Linda Brovsky

Maryanne Telese

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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

productions

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,

Telese’s

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

designer

is F. Mitchell Dana. The cast features Telese as Cio-Cio San (Madame

Butterfly), Jay Hunter Morris as Pinkerton, Perry Ward as

Sharpless,

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

Christian.

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

Butterfly

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.

Top Of Page
Linda Brovsky

"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

almost

in a fantasy world."

Pinkerton sees Butterfly and her surroundings as being delicate,

Brovsky

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

doesn’t

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

interview

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

and now.

"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

catharsis

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

Pinkerton

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

decorates

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

of strength."

Telese says that her conception of Butterfly is

relatively

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

fragile,

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

depth."

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."

Top Of Page
Maryanne Telese

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

dramatically

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

work vocally.

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

her.

"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

eye-opener.

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

levels."

Telese, like her mother, was born in Princeton, on Oakland Road,

around

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

grandfather

came to the United States from Italy when he was 16. He wound up

working

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

Memorial.

Sister Helen Bruno brought me to see my first opera. It was `La

Boheme’

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

Puccini!!!!.’

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

Virginia’s

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

department

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

Colorado

Opera Festival in Colorado Springs. She sometimes does her own

choreography

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

major,

drama and Russian. "I had an incredibly strong liberal arts

background,

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

stresses

delicacy, Telese stresses strength. The second has to do with

production:

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

Madama Butterfly, Opera Festival of New Jersey,

McCarter Theater, University Place, 609-683-8000. $22 to $70.

Saturday,

June 26, Friday, July 2, Thursday, July 15, and Saturday, July 17,

at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, July 11, at 2 p.m.


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