Sunday, June 17, 2001

The transformation of 'Butterfly'

Cincinnati Opera reflects new trends in scenic design from the whimsical to the surreal

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        When the curtain goes up on Cincinnati Opera's Madame Butterfly Thursday, the production will look light years away from the company's 1996 production.

        Gone will be the romantic Japanese house, the delicate shoji screens and the cherry blossoms. Instead, the opera will have a simpler, more spare look.

        “If it stays the same, operas become museum pieces,” says the director Francesca Zambello, who interpreted this week's Madame Butterfly with designer Michael Yeargan for Houston Grand Opera in 1998.

[photo] 1996: The former Madame Butterfly set included a Japanese house with authentic Japanese landscaping.
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        Cincinnati Opera's 2001 festival will offer some prime examples of current trends in opera design: the disturbing, surreal imagery of Bluebeard's Castle/Erwartung, created by film and stage director Robert Lepage and designer Michael Levine to a whimsical Magic Flute, designed by children's book author/illustrator Maurice Sendak.

        As society becomes more visual, high-tech and entertainment-driven, the visual side of opera is heading in diverse directions.

        “Opera in America has gotten more adventurous, more progressive, and less literal,” Cincinnati Opera artistic director Nicholas Muni says.

American avant-garde

        Although American opera often has taken its cue from Europe, it is beginning to cultivate its own style.

        “We are developing our own sense of the American avant-garde,” says Ms. Zambello, reached in New York between directing The Queen of Spades for London's Royal Opera Covent Garden, and Of Mice and Men in Bregenz, Austria.

[photo] 2001: Cincinnati Opera's Madame Butterfly set this year includes a backdrop of ships in a harbor and a sunrise projected on a screen lit from behind.
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        Her Madame Butterfly probes a Japanese-American culture clash. The first image opera-goers will see is a layer of Japanese banners against others printed with the American flag, a visual image of two worlds in conflict, says the designer, Mr. Yeargan.

        “The thing that occurred to us, is it's really a Western opera,” Mr. Yeargan says. “It's by an Italian, about an American in Japan. And to do a Japanese design — Francesca would say, "I just don't want that little house onstage.' We felt we needed to find some images that took away from that. ... The first scene dissolves into an American consulate, kind of like an Ellis Island waiting room.”

A matter of money

        In the last decade, opera has gotten away from realistic depiction and become simpler and more streamlined. There is a practical reason for that — money, noted American designer John Conklin says.

        “The amount of money that is being budgeted for scenery is not keeping up with the rising costs” says Mr. Conklin, whose work includes the opulent The Ghosts of Versailles at the Metropolitan Opera. “But this is not bad. Opera sometimes is correctly perceived as being overstuffed. Now you give more space to the performer.”

[photo] 2001: Butterfly is torn between American and Japanese culture, which is symbolized by a Buddha silhouetted against a red backdrop.
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        But with that simplification sometimes comes audience disappointment.

        “Sometimes audiences almost feel cheated if there's not a lot of stuff to look at,” Mr. Conklin says. “It's making them realize that they need to be involved emotionally and intellectually with what they see on the stage, and not just receive stimulus.”

More like film

        Opera design is being influenced by popular culture — movies, television, Broadway, even the news media. Part of the mix going into new American operas is the subject matter, much of it torn from the headlines. Next season, Cincinnati Opera will present the death-row drama, Dead Man Walking, designed by Mr. Yeargan.

        “The new operas, like (Carlisle Floyd's) Cold Sassy Tree and (Jake Heggie's) Dead Man Walking, are really being written a bit more like film scripts,” says Mr. Yeargan, whose other high-profile premieres include Andre Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire and John Harbison's The Great Gatsby. “One scene needs to be able to flow into the next one, like film.”

    What: Cincinnati Opera, Puccini's Madame Butterfly. Garnett Bruce, director; John Demain, conductor; Chen Sue (Cio-Cio San); Marcus Haddock (Pinkerton); Zheng Cao (Suzuki); Ashley Holland (U.S. debut as Sharpless). Production by Francesca Zambello; sets and costumes by Michael Yeargan; lighting by Thomas C. Hase.
    When: 8 p.m. Thursday, Saturday and June 29. Pre-performance lectures begin at 7 p.m., free to ticket holders.
    Where: Music Hall
    Tickets: $12-$90; 241-2742 and
    Plan ahead: The double bill of Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle and Schoenberg's Erwartung is June 28 and 30; Mozart's The Magic Flute is July 12, 14 and 20; and Verdi's Nabucco is July 19 and 21.
    Read the review: Friday on Cincinnati.Com, keyword: Opera, and next Sunday in Tempo.
        The success of Broadway shows, such as The Lion King, also have played a role.

