"Madame Butterfly” consistently occupies a spot as one of the five most popular operas. Giacomo Puccini’s heart-wrenching story of a Japanese girl betrayed by an American naval officer makes audiences weep. People who like their operas astringent give their subscription tickets away to soft-hearted friends when this Puccini’s on the program.
In an ongoing multi-year partnership, Opera New Jersey and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra present a co-production of “Butterfly,” Friday, February 4 at 7:30 p.m. in Princeton’s McCarter Theater, and Friday, February 11, at 8 p.m, at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark. Valery Ryvkin conducts. The design team consists of Julia Noulin-Merat, sets; Patricia A. Hibbert, costumes, and Barry Steele, lighting. David Grabarkewitz is the stage director. The performances are co-produced by Opera New Jersey and El Paso Opera, where Grabarkewitz has served as artistic and general director since spring, 2010.
He has worked with Opera New Jersey for Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” in 2005 and Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore” in 2006. His “Madame Butterfly” at the New York City Opera won an Emmy award in 2008 for its “Live from Lincoln Center” PBS broadcast.
As the opera opens, Lieutenant Pinkerton is about to marry Cio-Cio-san, a 15-year-old geisha. Pinkerton has no intention of remaining true to her. He disappears. Butterfly bears Pinkerton’s son and raises him herself in poverty. Innocent, she pines for Pinkerton and is convinced that he will return. Pinkerton comes back with his American wife. Cio-Cio-san kills herself using the knife with which her father committed hara-kiri.
Moldavian soprano Inna Los makes her American debut as Cio-Cio-san. Scott Piper, a veteran of more than 50 performances with Sarasota Opera, is Pinkerton.
Director Grabarkewitz has a take on the opera that piles irony on poignancy. Interviewed by telephone during a chink in rehearsal, Grabarkewitz says, “Cio-Cio-san imagines that Pinkerton will return. She sings of his coming up the hill where she lives, calling ‘Butterfly, Butterfly.’ She believes that they will have an emotional reunion.
“Everything Butterfly wishes happens,” Grabarkewitz says. “Her perfect day comes true. Pinkerton climbs the hill, calling her name. The reunion is emotional. But there’s one difference: Before Pinkerton reaches her, Butterfly takes her father’s knife to herself.”
Grabarkewitz has directed “Butterfly” for New York City Opera since 2000. “In those productions, Butterfly dies one measure before Pinkerton arrives. In this telling she’s alive when Pinkerton gets there. It’s all brutal. And it’s exacerbated by Butterfly fiercely dreaming that everything will be all right.
“At New York City Opera `Butterfly’ was very much nation versus nation,” he says. “Here, people can come anticipating the height of romantic tragedy. It’s like ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in scope— romantic, lush, painful drama.”
Grabarkewitz was born in the mid 1960s in Bemidjy, in northern Minnesota, to a mathematician father and a mother who was a housewife and real estate broker. He was the only boy in a family with five children. “I’m the one in the middle,” he says. “We all sing.” Grabarkewitz started piano at age four and took lessons throughout high school. He also studied voice. He has graduate and undergraduate degrees from the Hartt School of Music in West Hartford, Connecticut.
Opera won Grabarkewitz’s loyalty when he was about 21. “What turned me on was seeing a PBS performance of Carlisle Floyd’s ‘Willie Stark.’ I was glued to the screen. I was struck by the theatrical nature of opera, and its power for telling a story.”
Looking back on his birth in northern Minnesota, and his early years in Seward, outside Lincoln, Nebraska, he says, “I’m a small town guy.” The population of Bemidjy was about 10,000 when Grabarkewitz was born; the population of Seward was about 6,000 in 2000. “When I graduated from high school, I hoped to become my high school music teacher.”
Shortly after entering college, Grabarkewitz shifted his goal from teaching to performance. Soon after, he switched to directing. “I decided that I worked best if I told other people what to do,” he says. His career at New York City Opera started in 1996 as resident director, then he moved to administration, until his appointment at El Paso Opera. He will continue as New York City Opera’s resident stage director.
