In November, Jonathan Pell, Dallas Opera's Director of Artistic Administration, rang up the legendary Renata Scotto, stage director of its current production of Madame Butterfly. Scotto made Dallas Opera history in many memorable appearances, including the title role of Anna Bolena, as Amelia in Un Ballo in Maschera, and in her very first performances in the title role of Manon Lescaut. Scotto last appeared on The Dallas Opera stage in 1987 as Charlotte in Werther.
Dallas Opera: You have a long and illustrious history here. You made your debut in 1970 in the title role of Madama Butterfly; and here you are, coming back this season to direct it. Do you have any idea how many performances of Madame Butterfly you sang?
Renata Scotto: No, no, many, many. My debut was really too young for Butterfly. I was almost the same age as Butterfly. I was three years older than her, actually. But it was too soon. Anyway, I sang Butterfly many times and the last performance, I began to direct Butterfly in 1986 at the Met. Mamma mia! But Butterfly was always in my career, and step by step, I understood what to do with this role. It doesn't come easy the first time, so you really have to understand little by little what you're going into.
DO: And you've done so many productions of Madama Butterfly.
Scotto: Many different productions with many different directors, but each one of them gave me something to think about; something to do…
DO: Or not to do?
Scotto: You know, it's a learning experience every time you go on stage. Bad or good, it's an experience. This is what I tell the young singers preparing for a role: "Never let it become routine," which would be very easy to do.
DO: What do you think is the heart of this character, Cio-Cio-San? Why does she continue to have such tremendous public appeal, one hundred years after this opera's birth?
Scotto: Because she is a true human being. She is one of those characters who immediately touch the hearts of any audience. Read how Puccini went to see Belasco's play in London, without understanding a single word of English and still, he came away crazy about Butterfly. As a theatrical experience, I mean.
DO: Well, he once said (and it's absolutely true) that if it's a really great opera libretto you don't have to understand a word for the story to be clear.
Scotto: In Butterfly, we don't need the supertitles. We have them to make it easier, yet each character can be understood immediately. Every one of them. Even the smallest character becomes real and supports the drama and helps to carry the plot.
DO: One of the exciting things about this particular production is that you'll be working with Verónica Villarroel, a sort of protégé. You discovered her when she was living in Santiago, Chile, and encouraged her to come to the United States to study. Since then, you've been instrumental in helping guide and develop her career.
Scotto: Yes, well, it's beautiful the way I met Verónica. We were singing together in La bohème. She was about 21 years old, singing the part of Musetta. She was a very shy person, very introverted, speaking to no one, not even me. And then, I heard this voice and I said to myself, "Oh my God, this is a great voice!" So I asked her, "Would you like to sing something else for me?" She replied, "Yes, of course, but I don't read music. I only sing by ear." So she sang for me Puritani. I…couldn't talk. And then, you know, I encouraged her to come to New York but, because she didn't have a penny, I knocked on every door to open them. Juilliard gave her a scholarship. Verónica was a big talent and had to be helped along.
DO: One of the things that's so amazing about your current career, now that you're working with young singers, is that you've been able to go around the world giving master classes, which must be very gratifying.
Scotto: Yes, absolutely. And I am always looking for talented people to help them build a career. I'm always looking for great singers for the future, the future of opera. We need them; you need them!
DO: We do. And you've established a very good track record. I know that you did a production of Adriana Lecouvreur in Santiago a few years ago. Have you directed Verónica in anything else?
Scotto: No, that was the only time until now. Adriana was a perfect opera for Verónica. Perfect. We worked very hard and she enjoyed a great success, a triumph, in the role.
DO: I'm sure.
Scotto: I saw her Butterfly at the Met and, I tell you, vocally she is Butterfly, no doubt about it! Butterfly is not some Japanese doll; she is the creation of Giacomo Puccini. Puccini first, Japanese second. And you must understand the soul of this girl, what it is that she's looking for.
DO: What, for you, is the most poignant moment in the opera?
Scotto: Everything is equally important but, vocally, you have to pace that character and control it. Yet, as an actress, you must also tell the truth. It's a bit difficult to explain. You have to remember that, vocally, the most difficult moments are at the end and you have to arrive there still in fresh voice. But there are moments from the very beginning. The entrance of Cio-Cio-San is about her desire for happiness. It's not just a beautiful wedding‹no! It's reaching for happiness, reaching for something she's never had. She's only 15 years old and has no family, only the dishonor which has attached itself to her family name. So, her entrance has to come from the inside out. There's never a moment when you can relax as Butterfly.
DO: I think my favorite moment is in the second act, where Sharpless is trying to tell her that Pinkerton's coming back, but he isn't interested in seeing her. Sharpless finally breaks down and asks, "Madame Butterfly, what would you do if he were not to return?"
Scotto: Puccini calls for a long moment, a moment of infinite embarrassment and pain. A singer really has to look into that. And the orchestra, the orchestra goes "Pum-pum!"
DO: Yes, there's that bass drum that sounds like her heart has stopped.
Scotto: Right. And it's so perfect that nobody breathes‹not even the audience!
DO: Then she says there are two things she could do: Go back to entertaining or, better yet, to die…
Scotto: And she really means it. Butterfly is the ultimate protagonist. Without her, the opera is nothing. She's also an idealist and an optimist. Her attitude is so positive that it is only when she lays eyes on Kate [Pinkerton's American wife] that her optimism fails her completely. She knows, at that moment, that her life is finished.
DO: For me, the most poignant aria is "Che tua madre."
Scotto: That is a very dramatic moment in the opera. You know, in the original version, Butterfly talked only to the child. In the second version, Puccini developed this beautiful aria that ends in "morte, morte," ("death, death") if I, Butterfly, have to go back to the life of a geisha. "Un bel dí," on the other hand, is not really an aria; it's more of a recitative for the audience. "Do you see the ship coming? Do you see how I am going to meet him when he comes?" "Che tua madre" is filled with this tension, this drama. And then there is "Tu, tu piccolo iddio." That is the moment she knows she is going to die and it is her last chance to embrace her child.
As for the other characters: I never think of Pinkerton as the villain. He could be any young sailor, going from port to port, without really knowing what he is doing.
DO: Young and selfish and not thinking about the ramifications or repercussions of their actions. They're too busy having a good time.
Scotto: Exactly. So, if Pinkerton is a villain, it's not intentional. In the last act he says, "My God, what have I done!" But he's too much of a coward, he tells us, to stay. Instead, he leaves his new wife there, to take care of the business with the child. Kate is a great character, by the way. I really wish she had a little more time onstage to explain herself. My God, that's a terrible thing to do, to take away another woman's child!
DO: Especially because she's been put in this awful position by her own husband.
Scotto: (Laughing) You know what I think? I think Kate later divorces Pinkerton and keeps the child.
DO: That's it! That's the sequel! (Laughs) We are so looking forward to having you here, in person, and experiencing this production of Madame Butterfly.
Scotto: I always have a great time in Dallas. Grazie mille!
Jonathan Pell is Director of Artistic Administration for The Dallas Opera.