“Fall down seven times, stand up eight.” The Japanese proverb about resilience certainly held true when Opera in the Heights Artistic Director and Principal Conductor Eiki Isomura took on the challenge of adapting Puccini's Madama Butterfly from the original Italian to Japanese.
"It was the hardest thing creatively I’ve ever undertaken. Every phrase or every line of text presented at least three to five issues," says Isomura.
Pacific Opera Project Artistic Director Josh Shaw originated the concept and tackled the English translations, leaving Isomura with an almost Whac-a-Mole dilemma adapting the libretto for the Japanese-speaking characters. Some translations introduced far too many syllables for Puccini's rhythmic score, others weren't culturally believable for a character with that background or relationship, while still other adaptations just didn't sound right musically.
"[It was a challenge] trying to come up with a solution that serves the singer and the composer and the believability of the narrative and of course the major responsibility of being an advocate for Japanese culture; to be represented more honestly and more fairly," says Isomura, who says he never found perfect solutions though some felt better than others. "It was definitely rewarding."
This new Japanese and English adaptation just made its world premiere in Los Angeles, with Isomura conducting and Shaw directing, with supertitles in English projected above the stage. "So far the reception there has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic; people find it very powerful and transforming," says Isomura, who says there's an immediate connection for English-speaking audience members.
"And then the costumes have gotten some real rave reviews. We have a kimono expert here in Los Angeles [Sueko Oshimoto of Kimono SK] who has been incredibly generous with her resources and with her team so everything looks really, really vibrant," says Isomura. "So far, so good."
As soon as Pacific Opera Project's production of Madama Butterfly closes in Los Angeles, they're packing up most of the set pieces for the upcoming regional premiere at Opera in the Heights. A majority of the cast members are appearing in both productions, a decision that added just a few more layers of difficulty for this co-presentation.
"We began with casting actors who were able to commit to both runs in the two cities, which is definitely a huge challenge: asking to put their lives on hold for about eight weeks," says Isomura. "But we were very fortunate to have the cast that we do, especially with the very unique requirements — the linguistic challenge alone — and so we have all but two cast members are the same."
Like all the best operas this one's laden with tragedy: An American naval officer (sung by tenor Peter Lake) marries a Japanese teenager (soprano Keiko Clark) before returning to America. He returns years later with a new wife only to discover that Cio-Cio San (Butterfly) has given birth to their child. Butterfly cannot fathom living without honor, thus setting up a visually stunning climax.
"It’s incredibly sad, absolutely. I think that this production is especially portent because we’ve made it our goal to remove the suspension of disbelief that always is demanded of productions of this piece," says Isomura.
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Baritone Kenneth Stavert sings the role of the go-between Sharpless, mezzo-soprano Kimberly Sogioka is Butterfly's loyal maid Suzuki, tenor Eiji Miura is the shady marriage broker Goro, tenor Hisato Masuyama is Butterfly's uncle Bonze, and soprano Amanda Levy is the officer's new wife.
"Our hope is that our audiences experience the piece through the characters' eyes, really putting themselves in their shoes and to be reminded that these are actual people and consequences. I think they have more impact in the end," adds Isomura.
Isomura says that, for him, this endeavor has been both a personal project and personally rewarding. "I'm definitely excited for Houston audiences to experience it."
Performances are scheduled for April 26 through May 4 at 7:30 p.m. April 26 and May 2 and 4, 2 p.m. April 28 at Opera in the Heights, 1703 Heights. For information, call 713-861-5303 or visit operaintheheights.org/butterfly. $40.50 to $94.50.