“The switch from education to performance was a big move,” he says. “Moving on to directing was a natural progression and so was moving into administration. I enjoy administration, but I don’t want to do it full-time. My goal is to balance running El Paso Opera with pursuing my own artistry.”
Grabarkewitz will direct the New Jersey “Butterfly” when it plays in El Paso in March; the design team for both productions remains unchanged. Grabarkewitz also plans to present Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” and Bernstein’s “West Side Story” in Texas.
The next step in his transition to El Paso takes place after his stay in New Jersey. “This journey will be with ‘Butterfly.’ We load the set and costumes into the truck, and then settle in. I no longer have an apartment in New York City. I stay with friends in Brooklyn. Running the company in El Paso takes my full energy.”
Since his appointment in El Paso, he has eliminated the Texas company’s deficit, finding new donors through what he calls ‘guerrilla marketing.’ His solution for fiscal problems was to take “La Boheme” to the streets and restaurants of the city.
Grabarkewitz came to El Paso for the first time to direct a production of Mozart’s “Magic Flute” for which he devised new English dialogue. “I fell in love instantly with the opera house and the quality of the people here,” he told an El Paso reporter. “There’s an honesty and a graciousness that just came right through.”
“El Paso exists in isolation,” he tells me. “Phoenix, the largest city nearby, is eight hours away. San Antonio is 10 hours away. It’s an almost incubated environment. The population base is 70 percent Hispanic. Spanish is the primary language for half the audience. The opera uses titles in Spanish and English. About half of our audience comes from Ciudad Juarez [Mexico], on the other side of the Rio Grande.”
Single, Grabarkewitz says “I enjoy my life in El Paso, interpreting music, four-wheeling in my jeep in the desert, and scuba diving in Baja California or the Gulf of Mexico.
“El Paso was just named the safest city in the United States,” he says. “It’s across the river from Ciudad Juarez, which is the most violent city in the world not in a war zone. I sit in bucolic El Paso, and in Juarez there’s so much misery. They have 6,000 murders a year and 25,000 orphans.”
Can opera play a role in correcting the problems of Juarez, I wonder. Grabarkewitz thinks it can. “Opera has been a political entity since ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ , when Mozart went to bat for the equality of husband and wife in a marriage,” he says.
Grabarkewitz sees differences between opera audiences from region to region. “Princeton audiences,” he says, “are sophisticated.”
Along with other members of Opera New Jersey, he lives during ONJ’s rehearsal period at Meadow Lakes, the Springpoint continuing care community in Hightstown. “It’s the perfect way to create. We’re surrounded by a warm environment and get three square meals a day. The residents get to watch rehearsals, and together we have interesting talks about the production. It’s like a cruise ship without the dock.”
Richard Russell, general manager of Opera New Jersey, has prepared a study guide about “Butterfly” for use by Meadow Lakes residents.
Springpoint Foundation, the philanthropic cultural arm of Springpoint, has sponsored a battery of presentations open to the public in the Meadow Lakes Auditorium. Still to come are a talk about costumes for “Butterfly” by costume designer Hibbertm, Monday, February 7 at 2 p.m; a program of opera favorites, Wednesday, February 9, at 2 p.m.; and an opera master class, Wednesday, February 9, at 7 p.m. Admission is free and open to the public but tickets are required. Call 888-990-2919.
Joining together sound, sight, acting, and emotion, opera is famous for its complexity. “Opera literally means ‘the works,’” Grabarkewitz says. In the “Madame Butterfly” performances coming up, there is also a tangle of institutions. We have two opera companies (Opera New Jersey and El Paso Opera), a symphony orchestra (New Jersey Symphony Orchestra), a senior community (Meadow Lakes), and a philanthropic organization (Springpoint Foundation). As far as institutional collaboration goes, that’s also “the works.”
Madame Butterfly, Opera New Jersey and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, McCarter Theater, Princeton. Friday, February 4, 7:30 p.m. Puccini’s tragic love story. Directed by David Grabarkewitz. Sung in Italian with English supertitles. $25 to $125. 800-ALLEGRO or www.njsymphony.org.