Artistic Laboratory: “Madama Butterfly on Its Way to the Stage”
For over a hundred years, the work of the great Italian composer G. Puccini “Madama Butterfly” is regularly staged at the opera houses all over the world. Now the love story of Cio-Cio-san can touch the hearts of the audience of the Astana Opera. The masterpiece of the genius composer, staged by the Italian director Lorenzo Amato, will be presented to the viewers on April 15 and 16.
The famous American playwright David Belasco’s one-act play “Madame Butterfly: A Tragedy of Japan”, based on the novel by John Luther Long, serves as a storyline for the opera. The tragic fate of a young geisha, described by Belasco, made a strong impression on the composer.
A Cozy House and Everything in It…
Celebrated Italian masters – Ezio Frigerio and the Academy Award winner Franca Squarciapino worked on the design of the production in the Astana Opera. What did they come up with? Let us find out…
We are observing the work of the Department of Stage Machinery. Here is an 18-meter structure, which reminds of a pool, yet does not give a clear idea of what it will be. Nevertheless, soon it will be covered with optical electrical fiber, differently colored strips of lights, lamps, filled with water and turned into a lake. A two-storey house of Madame Butterfly will be situated on its shore. The tank can hold eight cubic meters of water (this amount also fits into a tank of a KAMAZ watering car). Special pumps will be filling the lake.
It is not so simple to portray Japanese landscape. For example, the work on the sakura trees had lasted for almost a month. With the help of welding, they made iron trunks, finished them with fiberglass, giving the impression of real bark, and only then with the special fastening systems attached branches to them. After a couple of days, delicate pink flowers will blossom on these cumbersome structures and the trees will be moved to the front of the house of the main heroine, behind which there will be velvety green lawns.
“One of the podiums serves as the base for Butterfly’s two-storey house. Its size is 29m x 4m x 80 cmh. The wooden house, situated on the shore of the lake, will be surrounded by picturesque landscape. Its views are depicted on hand-painted panels. They can be moved apart to allow viewers to see the image of the city, stretching on a hill. To all of this the play of light and 3D effects will be added. The basis of the house is an aluminum frame covered with scenic fiberglass. There are elements in it that we are making in collaboration with our Italian partners. Set Designer Ezio Frigerio controls the entire set production cycle. The total weight of the scenery is around 7 tons,” said the head of the Artistic and Production Department Victor Carare.
This is not the first production on the Japanese theme for Ezio Frigerio and Franca Squarciapino; moreover, their works were shown and recognized in this country.
Sketches sent by the Italian grand masters are carefully examined at the Scenography Projects and Staging Work Implementation Management Department. The list is rather long: tatami, tombs, kakemono, banners… as well as paper, iron, wooden lanterns, vases, pillows, lamps, a bamboo stick, a pocket bag with coins, a small altar with the Buddha, trays, sake set, a Japanese table, a smoking pipe, a mirror with a handle, a tanto (Japanese dagger), a cigar-case, a pocket watch, registration book with pen and ink, tea set, a rocking horse, a suitcase, a box for cosmetics. Altogether too long to list everything. The staff creates drafts based on the sketches, and then the prop masters bring them to life.
“The preparatory work on the props goes on at first,” says the prop master Anastasia Son. “Right now I am working on the rocking horse. The frame, made by my colleagues, is pasted over with papier mache and then painted, which does not take much time. This horse is designed for a child’s weight. If a mischievous child artist decides to swing on it, he or she can safely do so. These are the vases, one is more elongated, and the other rounded. They convey the spirit of the Japanese culture in the late XIX – early XX century. Each production brings something new. The sketches arrive and we are surprised by some of the things.”
Anastasia’a colleague – Alina Abilova – is making papier mache sake cups. These need to be very narrow.
“These are deep; sometimes it is impossible to reach the bottom with fingers, in which case we use brushes. There will be about forty of such cups. However, in case of breakage, we make extras of everything. Some of the props are made of wood, for example, a lantern. The tombstones are made of foam.”
