In Giacomo Puccini's tragic opera Madama Butterfly, cultures clash with dire results.
While the meeting of different groups brings misunderstanding and heartbreak for the characters of Butterfly, when a production of the opera takes the stage in Little Rock this weekend it will be the result of a much happier collaboration: the blending of talents and resources by Opera in the Rock, Arkansas Repertory Theatre and the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra.
"I think this is a landmark production," says Kate Sain, executive director of Opera in the Rock. "This is the first time these three professional arts organizations have collaborated on one project."
In the production, soprano Francesca Mondanaro stars as Butterfly, a young geisha in 1904 Japan who marries B.F. Pinkerton (Daniel Foltz-Morrison), a U.S. naval officer. For him, it's a marriage of convenience. For her, it's an enduring love that can only lead to heartbreak. The entire story is set to the rich, romantic music of Puccini.
Featuring such arias as "Un bel di vedremo," Madama Butterfly is one of the most popular operas in the world and Opera in the Rock has been working toward this production, Sain says, since early 2017. In 2018, the opera received a grant from the Little Rock-based John and Robyn Horn Foundation to pay for an orchestra for a production of Madama Butterfly.
Hands-on planning started in June and, as luck would have it, the timing coincided with The Rep temporarily closing its doors in spring 2018.
Opera in the Rock directors met with The Rep's now-deceased founder, Cliff Baker, and Ruth Shepherd, one of The Rep's interim leaders, about possibly presenting the production there.
"I think this will be the first time opera has been presented on the stage of The Rep," Sain says. "Which, come to find out, was kind of a long-term dream of Cliff Baker's. When we met initially, he was so excited. He said, 'When I built this space, I thought it would be really special to have opera here.'"
The Rep's theater will provide a very intimate environment for the performers and the audience alike, one that may help bridge the often wide gap between the audience and what's sometimes seen as a stuffy art form.
Many people have the image of a cavernous opera house with haughty performers singing inaccessible, unfamiliar music.
Yet, in The Rep's theater, the audience and the performers will be pulled much closer together, making it easier for the audience to be caught up in the music and the tragic story.
According to Sain, Mondanaro said, "People aren't going to know what hit them."
In a unique development, the orchestra will be on stage during the production, with a footbridge built down the middle to allow for some creative staging. Other than that, the staging and sets should be traditional, using set pieces, projections and hanging lanterns.
Costumes have been rented from Opera Memphis.
The performance will be in the original Italian, but with English super titles projected on the back wall.
"I hope that immersive experience really wins people over," Sain says.
It's off to a good start. Nearly two weeks before curtain, they were already well on the way to selling out both performances.
"Clearly there's a lot more people buying tickets for this than for anything we've done in the past," Sain says.
She adds that, for next year's production of Giuseppe Verdi's La Traviata, they might add a third performance in anticipation of high demand.
Opera in the Rock is dedicated not just to opera itself, but to promoting the art form with education, inter-organizational collaboration and diversity. Sain says Opera in the Rock has a diverse board and always does color-blind casting.
For the educational element, the organization was founded to create professional opera opportunities for local and regional performers. Aside from the director, David Ward, and principals, everyone else lives in Arkansas or has hometown ties.
Also, the people working onstage and off are almost all 35 and younger. There has been an emphasis on hiring young adults and recent college graduates to work on sets, props, lighting and costumes.
Mondanaro, in particular, has taken the educational approach to heart.
"Francesca is really in there talking to everybody, giving them career advice," Sain says. "She's opened herself up for voice lessons while she's in town. She is an educator herself as well. That's something we hope in the future, to bring her back for master classes."
The 5- and 6-year-old girls cast in the role of Butterfly's son were given a "what is opera?" workshop where they learned a little about the languages and the types of singing they're going to hear on stage.
Drawing in new audiences, particularly the young, is vital to keeping Opera in the Rock going and maintaining an environment in which opera, its fans and its talent can thrive.
Sain says, "We want to keep our company alive so that the art form stays alive in our state."
7:30 p.m. Friday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Arkansas Repertory Theatre, 601 Main St., Little Rock
Tickets: $20-$65, students $15
Style on 05/14/2019
Print Headline: Madama Butterfly landing at The Rep