A teenage lover scorned, and a pregnant one at that—it's a tale as old as time, though very rarely told with the exquisite beauty of Giacomo Puccini's Madame Butterfly. Running through late August, the Santa Fe Opera's production, which stars AJ Gluekert and Kelly Kaduce, provides opera enthusiasts and suckers for love alike the chance to become enraptured with its complex and heartbreaking story. Director Matthew Ozawa is of Japanese-American descent and, though he's said he initially didn't relate to the story at all, has here created a masterpiece of beauty and drama.
As a backdrop, the Santa Fe sky was unsurprisingly spectacular on opening night. Awash in its summertime velvety pink beauty, I had a hard time convincing myself it wasn't part of the show, though the story is a bit weedy for obvious questions of appropriation, exoticism and other no-nos that just weren't as problematic back when it was written.
Based on a slim book from the turn of the last century by Philadelphia lawyer John Luther Long, the plot is sumptuously romantic but inherently problematic, like, well, almost any good opera. We learn that the tragic Cio-Cio-San's father committed suicide, plunging the family into financial crisis. The young woman becomes a geisha, but living in Nagasaki, then a poor area of Japan, essentially translates into a life of sexual slavery.
Leading man BF Pinkerton, an American sergeant, straight-up buys Cio-Cio-San (the titular butterfly) for a handful of yen, forming a 999-year contract he can wiggle himself out of any time. Oh, also? She's 15. And then, after getting her pregnant, he moves on to an American wife. Yeah, you're not gonna be starry-eyed over Pinkerton, but the character is played with gusto and pitch-perfect ugly-Americanness by Gluekert. (Fun fact: The perennially relevant rock band Weezer named their 1996 album Pinkerton after this dastardly fellow, who singer Rivers Cuomo called an "asshole American sailor similar to a touring rock star.") Pinkerton does come off as a jerk, an image compounded by the heartbreaking vocals of Kaduce.
During a recent behind-the-scenes visit to the Santa Fe Opera, now in its 62nd year, visitors were led backstage to a prop construction area, part of which was devoted to the magnificent set for Madame Butterfly. In one corner, a woman meticulously detailed the many-blossomed branches of a pale pink cherry tree. To me, this emphasis on detail is crucial to one's overall appreciation of theater, and opera, too. When the mind wanders, the surreal beauty of a cherry blossom tree acts like a gentle perch for restlessness. Later in the visit, Gayletha Nichols, director of the opera's storied Apprentice Program for Singers, led a discussion about the program, and offered candid insight into what, for many, is an elephant in the room: that Soprano Kelly Kaduce, as magnificent as she is, is of European descent, but portrays a young Asian teenager.
For Nichols, it's simple. "It's about the power of the human voice," she tells SFR, also explaining that singers were chosen via colorblind auditions. "We fall in love with human stories—universal stories." Nichols calls herself an opera "lifer," a true lover of the art form, saying "whenever there is a crisis in the world, we all want to join together, to join hands and heal with music." Puccini's score is an aurally lush companion to the beauty of the surroundings.
"Live theater," Nichols continues, "is a special thing. It's not like a movie—with live theater you have to bring a little of yourself to the experience." That feels right. Taken altogether, the outrageous beauty of the setting, the stage and the music feels bewitching in the best possible way.
For more information and tickets, visit santafeopera.org