Scene from Madama Butterfly. Photo by Karen Almond for OPERA San Antonio.

The Tobin Center for the Performing Arts will host OPERA San Antonio‘s first completely traditional opera, Madama Butterfly, by Giacomo Puccini. The performance opened on Thursday evening and there will be an encore on Saturday evening at 7:30 p.m. With technical support provided by Glimmerglass Festival, this production features period costumes and classical staging. No new ground is broken during its presentation; a boon for opera purists.

This stands in stark contrast to last year’s production of Salome, which featured an Edwardian setting, rather than the traditional ancient Roman theme. That opera featured the esteemed Patricia Racette in the title role. As OPERA San Antonio Executive Director Mel Weingart commented in a recent interview, “Everything in an opera production can change, except for the music. That always stays the same.”

From a technical standpoint, this production of Madama Butterfly shone brightly. Both Maria Kanyova as Cio-Cio-San and Adam Diegel as Lt. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, along with the rest of the cast, provided strong performances. Under the baton of Sebastian Lang-Lessing, the San Antonio Symphony performance flowed smoothly out of the orchestra pit.

Not that the production was without its quirks. “Who were all the white women on stage?” asked veteran arts critic Mike Greenberg during the intermission. He went on to note that these women, who were presumably the officers’ wives, were singing the parts normally sung by the women in Japanese costume. In this production, the family of Cio-Cio San were supernumeraries – non-singing roles. In addition, it seemed that when praises were being sung by the chorus toward a particular character, that person was joining in as well.

Scene from Madama Butterfly. Photo by Karen Almond for OPERA San Antonio.
Scene from Madama Butterfly. Photo by Karen Almond for OPERA San Antonio. Credit: Courtesy / Karen Almond for OPERA San Antonio.

The other problem with traditional opera is that it is…well…traditional. No new ground is being broken in this production, the only fully-staged opera to be performed this season. According to Weingart, market research has shown this is what San Antonio opera patrons prefer.

During an interview before Thursday’s premiere, Weingart had mused that he would have liked to see the Glimmerglass production of Verdi’s Macbeth staged at the Tobin. However, Glimmerglass Artistic Director Francesca Zambello indicated that she didn’t think that the opera, based on the Shakespearean play, would do well in the San Antonio market.

Having produced operas in many key locations, Zambello is something of an authority figure. With only one opportunity to do a full-blown opera this season, the decision was made to present a traditional classical opera rather than a somewhat more avant garde choice.

And therein lies the quandary. Traditional operas are like anchovies – either you like them or you don’t. Certainly, key opera patrons have voted with their pocketbooks. A significant deficit from last season was erased, and this production was fully funded. As such, proceeds from ticket sales can be used to buttress OPERA San Antonio’s balance sheet.

Scene from Madama Butterfly. Photo by Karen Almond for OPERA San Antonio.
Scene from Madama Butterfly. Photo by Karen Almond for OPERA San Antonio.

Another observation is that some traditional operatic presentations tend to be quite lengthy. Madama Butterfly is a three-act opera (originally two acts), as opposed to Salome, which is one act, coming in at approximately 90 minutes.

At the end of the first act, the protagonists are preparing for their first night in bed together. As the only characters on stage, they perform something of a vocal pas de deux…which seemed to last a solid 20 minutes. Nodding heads and drooping eyelids could be seen up and down the rows of seats.

At other times, it seemed as though there was a cinematic quality to the production, as if one were watching a movie of an opera, as opposed to a live production. What caused this odd disconnect is a mystery, but it highlights a certain lack of engagement with the audience. Perhaps this was caused in part by the subtitle monitor, which was placed so high above the proscenium that people sitting in the orchestra section had to literally bob their heads up and down repeatedly in order to read the titles – a serious distraction.

Regardless of the quirks in the production, Madama Butterfly was obviously a delight to opera purists. With a realistic set of goals and a knowledge of budget limits, Weingart was wise to make a safe bet. But now that Weingart has OPERA San Antonio’s financial house in order, perhaps next year he will take a chance on the maturity of San Antonio audiences and present Macbeth or a similar production. San Antonio has a deep history with the art of opera. Perhaps some of the traditional purists can be persuaded to stretch their aesthetic wings and give more contemporary fare a chance to flourish here. We can hope.

*Top image: Scene from Madama Butterfly. Photo by Karen Almond for OPERA San Antonio.

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Page Graham

Page Graham

Page Graham has been a resident of San Antonio – on and off – for over 30 years now. He has moved into the corporate world, making a living developing training materials and Powerpoint presentations...