(Soundbite of "Madama Butterfly")
JACKI LYDEN, host:
On a dark and glimmering stage the tragic Cio Cio San strolls amid falling cherry petals with her faithless American husband, Lieutenant Pinkerton.
(Soundbite of "Madama Butterfly")
LYDEN: He'll desert her in the next act, but for now they gaze adoringly at each other as dancers hold an arch of paper lanterns over their heads. This is Madama Butterfly, one of the most beloved operas of Giacomo Puccini. And it's film director Anthony Minghella's debut at the Metropolitan Opera, the Met.
Mr. ANTHONY MINGHELLA (Director): One of the goals I had was to see if we could make a production which would allow you to understand how the opera was made so that you got a kind of glimpse of its architecture. And so the goal I think of us as a team was to remove ourselves rather than to insert ourselves into the production.
LYDEN: And the team Anthony Minghella put together was remarkable - set designer Michael Levine, costume designer Han Feng, puppeteers from London's Blind Summit Puppet Theater, and Minghella's wife, choreographer Carolyn Choa - most of them newcomers to the opera.
Mr. MINGHELLA: Carolyn and I both trained in the same theater department, and I think it's important to say that because for some commentators I think they felt that a film director was suddenly nosing around in a theater space as opposed to what it felt like to me, which was a return to the arena I trained in and to the territory I most love, which is music.
(Soundbite of "Madama Butterfly")
LYDEN: In the opera's very first scene, a lone dancer smokes over the horizon into the consciousness of the audience. Her red silk sash blooms into streamers of color that recall the imperial Japanese military flag. This dramatic vision came from Chinese born fashion designer Han Feng. Minghella turned to the fashion designer even though she'd never done theatrical costumes before.
Mr. MINGHELLA: But her whole life is designed. You know, I that if you visit her apartment or you look at a bowl of food that she's made, it's a piece of art. She's incapable of ugliness. She's incapable of a bad choice, stylistically.
Ms. HAN FENG (Costume designer): First time Anthony ask me to do the opera with him, he says it like Puccini never been to Japan, you know, and you are not Japanese. You know, so I think it's a good combination.
LYDEN: Costume designer Han Feng - we reached her in Shanghai, where she has a studio.
Ms. FENG: The whole opera's so dramatic, so I tried to use very, very strong color to make this over the top, like feel like the unbelievable, then can go from bright to the really dark.
Mr. MINGHELLA: If you have an extremely reduced palate, then a single color or single burst of color can be enormously loud, and then when that color comes, it has to be perfectly judged, and I felt that she would have the ability to bring to bear wonderful vividness.
LYDEN: A maze of corridors underneath the Met Opera House holds a tiny, self contained empire. Milliners, seamstresses and carpenters make almost everything that appears on the stage. Wardrobe mistress Vickie Tanner has a rack of costumes, including the one signature piece, Cio Cio San, or Butterfly's, many-layered silk wedding kimono, with its flirty slip underneath.
Ms. VICKIE TANNER (Wardrobe Mistress): This is what she...
LYDEN: Goes down...
Ms. TANNER: ...ends up in for Act I. It's after...
LYDEN: It's a pink with many little rosettes.
Ms. TANNER: Pink, yeah with little rosettes.
Ms. TANNER: Deeper pink, lighter pink, white.
LYDEN: Again, designer Han Feng.
Ms. FENG: Anthony feel this kimono wrapping - wrapping a woman, unwrapping is very sexy, so I tried to use a very, very light silk, because of layers and layers and layers together, like inside I have the nightgown, then you put the kimono and then we'll put the wedding coat. It's like great shape, but also beautiful you can see through. You can see the movement. You can see also the flower, you know, all different colors, different tone, all this movement. It's beautiful.
(Soundbite of "Madama Butterfly")
LYDEN: Upstairs in another part of the Met's maze, Nick Barnes and Mark Down of the Blind Summit Puppet Theater guide a child-sized puppet through its paces. The puppet's face is ethereal, not quite human, but its movements are perfectly childlike. So now you're making this little guy - he's trying - he's crawling up the chair, one knee at a time, and he's on - he's looking over the table, he's having a good time, just like a real child.
