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A Young Girl’s Undoing

Tenor James Valenti, Pinkerton in LOC's "Madama Butterfly"

Tenor James Valenti, Pinkerton in LOC's "Madama Butterfly"

Lyric Opera of Chicago opening night, Tuesday at 7:15 PM

One villain in opera always gets booed.

Many operas are based on assumptions that don’t resonate with us today, like Ernani’s pledge to commit suicide (who would honor such a thing?), or Leonora’s retreat into a monastery in La forza del destino; we can shake our heads at them, and sigh. Madama Butterfly, on the other hand, is…well…kind of disturbing. As Americans we’ve witnessed a century of military campaigns which have produced countless Amerasian children. Everywhere, these people have been spat upon, and treated as outcasts (the director of social welfare in Ho Chi Minh City once said of the children of U.S. servicemen, “We do not need these bad elements.”). Some of these fathers have been reunited with their overseas children. Many others have not. In the opera, there’s also the issue of the girl’s age—Butterfly has been forced to work as a geisha due to the death of her father. She’s fifteen years old at the start of this opera; a child whose life is a bewildering series of setbacks, out of which comes a man promising kindness and stability.

For many Madama Butterfly contains some of Puccini’s most beautiful writing. It almost seems inappropriate to the subject matter, given our ability to empathize with young Butterfly. On the other hand, opera is full of odious people bringing ruin upon others; they’re just more displaced from us by time and circumstance.

Suffice it to say, for all his beautiful singing, James Valenti, who sings the role of Pinkerton in Lyric Opera’s production, isn’t optimistic about his reception:

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Madama Butterfly; photo by GTG Vincent Lepresle

Madama Butterfly; photo by GTG Vincent Lepresle

Christopher Purves sings the role of Sharpless, who offers a weak attempt to hold Pinkerton in check:

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Director Louisa Muller describes the LOC setting for Butterfly:

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MaryAnn McCormick brings her own experience in Japan to her role as Suzuki:

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Chorus master Michael Black on the effect of the “Humming Chorus”:

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