Rolling up the sleeves
The work in the costume shop is well underway. There are about a hundred costumes in total; all of them are cut and sewn in the Astana Opera. Franca Squarciapino has made beautiful sketches. She also identified the necessary materials, as well as the type of painting is to be applied to them. Each of her costumes is a work of art. Headdresses, wigs and geta (Japanese sandals) will complete the heroines’ looks.
The artists will have to learn to walk in the narrow kimonos and get used to the unusual sleeves. It was believed that the longer the sleeves – meant to display luxury fabrics – are, the richer the Japanese woman is. Long sleeves also represent the status: they are strictly for the unmarried girls. Short-sleeved kimonos are for the married ladies.
All the kimonos are divided into groups, some are bright and colorful, for the geishas, others – in soft colors – are for the regular women. Costumes are adapted for theatrical performance: if a traditional kimono is adorned with a long obi, the theatrical kimono will have a shorter one, with hooks. This will facilitate the work of costumers, since putting on a kimono is a ritual that takes time. The national style costume for Butterfly’s son is made of real silk, like all the other stage costumes for the opera. The process of working on the costumes in the Astana Opera is in full control of Ms. Squarciapino’s assistant Assel Dosmuratova.
For Franca Scuarciapino, this will be the third Madama Butterfly in her artistic career. She speaks about her work with great pleasure.
“Butterfly’s red wedding kimono is distinguished by its brightness, it is embroidered with gold thread. In other scenes, the heroine appears in write kimonos. The production will be very colorful, spectacular,” promises the designer.
To the question whether it is difficult to study a new culture, she says that it is always difficult.
“The culture of the Land of the Rising Sun is very interesting; it influenced my perception of national traditions. For example, when visiting an exhibition in the museum, we can admire the exposition, consider every detail. It is the same with a theatrical production: the audience can enjoy the external beauty, but to know the culture of the people in depth, it is necessary to acquire knowledge, to study it closely.
While the hammering and the sewing is going on in the workshops, the soloists are studying the fine matter of human relations in the rehearsal halls. Keeping in mind that the action of the opera takes place in a house near Nagasaki, where the United States Navy Lieutenant B. F. Pinkerton, about to marry a young geisha Cio-Cio-san, known as Butterfly, rented this house for 999 years with a convenient caveat: the possibility of breaking the contract at any time. The young playboy perceives a marriage in the Japanese tradition as another romantic adventure.
Once music critics attributed the success of the opera to the fashion for the eastern exoticism. However, the composer was more interested in the psychological conflict than the recreation of the Japanese flavor. “I am not made for heroic actions. I love the beings that own a heart just like ours, who are made from hopes and illusions, who have thrills of joy and their hours of melancholy, who cry without screaming and suffer with an interior bitterness,” wrote the famous Italian composer Giacomo Puccini.
“This is the third production of “Madama Butterfly” in my artistic career. I look forward to the premiere with a lot of thrill and excitement. It is a great honor and responsibility to sing in the production created by a very famous Italian team and our principal conductor Alan Buribayev. The performance is difficult for the singer, both physically and psychologically. In order to secure her child’s future, a selfless Japanese woman – Madama Butterfly, the daughter of a samurai – will have to die. Her son will remain with his father, and, perhaps, one day will become a military officer as well. The production is difficult for the performer, as it becomes a kind of a marathon of endurance. Moreover, there will be no intermission between the second and third acts. The entire time, the singer of the title role must remain onstage under the spotlight under a thick layer of makeup in a heavy costume. This will require a lot of strength and physical fitness, – said the singer of the part of Cio-Cio-san Zhannat Baktai.
Butterfly is the most complex and multi-faceted of all of Puccini’s female characters. Defenseless, loyal and uncompromising, she has a great deal of inner strength. In the opera, Cio-Cio-san’s emotional drama is disclosed deeply, comprehensively, revealing a wealth of nuances. The leading soloists of the Astana Opera Zhupar Gabdullina, Aigul Niyazova, Bibigul Zhanuzak are also preparing for this challenging role.
Puccini created a true musical tragedy, praising the high human emotions in the language of music.