red poppy in her hair.
Suzuki wears a dark sage green kimono with a black wide sash with a bustle at the back, black collar and a black apron. Her dark hair is up in a traditional bun. She moves with the small-stepped shuffle of the Japanese servant, her head bowed when in company.
Butterfly’s fellow Geishas wear beautifully coloured kimonos with large floral patterns in oranges yellows and greens, their hair up in black buns with sticks through them, black fringes, and whitened faces. They stand in beautiful poses with hands upturned, heads tilted. Butterfly’s family, both men and women wear darker coloured plain kimonos in greys, purples and greens with black sashes and large black bustles at the back. The men wear a type of jacket in the same colour with wide sleeves, some women carry straw parasols.
The registrar, Prince Yamadori and other officials wear dark kimonos and traditional stilted shoes. They have bald heads, black ponytails and moustaches. Butterfly’s uncle, the Bonze is dressed in peasant clothing - ragged layers of pale grey with a traditional rice-farmer’s conical straw hat, a large stick that he bangs on the floor in his anger, and several large packages roped to his back that hang off him precariously.
Pinkerton wears a crisp white linen suit when we first see him. It has an upturned mandarin collar, four large pleated pockets with gold buttons, epaulettes and three medals on ribbons above the breast pocket. White shoes and a white sailors hat complete the look. When he takes off the jacket after the wedding, he has a white soft long-sleeved top with buttons, and white braces. When he reappears near the end, he wears a dark polo shirt over the white trousers and sunglasses. He is a tall, well-built, good looking man with golden brown hair swept to the side and a confident smile.
The American consul, Sharpless, wears a dark grey pinstriped three-piece suit with a white shirt and green cravat. A chain hangs from the buttonhole to his pocket, containing a watch. He is a tall, slim man with a neat moustache and short dark wavy hair. When we meet him three years later, he has adopted a more traditional Japanese look, wearing a dark grey kimono jacket and traditional Japanese wooden shoes with socks.
Goro, the marriage broker, wears traditional dark Kimono jacket with wide sleeves, a wide-brimmed black hat, a long hanging moustache, bindings on his legs and traditional Japanese wooden shoes with socks. Three years later, he is wearing a wide pin-striped, oversized suit, a loud patterned shirt and dark pink wide tie, and dark trilby hat, and black and white correspondent shoes. He is a short obsequious man with a wily air about him.
Sorrow, the child wears a dark green kimono with wide sleeves over pale grey trousers, and soft white slip on shoes. He is played by a small boy and has short dark hair.
Pinkerton’s wife, Kate, wears a flowery wide skirted dress, tight blue jacket, red velvet shoes with ankle strap, her blonde hair in glossy waves. She is small, petite and attractive, although nervous - clutching her small red handbag close.
The cast and production team
Cio-Cio-San, Madama Butterfly, is played by Anne Sophie Duprels, soprano
Suzuki, her servant is played by Ann Taylor, mezzo-soprano
Lieutenant Pinkerton is played by Merunas Vitulskis, tenor
Goro, the marriage-broker, by Joseph Shovelton, tenor
The audio describers for this production will be Anne Muers, and Alice Gilmour. All performances start at 7.30pm and there will be a touch tour from 6.15pm to 6.45pm where we take people onto the stage to feel the set, props and some costumes before the performance commences. We will read out these notes fifteen minutes before the curtain rises, so at 7.15pm which is a good time to check that your headset is working. And there will be a recap of the synopsis of the second act five minutes before the end of the interval. The opera lasts just over 2 hours and 40 minutes, so will finish at around 10.10pm. It will be sung in Italian with English surtitles.
The dates and venues of the audio described performances are
Leeds Grand Theatre, Wednesday 31 January at 7.30pm, touch tour at 6.15pm
The Lowry, Salford on Thursday 8 March at 7.30pm, touch tour at 6.15pm
Theatre Royal Nottingham on Thursday 15 March at 7.30pm, touch tour at 6.15pm
Newcastle Theatre Royal on Thursday 22 March at 7.30pm, touch tour at 6.15pm