LYDEN: The puppet, dressed in an American sailor's suit, plays Cio Cio San's little son by her faithless husband, Pinkerton. In most productions the boy is played by a real child, but director Anthony Minghella rejected this.
Mr. MINGHELLA: For me the issue was very simple, which was that if you are saying that there is no requirement or expectation in the audience to see a young Japanese girl singing the part of Cio Cio San, why is there a requirement to see a two and half year old Eurasian boy? You know, you can't expect a toddler to have an imaginative life that they can harness onstage. And so all they can do is be pushed around, whereas with Blind Summit you know that this baby will think and feel everything you hope the baby would think and feel night after night after night, and will never distract and will only ever help us understand in the purest way what the emotions are.
LYDEN: The Blind Summit puppeteers work in a Japanese tradition called bunraku. Like marionettes, Butterfly's little son is a floppy bundle of complex joints, but there are no strings. So he must be manipulated directly by three people. Mark Down works the puppet's head and one hand. Nick Barnes takes the feet. In performance there will be still another person holding the puppet's torso. But the three black clad figures seem to melt away like shadows behind the surprisingly realistic child.
Mr. MARK DOWN (Blind Summit Puppeteer): This is Mark. We very much just wanted to make it a very real three-year-old child. I mean I see it - I see him as a bit like a golden retriever puppy. He's just good, wants to please, wants to help, but with quite a short attention span.
LYDEN: He has a wonderful, gentle presence, and you've got a little bald puppet with Asiatic features and he's got this really beautiful little smile, you know, and he looks very serene. And really, I was sitting, I've seen the performance twice now - both times in the orchestra section - once from rather close, once from rather far back - but you can tell he's smiling. You can tell it's a joyful presence, really. I thought.
Mr. DOWN: Yes. I think he's sort of calm...
LYDEN: Especially considering what he's seeing. He's going through this dissolution of Madame Butterfly, the mother who is, you know, slowly going mad and...
Mr. DOWN: Yeah. He needs to be able to take it all in, and he needs an expression that can go either way, and depending on where the opera is going. So at time the music is overwhelmingly joyful and he can reflect that and then it gets very sad and I think at that point his appearance is more anxious and concerned and - for his mother and what she's going through.
LYDEN: Did any of you study children? I mean I don't know if you have children. Did you look at the way your little children move?
Mr. DOWN: No. I think I've discovered that I am a three-year-old child. I realize it is a really nice place to be for an hour, you know, to be inside that head.
(Soundbite of )
LYDEN: Anthony Minghella spent five years mulling over ideas for how he might make an opera, thinking over which opera to choose and how to adapt the skills he used in The English Patient and Cold Mountain, for example, to the opera stage.
Mr. MINGHELLA: We approached this production with as much humility as we ought to have had in the sense the singers are working all the time and they're - to be standing on the Met stage means that they're at the top of an extremely competitive field, they're the best singers in the world. We are first time opera makers. It's not for us to, you know, revolutionize opera. It's for us to try and understand it and bring to bear whatever it is that we can bring to the work. And so in my conversations with the singers and Carolyn's conversations with the singers, we were always asking as much as we were directing. But I think that what we were asking was what happens if you pay as much attention to the moments you're not singing as when you are singing, because sometimes, you know, singers are just moved around. They prepare. It's a very difficult job to fill that arena. They fill up their lungs. They sing. They move to the next position. They fill up their lungs and they sing. And the fact that they're in a conversation is the last thing that they're asked to think about. We asked them to think about that, to see if it would change anything, and they were, like all artists, thrilled to be challenged.
LYDEN: In the end, Anthony Minghella said the goal of his team was to avoid leaving their tracks all over the stage, and to allow the singers, the music, and Puccini, to come forward.
Mr. MINGHELLA: And it seemed to me that our job was to - simply to honor the opera and to release it in some way, and in an odd way we just tried to look at it and see if we could, again, be the best possible audience for Puccini's work.
LYDEN: You can see Anthony Minghella's vision of Madama Butterfly at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York through November 18, though it is standing room only. Our visit to Lincoln Center was recorded by Josh Rogeson(ph) and produced by Petra Mayer(ph).
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.