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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the April 24, 2002

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Asian Butterfly Takes Wing

Giacomo Puccini’s "Madama Butterfly" is popular

the world over for its passionate exploration of love, blind devotion,

and cultural difference. Using the high emotion of Italian opera,

it tells of human weakness and cultural miscommunication and claims

to open a window onto Japanese attitudes and beliefs.

Although many in the west today take these claims with a grain of

salt, soprano Yunah Lee, who will make her debut as Madama Butterfly

for Boheme Opera this week, says Puccini and his librettists have

created a character that, for her, rings only too true.

Boheme Opera presents the tragic story of "Madama Butterfly,"

featuring Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio San, Ronald Naldi as Lt. Pinkerton,

Sooyun Chung as Suzuki, and John Easterlin as Goro at the War Memorial

in Trenton on Friday, April 26, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, April 28, at

3 p.m. Directed by Andrew Chown, and led by music director Joseph

Pucciatti, the work will be sung in Italian with English supertitles.

Set in Nagasaki, Japan, at the start of the 20th century, "Madama

Butterfly" tells the story of the young geisha, Cio-Cio San, known

to her friends as "Butterfly," and Pinkerton, a lieutenant

in the U.S. Navy. Stationed in Japan, Pinkerton contracts what he

considers a temporary marriage to Butterfly. She, however, renounces

both her religion and her family in her love for the American officer.

And when he leaves for America, Butterfly devotedly awaits his return.

Three years later, Cio-Cio San remains unwavering in her loyalty,

even as she cares for their son, Dolore. Rejecting all doubt, she

also rejects the efforts of Consul Sharpless, who tries to read her

a letter from America in which the returning lieutenant warns her

he will not take up with her again. Butterfly remains certain he will

return to her and their child, and tells Sharpless she would rather

die than return to her former life.

In the final act, Pinkerton returns to Nagasaki with his American

wife, Kate. Finally bereft of hope, Cio-Cio San agrees to give up

her child. She takes her own life the same dagger with which her


committed suicide.

"This role is very special to me," says Lee, who is from


Korea, and now lives in Hackensack. "It’s a beautiful role,


for an Asian opera singer. I have been waiting for my first


since I was 24, when I was offered it for the first time. It was not

easy to turn it down, but I wanted to wait for my voice mature. I

wanted to wait until I was in my 30s." Now she says she is


that the time is right for her debut as Butterfly.

Lee studied for her undergraduate degree at Hanyang University in

Korea. She came to the United States and earned her master’s degree

at the Juilliard School in 1995, and in 1996 she won first prize in

the Verismo Opera Competition Mario Lanza Competition.

Living in Korea until the age of 20, Lee says she is familiar with

the kind of male-dominated culture that the opera depicts. "It’s

different now in Korea, but there still exists that kind of


Lee believes her knowledge of Japanese customs,


and gesture have not only made the role easier to perform, but given

her access to the woman behind the role. Lee says she finds Puccini’s

characterization of the young turn-of-the-century geisha entirely


"I find the role believable," she says, "and what is


is how much I understood her. Not so much until the first day of


but then I felt so close to her already, I felt I understood her so

much. And I like her more than I thought I would."

"Cio-Cio San is a totally innocent, vulnerable girl," says

Lee, who has been reading Arthur Golden’s best-selling novel


of a Geisha," to familiarize herself with the culture of refined

prostitution where manners are paramount and love is scorned as an

illusion. "I’m sure she was sold to the geisha house as a five

or six-year-old," says Lee. "She had never even had a dream

of being loved by just one person. But now she is so trusting and


"There is a culture in Japan that is so admiring of Western


that there’s also her pride in getting married to an American man.

So she had no other choices in life but believing in this man and

trusting him.

"She accepted all his promises, and during her three years


she gave birth to a boy, believing and not doubting in her husband’s

promises. Pinkerton assumed that a geisha would understand. But when

she hears from the Consul, that moment kills her — it kills her

dreams, her wings of a butterfly are broken right there."

"For Asian women, including my mother, mother and baby are so

special, they put so much of the meaning of their lives into their

husband and her baby. Cio-Cio San put everything into her baby boy

and now they come and ask, can we take the baby too."

Japanese and Korean culture are different, she says, but in the old

times, when a Korean woman was raped or dishonored, she was supposed

to kill herself — Korean women were supposed to carry a silver

knife with them all the time for this purpose.

"Butterfly takes this tragedy as a dishonored event. She may have

had other choices — she could have gone back to dancing for other

people — but that would be dishonorable and she says, `I would

rather die.’ So she did the right thing."

Lee notes that "Madama Butterfly," widely regarded as


masterpiece, is one of the most popular works in the operatic


But also, Lee explains, Butterfly is one of the most physically and

dramatically challenging roles she has ever tackled.

"Stamina-wise it is a very long role, with lots of stage movement,

and more singing even than the role of Mimi in `La Boheme,’" she

says. "Dramatically it is also demanding. In the first act


is only a 15-year-old girl, then the second act is very heavy with

emotion, then there’s the drama and suicide of the final act. It


a lot of dramatic acting and vocally it’s very tiring."

"Fortunately I’ve been singing Puccini from the start of my


so the music style is not so challenging for me, but the length of

music and the dramatic demands are very high."

"I have worked with Boheme Opera before, they know me and they

know my voice. This takes the pressure off and allows me to


on the role. I think I waited the right amount of time."

Western classical music has a prominent role among Korea arts, Lee

explains, although Korea has its own opera tradition, a drama with

music and movement called pan-so-ri.It differs, she says,


it is mainly an oral tradition and involves a lot of improvisation.

The youngest of three children and the daughter of a

businessman, Lee began her music education at age five with piano.

She and her mother were both enthusiastic choir members, and Lee also

studied violin.

"I was 16 years old when I decided to become professional


says Lee, whose two older brothers were more interested in film than

music. Both have studied in the U.S. One of her brothers lives in

Korea and teaches film. Her other brother, who dreamed of being a

movie director, lives in Los Angeles where he works as in computer


Lee made her New York City Opera debut in 1998 as Micaela and returned

this season to sing Mimi in "La Boheme." She and Andrew Chown

have worked together at New York City Opera where Chown, a Princeton

Junction resident, is a resident director. The occasion was City


1999 production of Mozart’s "Don Giovanni" for which Chown

was assistant director and Lee made her debut in the role of Zerlina.

Lee first appeared with Boheme Opera in 1996 singing Micaela in


and returned in 1997 in the role of Mimi in "La Boheme." She

will also sing Mimi this season for New York City Opera. She recently

made her Carnegie Hall debut in Mozart’s "Requiem" with John


Since then she has been able to take her artistry back to her native

land. Two years ago Lee gave her debut recital in Seoul, Korea, in

concert with the Shanghai Orchestra. The program was repeated in


China, and she has also performed a similar kind of recital in Tokyo

with the Tokyo City Orchestra.

As a dramatic soprano, Lee is no stranger to the cruel deaths of her

characters. She relishes the role of Liu in Puccini’s


a slave girl who commits suicide as the only way she could teach the

cold-hearted Turandot what love is. She also loves playing Marguerite

in Gounod’s "Faust." "She’s another innocent girl,


and mistreated by Faust," says Lee. "I love their


and innocence. I love these roles that give the audience a


— Nicole Plett

Madama Butterfly, Boheme Opera, War Memorial


Trenton, 609-581-7200. $20 to $55. Friday, April 26, 8 p.m.

and Sunday, April 28, at 3 p.m.

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