        “Visually, Lion King really is imaginative and bold and non-realistic,” Mr. Conklin says. “The huge success of that has helped people feel that this is the way design could go, that audiences would appreciate it, would understand it and would go there.”

        Julie Taymor, Tony-winning designer of The Lion King, was influenced by Asian puppetry.

        “Her actors become puppets with masks. She's done opera, movies, plays, musicals, and she pulls in some of these Southeast Asian art forms. She's very hot right now,” says Paul Shortt, professor and resident set designer at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.

Let there be lighting

        Today's look is partly driven by high-tech developments. Lighting will be an important tool in Cincinnati Opera's new production of Nabucco. In it, light actually takes on a character: God.

        “(Light) can be powerful, visible and invisible, tangible and ethereal at the same time,” says Cincinnati Opera's Mr. Muni, who created the production with designer Peter Werner and lighting designer Thomas C. Hase.

        “When Nabucco goes insane, the floor literally splits. The light comes from underneath, and he's sort of looking into his soul.”

        Technology is a tool, says Michael Levine, designer of Bluebeard's Castle/Erwartung, originally for the Canadian Opera Company. “But ultimately, it's the story that's the most important thing. We're part of a team of people that tell stories. If you have a computer-generated image, that's great, but if it's just for the sake of technology, that's not of interest to anybody.”

Team concept

        No longer is the look of an opera the result of just one creative mind. Today, concepts are developed by teams working with the director.

        “We often have scenic, costume, lighting, and even makeup in that group,” says Glenn Plott, director of production for Cincinnati Opera. “Sound is rapidly coming, certainly on Broadway.”

        There is no doubt, experts say, that technology has brought opera to the masses.

        “Technology has clearly helped us, in the sense of supertitles, public broadcasts, operas on DVDs and on videos,” Ms. Zambello says. “People see it (there), and they want to see the live thing.”

        With more people attending opera comes the changing profile of the average attendee: young, Internet-savvy, hip. That, in turn, can influence design trends, says Thomas Umfrid, co-resident scenic designer and professor at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.

        “There seems to be a move afoot not to approach something as it has been done in the past, but to re-invent it,” Mr. Umfrid says. “That's because opera and theater-going audiences are younger, and used to getting their information in more metaphorical and multimedia ways.”

        Newer works such as Libby Larsen's high-tech Frankenstein, The Modern Prometheus (its premiere was staged by Mr. Muni in 1990) and John Adams' 1995 I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky, directed by Peter Sellars, rely on multimedia to tell the story. “When audiences get a full taste of this, they will appreciate it,” Mr. Umfrid says.

        Indeed, the pace and atmosphere of life has colored trends in Europe and the United States.

        “In Europe, especially Germany, art is used as a vehicle to make political and social statements,” Mr. Muni says. “Over here, it is used much more as entertainment. It's more of a nice experience. ... The way that plays itself out in the design, is that art over here tends to be more on the decorative side.”

Cost of failure

        One of the biggest concerns of opera companies revolves around audience reaction. Unlike in Europe, where opera is heavily subsidized, opera in the United States is dependent upon the box office for survival.

        “When you're pushing the envelope, you'll get 99 failures for one brilliant thing,” Mr. Muni says. “Is it worth the cost of 99 failures? Over there (in Europe) it is; over here, it's not. You're out of business.”

        But opera should not “play down” to the audience, Mr. Conklin says. “The way to be successful is to do good work, and enough people will respond to it.”

        Ms. Zambello, who has directed about 25 world premieres, says that watching the bottom line may mean more conservative productions, but the upside is that more people are going to opera.

        “Opera provides something that's bigger than our lives, speaks to us in a very emotional, connected, primal way and engages an audience,” she says. “Opera is narrative — people want stories. It takes you out of the techno way that we live, to something hopefully far greater than the world that we live in.”

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