Opera Santa Barbara is opening its 2019/20 season with a classic, “Madama Butterfly.” Conducted by OSB artistic and general director Kostis Protopapas, the company’s production of Giacomo Puccini’s famous work about colliding cultures will play at the Granada Theatre on November 1 and 3, with a preview open rehearsal on October 27 in the Santa Barbara County Courthouse Sunken Gardens.
Adapted from a play of the same name, “Madama Butterfly” takes place in the early 1900s in the hills above Nagasaki harbor in imperial Japan after the United States forced Japan, formerly an isolated country, to open its borders for international trade.
A young Japanese woman Cio-Cio San, the titular Madama Butterfly, meets an American sailor, falls in love with him, and dreams of going with him to the United States.
Though the two are married, the sailor doesn’t treat the marriage seriously and leaves Japan. Though he promises Cio-Cio San he will return, it’s not a promise that he intends to keep. While he’s away, Cio-Cio San gives birth to their child.
The sailor does eventually return to Japan, but brings his new American wife in tow. When Cio-Cio San finds this out about this, she takes her own life. In an interview with the News-Press, Mr. Protopapas called “Madama Butterfly” not only one of the all-time great operas, but one with themes as relevant now as when it first came out.
“It’s a very tragic and difficult story, but I think it’s a very timely story about how we communicate with other cultures,” he said.
Despite having worked on productions of “Madama Butterfly” for different companies in the past, the November 1 show will be Mr. Protopapas’ first time doing so for OSB. The expressed great excitement at the opportunity to once again work on this piece and even called it a “new experience for me.”
Unlike his past experiences working on productions of “Madama Butterfly” or any production, for that matter, this year’s season opener will utilize digital projections to heighten the story’s atmosphere and make the show more cinematic.
Though this isn’t particularly new technology, this is the artistic director’s first time using such tools, which will be used to create effects like night turning into day in a “dreamy way.”
The other thing that excites Mr. Protopapas about this production is his cast. Prior to starting rehearsals two weeks ago, Mr. Protopapas said he was particularly looking forward to once again working with the opera’s lead soprano Eleni Calenos, who plays Cio-Cio San. The two previously worked together in 2018 on OSB’s production of another Puccini opera, “La Boheme,” and Ms. Calenos has played the lead in “Madama Butterfly” many times before. Mr. Protopapas complimented Ms. Calenos’ past performances as Cio-Cio San and even called the character her “signature role.”
“I don’t know anyone who does this role better than her,” he said.
“Madama Butterfly” also marks a further collaboration between Mr. Protopapas and Harold Meers, who plays the American sailor. In 2013, the two worked on a production of “Madama Butterfly” in Columbus, OH, and on OSB’s productions of “Carmen” and “Manon” in 2016 and 2017, respectively. While he enjoys conducting for singers that he hasn’t worked with before, Mr. Protopapas said that past collaborative experience of course reduces the time it takes to rekindle creative chemistry. As a conductor, it helps him if he is familiar with the way a singer sings and how they breathe.
“With artists you know and trust, things get going a lot quicker,” he said.
Upon opening day, Mr. Protopapas hopes both opera aficionados and the uninitiated walk away impressed. While he hopes the former leave the Granada Theatre admiring the talent of the singers, he hopes those who have never before seen an opera “discover why opera is so exciting.”
Tickets for Opera Santa Barbara’s production of “Madama Butterfly” can be purchased online at the Granada Theatre website www.granadasb.org. The November 1 performance will begin at 7:30 p.m., the November 3 performance at 2:30 p.m., and the October 27 open rehearsal in the Sunken Gardens at 3:00 p.m. The Granada Theatre is located at 1214 State St. and the Santa Barbara County Courthouse is located at 1100 Anacapa St.