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Fresno State’s ‘Madama Butterfly’: two views of an ambitious performance

Fresno State

‘Madama Butterfly’ on stage at the Fresno State Concert Hall.

Fresno State Opera Theatre and the Fresno State Symphony Orchestra offered a fully staged production of “Madama Butterfly” last weekend, and as a learning experience associated with this ambitious production, I helped organize a student opera review competition. I’m happy to announce that Ariana Wafer, one of my Fresno State MCJ (Media, Communications and Journalism) students, was the winner. She got her review published in The Collegian. An excerpt:

Knowing how big a production “Butterfly” is, I wondered how the Fresno State Symphony Orchestra and Fresno State Opera Theatre would pull it off. The hall is not a very big space, but stage director Ashley Trembley made it work, as it was a very strong show.

The review was positive, but Ariana wasn’t afraid to call out certain aspects of the production that she felt could be improved. Example:

I also would have liked to see a more expressive relationship between the two leads considering their singing was very full-voiced and passionate.

This was Ariana’s first opera, and I’m delighted that she got the chance to experience one. I encourage you to read her review.

I attended opening night as well. A few thoughts:

• The production had good dramatic scope and emotional resonance. The full student orchestra, conducted with customary verve by Thomas Loewenheim, had a lively and rich sound. The balance between instrumentalists and singers was very good.

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• I’m always a little surprised when I watch the opera by how icky the “rental agreement” is that Pinkerton makes for his Nagasaki hilltop residence. (Essentially, the house comes with a “wife,” in this case Butterfly, though Pinkerton has no intention of respecting the bonds of matrimony.) I understand the importance of fealty to the original source material, but does there come a time when the sexism and racism of a storyline just becomes too problematic for modern audiences? Could “Madama Butterfly” be tinkered with so the gender politics wouldn’t seem so, well, gross? The books of Broadway musical productions are often updated when they’re revived, and directors fiddle (and sometimes practically dismantle) Shakespeare all the time. Why can’t the same be true for opera?


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• Stage director Ashley Trembley didn’t have a lot to work with in terms of the Concert Hall venue (or scenic possibilities or access to sophisticated lighting equipment), but she found ways to stage grand opera in a less-than-grand space. In one sense, the size of the orchestra became the most impressive visual of the evening.

• I particularly enjoyed the chemistry between Butterfly (Fresno State professor and professional opera singer Maria Okunev-Briggs), Suzuki (recent Fresno State graduate Tiffanie Trujillo), and little Louis Radford, who played Butterfly’s “love child.” Guest artist Jonathan Yarrington, another professional opera singer), as Pinkerton, was a robust presence on stage, and Limuel Forgey, as the American consul, was a powerful standout. Okunev-Briggs seemed a little tentative in the first act, but as she moved into the second and third acts, she had some beautiful, thrilling vocal and acting moments.

• One thing that threw me was the use of the chorus. Outfitted in concert-style dress instead of period costumes, and holding music in hand, the singers looked out of place and vaguely uncomfortable on stage. They never felt integrated into the production in terms of costuming and stage presence. Other details that fell flat for me: The pyramid-shaped projections felt like Egypt instead of Japan. Butterfly’s colorful kimono in the second and third acts was gaudy, not daring.

• I enjoyed the Fresno State students in smaller roles, from Christian Cabral’s unctuous Goro to Adam Cooke’s haughty Prince Yamadori. One more musing: I’m not very familiar with opera pedagogy, but it seems to me a downside that so few current Fresno State students got significant stage time in this production. I realize that principal roles in big operatic works such as “Butterfly” require mature singers with years of experience. And I accept that getting to perform with professionals is great training. But other performance students across the university (actors, instrumentalists, singers, dancers) get substantial opportunities at leading roles in their respective showcases. Blanche DuBois usually isn’t played by a professional in a student production of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” but by a student. Again, I know that opera is a different beast, and I appreciate the pedagogical advantages of staging a big opera. But this is something that stuck out to me this time around.

Final thoughts: Overall, I applaud the obvious dedication and care that went into pulling off a full “Madama Butterfly.” Trembley, Loewenheim and producer Anthony Radford corralled a thousand moving pieces into a cohesive, moving, sometimes enthralling experience. Did I tear up when Butterfly ends it all? Of course. That’s the power of opera.

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Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

donaldfresnoarts@gmail.com

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