It’s “One fine day” for Pacific Opera Project’s Madama Butterfly

Jim Farber on April 8, 2019
Pacific Opera Project’s Madama Butterfly | Credit: Martha Benedict

Since its debut production, Trouble in Tahiti in 2011, Pacific Opera Project (POP) has managed to carve out a niche for itself in a town overshadowed by the star power and operating budget of the Los Angeles Opera. Led by its inventive and flamboyant artistic director, Josh Shaw, the company has developed an exceedingly loyal following by entertaining them with productions featuring young singers in zany settings of traditional operas: a hipster La bohème, a Dick Tracy Don Giovanni, a video-game-inspired Magic Flute. And their ticket prices are reasonable.

The company’s latest production, however, is on a visual scale beyond anything it has taken on before — a sumptuously costumed, fully staged, bilingual co-production (with Houston’s Opera in the Heights) of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. It’s uniqueness, however, lies in the fact that Japanese singers perform the Japanese roles in Japanese, while the American characters are appropriately cast and sung in English. The bilingual libretto is by Josh Shaw and Eiki Isomura.

Pacific Opera Project’s Madama Butterfly | Credit: Martha Benedict

Drawing on its audience base and support from the Japanese community, Saturday’s opening night at the 880-seat Aratani Theatre in Little Tokyo was a sellout, with subsequent performances scheduled for April 13 and 14.

The goal of the production, the company said, is to encourage the audience “to hear the difference between the lovers’ cultures through their mutually incomprehensible languages. Allowing each character to sing in their native tongue brings into stark reality just how far apart Pinkerton and Cho-Cho San actually are.”

The opera has been presented in a remarkable range of interpretations. It could be argued that a skillfully directed and designed production sung in the original Italian can make the story’s clash of cultures and tragic outcome illuminating. For sheer strangeness, nothing can compare with the incredibly over-the-top staging by Ken Russell that had Cho-Cho San acting out a Betty Crocker American fantasy scattering corn flakes instead of cherry blossoms, and ending with the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki.

Pacific Opera Project’s Madama Butterfly | Credit: Martha Benedict

Pacific Opera Project’s production, directed by Shaw, makes no such radical leaps. With the exception of its bilingual component (the soft vowel sounds of Japanese fitting surprisingly well with Puccini’s score), POP’s Butterfly resembles any number of traditional productions with its parade of colorful kimonos, over-hanging cherry blossoms, miniaturized Japanese house, and historically accurate, 45-star American flag.

What makes the production unique is its sense of cultural accuracy. It contrasts the ancient culture and customs of Japan with the puffed-up arrogance (and innate racism) of the new imperial power on the block, America, and its Teddy Roosevelt brand of “Big Stick” diplomacy.

Pacific Opera Project’s Madama Butterfly | Credit: Martha Benedict

The production also introduces a clever linguistic bridge by having the culturally conscious American consul, Sharpless (Kenneth Stavert) and the opportunistic Japanese fixer, Goro (Eiji Miura) both bilingual. Throughout the opera, Sharpless whispers translations (and wasted words of wisdom) into the ear of the feckless American sailor, Lt. B.F. Pinkerton (tenor Peter Lake). At the same time, Goro serves the same function translating for the child-bride-to-be, Cho-Cho San (superbly sung, on short notice, by Australian soprano, Janet Todd).

Of the key supporting characters, Kimberly Sogioka (as Suzuki), Steve Moritsugu (as Prince Yamadori), Hisato Masuyama (as the Bonze), Norge Yip (as the Imperial Commissioner) and Takuya Matsumoto (as the Registrar) sang entirely in Japanese, accompanied by the South Bay Singers Japanese chorus. The 22-member orchestra was conducted by Eiki Isomura, with simultaneous translations in Japanese and English projected above the stage.

Pacific Opera Project’s Madama Butterfly | Credit: Martha Benedict

For Janet Todd, opening night turned out to be one of those star-making moments. Slated as the cover for Keiko Clark, Todd (who is far from fluent in Japanese) was notified that she had less than a week to get up to speed and go onstage. When asked for an explanation for the last-minute substitution, the only response offered from the production’s director was, “no comment.”

Janet Todd

From her demure entrance to her tragic suicide, Todd captured the transformative journey of her character, from naïve innocent to mature womanhood. She has a melodious soprano that can blossom to dramatic fullness. She may have cut off the final note of “Un bel di” rather abruptly, but that can be forgiven. In every other way Todd’s performance was impressive and skillfully detailed.

Peter Lake’s Pinkerton was less nuanced but was also vocally effective. Lake has a nicely toned, less-than-towering tenor voice that remains confident throughout its range and blended excellently in the ensembles and his Act I duet with Todd. Dramatically he captured Pinkerton’s boorish nature, arrogance, and lack of any sense of cultural sensitivity.

In contrast, Kenneth Stavert’s performance as Sharpless depicted a professional diplomat who sees the tragedy to come, but is powerless (or incapable) of preventing it. What was particularly impressive was Stavert’s ability to move fluidly between English and Japanese.

Kimberly Sogioka provides an ideal contrast to Todd’s ever-optimistic Cho-Cho San as her long-suffering servant, Suzuki.

The set design is also by Josh Shaw with atmospheric lighting by Bo Tindell. The costumes are by Sueko Oshimoto. The chorus director is Naoko Suga.

It’s hard to know if this Japanese/English libretto will catch on, but Pacific Opera Project deserves a great deal of credit for making this concept into a reality.

CORRECTION: As originally published, this review misspelled chorus director Naoko Suga's name.