Corrections or additions?
This article by Elaine Strauss was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper
on June 23, 1999.
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For `Butterfly,’ Two Old Hands
Linda Brovsky is a veteran when it comes to directing
Puccini’s "Madama Butterfly." Her "Butterfly" for
Opera Festival of New Jersey (OFNJ) brings the total of her
of the opera to nine. Her record is impressive, but not as grand as
that of Maryanne Telese, who sings the title role in the opera at
OFNJ. Telese has played Butterfly in 28 different productions. OFNJ’s
opening night of the opera is her 300th performance of the role. If
Brovsky’s Butterfly achievement corresponds to a 12-inch ruler,
would require a yardstick, and then some.
OFNJ’s "Butterfly" opens Saturday, June 26, at 8 p.m., in
Princeton’s McCarter Theater. Michael Ching conducts. The set and
costume design team is Michael Deegan and Sarah Conly. Lighting
is F. Mitchell Dana. The cast features Telese as Cio-Cio San (Madame
Butterfly), Jay Hunter Morris as Pinkerton, Perry Ward as
Jane Bunnell as Suzuki, and Douglas Perry as Goro.
One of the most popular operas in the repertory, "Butterfly"
tells of the love of the 15-year-old Nagasaki geisha, Cio-Cio San,
called "Butterfly" by her friends, for the American naval
officer Pinkerton. Butterfly takes their marriage seriously and has
secretly renounced her traditional religious faith and become
For Pinkerton, however, the relationship is a pastime, and he expects
to find an American wife in the future. Sharpless, the American
consul, opposes the marriage. Pinkerton returns to America, and
has Pinkerton’s child after he leaves. Three years later Pinkerton
returns to Nagasaki with his American wife, Kate. Sharpless tries
to deliver to Butterfly Pinkerton’s message from America: he will
not take up with her again in Nagasaki. The faithful Butterfly refuses
to believe Sharpless. Pinkerton appears outside Butterfly’s house
with his wife Kate, but is so overcome with his own heartlessness
that he rushes away. Butterfly sends word to Pinkerton with Kate and
Sharpless that she will turn over the child to him if he will come
back in half an hour. During their absence she mortally wounds herself
with her father’s sword. She dies just as Pinkerton enters to take
away her son.
During the 1997-’98 season Brovsky and Telese did "Butterfly"
together in Tulsa. Also in that production was Jane Bunnell, who plays
Butterfly’s maid Suzuki in the OFNJ production.
"Madame Butterfly is like a very dear friend," Brovsky says
in a telephone interview from her temporary home at Princeton’s Nassau
Inn. "Maryanne and I have done it together. I haven’t done it
since working with her. I always find something new in it because
there’s always something new in your life. This time the set designers
and I tried to capture Japan as Pinkerton might see it. He lives
in a fantasy world."
Pinkerton sees Butterfly and her surroundings as being delicate,
says, and she presents evidence from the libretto. "Pinkerton
says that Butterfly’s house could be blown down in puff of wind,"
Brovsky notes, "and he compares Butterfly to a spun-glass ornament
when he describes her to Sharpless. He sees her as a figure from a
lacquer screen. This fragile imagery is part of his downfall. He
see the flesh-and-blood woman. We’ve made the costumes wispy, rather
than using the traditional silk kimonos. The sets use Pinkerton’s
image of Butterfly as a figure from a lacquer screen."
Like Brovsky, Telese — now in her late 40s — has changed her
conception of the opera over a period of time. In a telephone
from her home in West Windsor, she says she has been asked before
about the difference between how she interpreted the role in her 20s
"Then," she says, "the thrust of life was love, marriage,
romance. A healthy young woman thinks of those things. At that time
I viewed `Butterfly’ as a love story gone bad. Now, the love story
is less important. Now I think of the opera as being about the
of a woman who begins as naive person full of dreams and hopes. But
Butterfly is a strong person. Every day her maid tells her that
come back. But she is faithful, and unshakable in her belief in him.
