In the fall of 2004, a group of dancers, actors, and puppeteers met in a small rehearsal space in West Hampstead, London, to take part in an improvisational workshop. Leading the gathering were Academy Award-winning filmmaker Anthony Minghella and his wife, the dancer and choreographer Carolyn Choa. Commissioned to create a new production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly to open at English National Opera in November 2005, Minghella was eager to explore a few of the images in his head before he began the rehearsal process. It is not the way new opera productions are usually created, but for Minghella, the gathering was a felicitous return to his roots in theater.
"If I was going to do something in the theater, it had better be theatrical, rather than showing up as a filmmaker and trying to do a movie in the opera house," the director explains. "Because my training was in theater, and because I started off as a playwright, I wanted to sort of remind myself of those essential elements of theater. I wanted to do something that could only be done in a theater, which celebrated the tense of theater — the now of it and the simplicity and pretense of it."
The workshop explored intriguing parallels between Japanese classical theater and Western opera, delving into the ways that each balances deliberate artifice and powerful storytelling. Choa, who is the production's associate director and its choreographer, was born and raised in Hong Kong, so this cross-cultural terrain was familiar ground: in addition to her extensive experience in dance and opera, she has a keen interest in experimental theater, particularly work influenced by Asian theatrical traditions.
Choa introduced Minghella to Blind Summit Theatre, a London-based puppet troupe whose performances she had admired. Nick Barnes and Mark Down, the troupe's founders, are advocates of bunraku-style puppetry, in which the manipulators are fully visible to the audience. "The amazing thing is that the first time I went to see them, within seconds I stopped looking at the puppeteers," Choa recalls. "I completely just bought into the puppets." Minghella quickly embraced the idea of using puppets to represent some of the opera's central characters — most notably to portray Cio-Cio-San's little son.
Veteran set designer Michael Levine was taken with the workshop's spirit of exploration and mutual inspiration. "I wanted to create a world that would allow for the experimentation that was taking place in that room to grow throughout the rehearsal process. That meant not imposing design, per se, onto the piece, but somehow finding a design that was a vehicle for the other collaborators, to have a stage that could be empty and also full and could be a place where a puppet could exist."
The success of the workshop process played out in the happy confluence of their ideas, as Levine's visions for the sets dovetailed perfectly with the directing team's. "We wanted to create a context, a universe for the opera which is based on Japanese aesthetics, a stage which has got very pure lines and has a kind of emptiness as one of its elements," Choa explains. "And then into this universe we put an Italian opera. The world of Japan is elevated out of reality, because that is how Pinkerton sees Japan."
"Michael comes from this tradition, both in theater and in opera, of restraint — of taking one or two ideas and really working them," Minghella notes. Against this background of elegant restraint, Minghella envisioned a bold splash of color and vibrancy. So he turned to Han Feng, the Shanghai-born fashion designer and a friend of Minghella and Choa, who agreed to make her costume-designing debut with the production.
Han Feng's vivid, Asian-inspired designs won her great praise from the international fashion press, but she had never collaborated on a theatrical production before. She attacked the Butterfly costume designs with a combination of extensive period research and her own pan-Asian flair. The wedding scene would be "festive, like a jewel, like a fire, almost like spice," she explains, after which the costumes would become more muted as the tragedy unfolded. Knowing that Minghella and Choa did not want to stray from the traditional shape of kimonos, Han Feng threw her energy into colors, textures, and patterns, playing with traditional elements such as polka dots, stripes, and Chinese peonies.
In two-time Olivier Award-winning lighting designer Peter Mumford, Minghella also had a singularly appropriate artist to join his dynamic team. In addition to being an accomplished lighting designer, Mumford is also an experienced set and costume designer, even a director, in his own right. "Like Michael Levine, Peter is a conceptualist, and he brings an extraordinary assurance and authority to his designs," Minghella says.
Despite their varied backgrounds, the creative team all remained squarely focused on Puccini's Madama Butterfly and its narrative. "It's not our job to go out and make twenty beautiful pictures," Minghella asserts. "Our job is to examine an emotional landscape. It's to have our hearts broken by people with hearts. And what's astonishing about Madama Butterfly is not what we do on the stage, it's what the singers do."
Met General Manager Peter Gelb had such confidence in Minghella's vision that when he heard of plans for the production he quickly offered to co-produce it with ENO and the Lithuanian National Opera. Gelb and Minghella were friends from the former's days as president of Sony Classical, where they worked together on the soundtrack for The Talented Mr. Ripley. Minghella suggested waiting to see if the production was a success in London before committing it to New York, but Gelb insisted, not only on being a co-commissioner but also on scheduling the piece to open his first season. He also persuaded James Levine to conduct his first complete Met Butterfly.
Although the production has undergone a few small alterations in its transition to the Met stage, the experimental spirit of that first workshop remains the conceptual starting point of this Madama Butterfly. "It was like a kind of jazz ensemble, where we could work off of each other, and I think that was exciting and unusual," muses Levine of the workshop. "I'm used to that experience in the theater more than I am in the world of opera."
Minghella concurs. "The most important thing to say about this production is it's such a team process. It's a part of the beauty of theater, and it's the thing where I don't think my authorship — which is very important in film — is of any consequence whatsoever. The only author here is Puccini."
The Anthony Minghella production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly has 13 performances through November 18. James Levine and Asher Fisch share conducting duties, and the cast is led by Cristina Gallardo-Domê¢s in the title role, Maria Zifchak as Suzuki, Marcello Giordani as Pinkerton, and Dwayne Croft as Sharpless.