Corrections or additions?
This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the April 24, 2002
U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
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
"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
"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
"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
Trenton, 609-581-7200. $20 to $55. Friday, April 26, 8 p.m.
and Sunday, April 28, at 3 p.m.
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.