When Sharpless asks what she would do if Pinkerton doesn’t come back,
she says, `He may leave me, but he won’t abandon the child.’ She
the house to welcome Pinkerton upon his return. She is without doubt.
She is strong.
"When she sees Kate Pinkerton, she loses her faith. Meeting Kate,
she realizes that she’s up against a brick wall. She gives up her
son and takes her own life because she is strong, not because she
thinks life is not worth living. She gives up her life so that the
baby will not think that she has abandoned him. She reasons: I will
not have abandoned him because I won’t be here. Butterfly is a story
Telese says that her conception of Butterfly is
resistant to the conceptions of different directors. "There are
certain things about `Butterfly,’" she says, "that come out
of you when you sing the music that are always the same, regardless
of the directing. For me what comes out are the emotions that I feel
for the character." The demands of the role are considerable in
Telese’s estimation. "Butterfly starts out as young girl, a
delicate creature, and turns into force of nature. To do all that
you have to have the ability dramatically, vocally, and emotionally,
to pull it off. Without out all those elements, the role can’t have
In addition, Telese considers Butterfly a difficult role to cast.
"Somebody who has the vocal color and the technical ability for
the role doesn’t necessarily look 15 years old or Oriental. It’s a
difficult recipe. I’m fortunate in having an Italianate voice, being
five-foot-one, and having an impish face that looks very young. No
matter how old I get, I’ll have the same bone structure."
Telese has performed both Puccini’s original, poorly-received 1904
version of the opera, which had only one performance at Milan’s La
Scala, and the successful later versions of the opera. "It was
very interesting to work on the 1904 version because you could see
where the composer was coming from," she says. "But
and vocally, the version we do today is stronger. There’s no wasted
music and no wasted time. From the moment the show begins, there is
no slack. The death goes on too long in the 1904 version. Also, in
the 1904 version, the very last aria is very low in the voice; it’s
almost an octave lower in some parts than the present version. In
the 1904 version you are screaming these emotional words, but in a
part of the voice where you can’t make your points because it doesn’t
Telese’s experience with "Butterfly" includes directing the
opera, as well as singing in it. That run of the opera, in January,
1998, in Augusta, Georgia, was an insight-provoking experience for
"I realized that even when you’re Butterfly and you’re on stage
every minute, you have very little control over the production,"
she says. "As director you control everything. It was an
You feel you have control when you’re out on stage, but you don’t.
I loved directing because I could have an input on so many more
Telese, like her mother, was born in Princeton, on Oakland Road,
the corner from the house on Ewing Street where her parents now live.
Her father is 85; her mother, almost 83. "The house on Oakland
Road," Telese explains, "was my grandfather’s house. My
came to the United States from Italy when he was 16. He wound up
on Princeton University buildings as a mason’s helper. He bought land
on Oakland Road. It was a little farm with chickens, rabbits, a horse,
and a cow. I lived on that little place ’til I was five. Then we moved
around the corner. I visited my grandparents every day."
"My parents had bought property on Ewing Street," she goes
on. "They were not people of means, and they had to wait until
there were enough funds to build. My father was a bread man, and a
milk man; he worked for American Cyanamid during war. When I was 11
or 12, he bought a newspaper delivery service, Tiger News Service.
My cousin has taken over the business. My mother worked with my dad;
she also had restaurant jobs. My uncle owned the Colonial Restaurant
on Witherspoon Street. She became my father’s bookkeeper. She and
I would deliver newspapers on weekends, when the route was difficult.
She got her driver’s license at age 45."
Telese is the youngest of three children. Her sister
Frances is 10 years her senior; her brother Joseph is five years her
senior. "It’s an incredible source of pain for me that John, my
biggest fan, is profoundly deaf and can’t hear me sing," Telese
says. "He comes to all my performances, reads the captions, and
watches me act. He can detect only vibrations. His wife and son are
also deaf, but they can hear some pitches."
