Inside the WNO Costume Studio: Madame Butterfly

The experience of designing in the opera really added an amazing
design point of view in my visual art. Opera is definitely everything:
sound, lights, space, just the whole natural world on the stage.
—Jun Kaneko (The Washington Post)

With opening night just weeks away, the WNO’s costume team is diligently working to build Jun Kaneko’s stunning costumes for Madame Butterfly. Step inside the WNO Costume Studio for a special glimpse into the process and see these designs come to life May 6–21 in the Kennedy Center Opera House.

A Lacquered Otherness: The Origins of Madame Butterfly

Madame Butterfly offers a tantalizing glimpse into another time and place: a Europe under the spell of the East, a moment of mutual fascination and mutual misunderstanding. Although Puccini wove scraps of exotica—an American anthem, a Japanese prayer—into his score, the opera is as Italian as it gets. The composer, having written Manon Lescaut, La bohème, and Tosca, was by then a master of the coloristic possibilities of both the Western orchestra and the operatic voice. While Butterfly’s soundscape may not be authentically Japanese, the emotional life Puccini conjures for his heroine has extraordinary power and depth—a surface delicacy that belies tremendous personal strength.

The story of one man’s encounter with the East via a temporary “marriage”—a transaction at once intimate and distant—can be traced to a semi-autobiographical novel penned by a French naval officer known as Pierre Loti in 1887. The Japan he describes is picturesque and charming—a porcelain tableau that never quite feels real.

At this moment, my impressions of Japan are charming enough; I feel myself fairly launched upon this tiny, artificial, fictitious world, which I felt I knew already from the paintings of lacquer and porcelains. It is so exact a representation! The three little squatting women, graceful and dainty, with their narrow slits of eyes, their magnificent chignons in huge bows, smooth and shining as boot-polish, and the little tea-service on the floor, the landscape seen through the verandah, the pagoda perched among the clouds; and over all the same affectation everywhere, every detail… Long before I came to it, I had perfectly pictured this Japan to myself. Nevertheless in the reality it almost seems to be smaller, more finicking than I had imagined it, and also much more mournful, no doubt by reason of that great pall of black clouds hanging over us and the incessant rain.

—Pierre Loti, Madame Chrysantheme

In Loti’s story, the narrator’s marriage to a Japanese “wife” is understood by both parties to be a temporary arrangement; when officer and geisha part, amicably, we see the title character testing the authenticity of the coins she has received. But if the human relationship was rather cold, Loti’s feeling for the exotic landscape was more than enough to carry the work to success; within five years, Madame Chrysantheme had been published in some 25 editions and translated into several languages, including English.

The episode was then taken up by the American writer John Luther Long, who published the novella Madame Butterfly in 1898. Here is the origin of the story opera lovers have come to know, a story in which bride and groom mean something very different when they profess their love. Pinkerton is genuinely overwhelmed with feelings for Butterfly, even as he knows he will eventually leave her. Later, when the young officer returns to Japan with his new American wife, Cio-Cio-San contemplates suicide, but then changes her mind, disappearing with her servant and child.

The director and producer David Belasco, recognizing the theatrical possibilities of Long’s story, adapted it for the stage in 1900. In Belasco’s version, the abandoned heroine follows her late father’s example, choosing to “die with honor.” This dramatic coup, retained by Puccini, not only forces Butterfly’s so-called husband to grapple with the effects of his actions, it also implicates all of us who have shared in Pinkerton’s captivation as the story unfolds. As the London Times put it, “in any other than an exotic setting, the dramatic episode would be intolerably painful.”

Belasco—and Puccini—rely on Japan’s “otherness” to draw us into what is, otherwise, a fairly grim story. But their vision of the geisha erases any distance between her heart and ours. In Belasco’s staged version of Madame Butterfly, Kate Pinkerton, as enchanted with Butterfly as her now-husband once was, attempts to take Butterfly into her arms, calling her a “poor little thing…pretty little plaything.” Butterfly rejects her label, then rises and asks, impassively, how long Kate and Pinkerton have been married. This a woman who will have the last word—who will die with honor as she makes all others question their own.

—Kelley Rourke is dramaturg of Washington National Opera

Director Francesca Zambello on Don Giovanni

For this season’s showcase of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists, WNO presents a staged performance of Mozart’s timeless drama Don Giovanni featuring engaging set and costume design elements–with the WNO Orchestra conducted by Michael Christie and direction by WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello. Join us for the performance on March 17 in the Opera House.

