Madama Butterfly Makeover
Polish Director Abandons Puccini's Realism for Bold New Look

ListenListen to Robert Siegel's interview with Polish Director Mariusz Trelinski about the latest incarnation of Puccini's classic.

RealMedia Slideshow Hear a performance of an aria from the Washington Opera production, with pictures of the performers.

Madama Butterfly

Veronica Villarroel as Cio-Cio San in Madama Butterfly
Photo: Washington Opera

RealMedia Slideshow Hear a performance of an aria from the Washington Opera production.

Nov. 9, 2001 -- Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is one of the best-known operas ever, a tragic love story about a young Japanese woman and her American paramour -- sung in Italian, of course. When the opera was first presented in 1904, the style of the times was to make the sets and action as realistic as possible -- a movement called “verismo.”

Leave it to an avant-garde Polish director to re-invent a classic. Mariusz Trelinski told All Things Considered senior host Robert Siegel that one of the reasons he decided to direct a live opera again was because of opera’s inherent artificiality. He sought to penetrate the gloss of centuries of operatic convention to create a very different experience for the audience.

Trelinkski’s first opera was Ellbieta Sikora's The Heart Snatcher which premiered at Warsaw's Teatr Wielki in 1995. His production of Madama Butterfly premiered in Warsaw in 1999. But he’s best known as a film director.

Treliniski says in the years since the opera’s debut, movies and television have ruined opera's ambitions to be naturalistic. So he takes an approach he calls minimalist, a “game of imagination.” The onstage scene is sparse, designed to evoke contemporary images of Japan, not the gaudy impressions that inspired Puccini and his contemporaries.

Mariusz Trelinski's production of Madama Butterfly plays through Nov. 17 at the Washington Opera in Washington D.C.'s Kennedy Center.

Kennedy Center Web site
Washington Opera Web site

The Washington Opera production has a decidedly unrealistic set -- regular, geometric spaces and a conspicuous absence of props. As American sailor B.F. Pinkerton inspects his house in Nagasaki in one scene, moving from room to room, the set moves with him. In other scenes, he is illuminated by a backdrop of Japanese text, and the rest of the stage is dark.

Even the motivations of the characters are re-imagined. Trelinski's Cio-Cio San is not just a smitten teenager betrayed by a callous American. She is a heroine who dares to deify the man she loves -- to worship him.

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Other Resources

• The Washington Opera Web site has information about the production, plus photos and music

• Puccini's life story, analysis of this operas and links -- it's Pucciniana!

• A quick synopsis of Madama Butterfly from the New York Metropolitan Opera and Opera News