Telese attended St. Paul’s Grammar School in Princeton, and then Villa
Victoria Academy in Trenton. "I went there because I was already
interested in music. We had spring musicales at Trenton’s War
Sister Helen Bruno brought me to see my first opera. It was `La
in Philadelphia. I was way up in the balcony, looking at the people
on stage. They looked so tiny. There was something about the emotional
aspect of the music that drew me in. I thought, `How wonderful to
do that!’ I got the score for `Boheme’ and wrote in it, `I love
I dreamed that that’s the kind of music I would sing. It turns out
that that’s the kind of voice I have. So I really lucked out."
Telese went on to study at Ohio’s Oberlin Conservatory. She met her
husband, baritone Stephen Lusman, when they concertized together.
The two appeared on stage together in the Atlanta "Butterfly"
that Telese directed. Last summer both of them taught at West
Governor’s School for the Arts. "The kids were sponges," says
Telese, "they were so eager. It was a taste of teaching. With
my career I can’t teach every week."
The West Virginia experience led to a major change of direction for
Lusman. "Stephen finds more joy in teaching than in the business
of traveling and singing," says Telese. He has been offered a
position on the voice faculty of the University of Michigan in Ann
Arbor, a remarkable occurrence in a market where one academic job
can attract 200 applicants. Of the application process Telese says,
"When you’re going though that, you don’t deal with the reality
of having to move." Now the couple faces the wrench of relocating.
Trying to be fair, Telese says, "Living in Ann Arbor won’t make
any difference professionally. You can fly out of any airport."
Then she comes up with another positive thought. "I’ll have time
this year to get my C.V. together, and think about what I want to
do. What interests me more than the technical aspects of singing are
the interpretive aspects. I could see myself heading an opera
some place, and still singing." Continuing to look on the bright
side, she says, "Ann Arbor is a beautiful place, like Princeton.
But it’s hard. I’ll be leaving my family."
Director Brovsky, 45, meanwhile, intends to stay put in New York,
pursuing a directing career that has some unusual roots. Growing up
in Colorado Springs, she danced as a child, but saw opera as less
restrictive intellectually, and more rewarding financially than dance.
"I really ran into opera when I was 15. I had danced in operas
before; the first time at 13 when I danced in `Hansel and Gretel.’
Then, when I fell in love with opera, I thought, `I can have career
in opera and not starve myself in dance.’"
Through high school and college Brovsky worked summers with the
Opera Festival in Colorado Springs. She sometimes does her own
for the operas she directs. Her recent "Fledermaus" in Seattle
included her own dances.
Brovsky’s earned her bachelor’s degree from Vassar with a double
drama and Russian. "I had an incredibly strong liberal arts
where I became familiar with period styles," she says. She chose
music as an elective in college, building on her strong pre-college
music background of private piano lessons, and the excellent music
program in the Colorado Springs schools.
With input from Brovsky and Telese, OFNJ’s "Madama Butterfly"
embodies two major ironies. One is interpretive: While Brovsky
delicacy, Telese stresses strength. The second has to do with
While, as Brovsky tells it, she will show the delicacy of the opera
through visual means, Telese, for her part will show the strength
of the character she plays through aural means — conveying emotion
with her voice. All of this leaves the audience with more to do than
just watching the production. Here are some questions that might reach
the minds of viewers: Despite the delicacy/strength tension, is OFNJ’s
"Butterfly" a unified esthetic experience? Is the visual/vocal
pull palpable? Or, biggest question of all: does one reap the greatest
pleasure by sitting back and enjoying the production without burning
up any neurons in the attempt to analyze?
— Elaine Strauss
McCarter Theater, University Place, 609-683-8000. $22 to $70.
June 26, Friday, July 2, Thursday, July 15, and Saturday, July 17,
at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, July 11, at 2 p.m.
Corrections or additions?
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