There was a time when people used the term “Don Juan” to refer to a kind of charming rogue. Today, we see nothing charming about a man who won’t take no for an answer. How do we approach a character like Don Giovanni in 2017?

No one was giving workshops on consent when Mozart and Da Ponte wrote Don Giovanni, but that doesn’t mean the creators of the opera condoned Giovanni’s actions. The complete title of the opera is Il dissoluto punito, ossia il Don Giovanni (“The debauched punished, or Don Giovanni”). This is an opera about a bad guy who gets what he deserves.

It’s true that we can get overly comfortable with some of the great, standard operas. We bask in Mozart’s beautiful melodies, we compare interpretations, we marvel at modern stagecraft. But I don’t think that’s what the creators ever intended for this piece. We should be disturbed by the events that unfold. This is a drama with serious consequences.

I’ve directed Don Giovanni many times, but I don’t think I have ever chosen to make it so clear that the opening scene between Don Giovanni and Donna Anna is an attempted rape. I have always struggled with it, as there is textual uncertainty in the libretto, but this time I made a conscious choice with the artists. It really seemed so clear to me, directing this piece immediately after Dead Man Walking, which begins with a violent rape. I want the audience to understand from the beginning what kind of man we are dealing with.

So why spend an evening with these characters? Why put a man like Don Giovanni at the center of an opera?

Look, if you’re going to the opera to find characters to model your behavior after, you might want to reconsider. That said, I do think the great operas teach us a lot about life. I think that’s especially true of the three operas that Mozart and Da Ponte wrote together (the other two being The Marriage of Figaro and Così fan tutte). Those two didn’t just give us good guys and bad guys—they gave us an array of complicated human beings.

We opened our season with The Marriage of Figaro. The Count is a character who has some things in common with Giovanni. But everyone in that opera has some less-than-enlightened moments—as do we all. In Figaro, the Count eventually finds redemption when he admits his wrongs and asks forgiveness. It is one of the most moving moments in all of opera. Giovanni, on the other hand, refuses the Commedatore’s call for repentance. Again, it is interesting for me to consider themes that resonate across our season. In Dead Man Walking, Sister Helen pours all of her energy into getting De Rocher to confess and confront his crimes before he dies, which he ultimately does.

I believe we go to the theater to hold up a mirror to our own lives. Maybe a piece like Don Giovanni can help us recognize moments, hopefully at a less significant scale, when our desires become more important than other people’s feelings; when we enable a predator; when we are tempted to stray from a relationship; when we fail to comprehend the depth of a friend’s suffering; when we behave like victims. And with any luck, we’ll be able recognize our own failings before we get to the point where we, like Don Giovanni, are pulled down to hell.

What can you tell us about this production?

Mozart and Da Ponte’s opera is so character-driven, the words and music—in the hands of great performers—are practically enough to create the world. We are keeping it simple in terms of staging so that the focus can be on the complex psychology.

It has been a joyous and fulfilling process to work on this piece with our amazing Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists. They have really dug into their roles, and I have had a blast working on the characters with them. I cannot say enough about this group of singers. Not only am I looking forward to their WNO performances, I am looking forward to watching their interpretations of these fascinating characters evolve as they go forth to continue their careers around the world.

The Marriage of Figaro: Reading List!

For Further Exploration

The Figaro Trilogy: The Barber of Seville, The Marriage of Figaro, The Guilty Mother (Oxford World’s Classics)
Figaro, one of opera’s most enduring characters, sprang from the imagination of French playwright Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais. Translated by David Coward, this volume includes source materials for the beloved operas by Rossini and Mozart.

Improbable Patriot
Not content with being a master watchmaker and plotter of plays, Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais conceived and carried out a plan to aid the rebellious American colonists in 1776. Harlow Giles Unger tells the fascinating life story of the man who brought us Figaro and friends.

The Mozart-Da Ponte Operas
Mozart wrote his three most enduring operas in collaboration with Lorenzo Da Ponte. Andrew Steptoe explores the cultural and social context in which they were written, the practicalities of opera production in the time, and the place the works hold in the creators’ artistic development.

The Librettist of Venice
Rodney Bolt tells the story of Lorenzo Da Ponte, “Mozart’s Poet, Casanova’s Friend, and Italian Opera’s Impresario in America.” Read more

A Timeless Mirror: Finding Ourselves within “The Marriage of Figaro”

WNO_16-17_MarriageofFigaro_620x349_v2From the playbill for The Marriage of Figaro

by Kelley Rourke, WNO Dramaturg

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Spoiler alert: No one dies in The Marriage of Figaro.

In an art form teeming with over-the-top offenders, the characters in The Marriage of Figaro seem slightly tame—more Downton Abbey than True Crime. But the lack of superheroes and supervillains is precisely what makes Mozart and Da Ponte’s comedy of manners so compelling. The emotional life of the household first imagined by the playwright Beaumarchais raises our ire, splits our sides, breaks our hearts, and sends us out of the theater with recognition of—and hope for—our shared humanity.

Read more

Revolutionary Writers: Beaumarchais and Da Ponte

D'après Jean-Marc Nattier, Portrait de Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (BMCF)

D’après Jean-Marc Nattier, Portrait de Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (BMCF)

From the playbill for The Marriage of Figaro

by Kelley Rourke, WNO Dramaturg

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Because you are a great lord, you believe that you are a great genius! You took the trouble to be born, no more. You remain an ordinary enough man!”

The social architecture of the 18th century put many obstacles in the path of an ambitious young man like Pierre Augustin Caron (1732–1799); at the same time, it served as the scaffolding for his climb. The playwright who gave us Figaro, the ultimate jack-of-all-trades, lived a life bursting with adventures and accomplishments, as did the Italian poet who would adapt his Le Mariage de Figaro into one of our most beloved operas.

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Joshua Hopkins | Meet the Artists

Baritone. Count Almaviva in The Marriage of Figaro.


Joshua Hopkins headshotJoshua was born and raised in Canada, and was a student at McGill University in Montreal before gaining acceptance into the Houston Grand Opera Studio.

He made his WNO debut in 2014 as Papageno in The Magic Flute.

Some of Joshua’s most recent role highlights include the title role in The Barber of Seville, Tadeusz in The PassengerPing in Turandot, and Junior in A Quiet Place.

Fun fact! Joshua was chosen by Opera News as one of “twenty-five artists poised to break out and become a major force in the coming decade.”

Get a glimpse at Joshua’s Count in The Marriage of Figaro, a performance The Globe and Mail says he delivers with “a virile, vigorous yet velvety sound.”

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Ryan McKinny | Meet the Artists

Bass-baritone. Figaro in The Marriage of Figaro.


Ryan McKinny Headshot

Ryan is a graduate of both the Juilliard School of Music and the Houston Grand Opera Studio.

He made his WNO debut in The Ring this spring, where he played the roles of Donner and Gunther.

Ryan’s favorite opera is Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. In fact, Wagner is his favorite composer of all time, with the title role in The Flying Dutchman being his character of choice.

Other memorable roles include the title role in Rigoletto, and Tiridate in Radamisto

Fun fact! Instead of leaving his wife and two children in Houston every time he’s invited to perform at opera houses around the world, Ryan’s family comes with him! The McKinny family even calls Germany their home-away-from-home, as Ryan has placed his vocal focus on the German repertoire.

Listen to Ryan sing a work from The Flying Dutchman at La Scala in Milan, Italy. 

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Amanda Majeski | Meet the Artists

Soprano. Countess Almaviva in The Marriage of Figaro.


Amanda Majeski headshot1_5x7Amanda was born, raised, and currently resides in Chicago, Illinois.

This performance marks her WNO debut.

Amanda has played this role before in several other productions including at The Metropolitan Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago. She’ll return to The Met stage in the 2016/17 season as Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni. She has continued her relationship with Lyric audiences in such roles as Vitellia in La clemenza di Tito and Eva in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

A notable moment: In 2009, she was preparing for her role as a peasant in the Lyric Opera’s production of The Marriage of Figaro. The day before a performance, Amanda learned that she would be taking over the role of the Countess. With only hours to prepare for the biggest curtain call of her life, Amanda took the stage. And the rest is history.

Watch Amanda perform a song from The Metropolitan Opera’s production of The Marriage of Figaro

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Lisette Oropesa | Meet the Artists

Soprano. Susanna in The Marriage of FigaroMarie in The Daughter of the Regiment


Lisette is a firsLisetteOropesa_480t generation Cuban American.

This season marks her WNO debut, with two back-to-back productions for which she has already won great acclaim.

Lisette and Lawrence Brownlee appeared in The Marriage of Figaro together at the Pittsburgh Opera, and are reuniting on the WNO stage in The Daughter of the Regiment.

She has appeared over 100 times on The Metropolitan Opera stage.

Some of Lisette’s other celebrated roles include Gilda in Rigoletto and Nannetta in Falstaff. She has also appeared in eight of the Met’s Live in HD productions.

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