Like nothing else, great theater magnifies our capacity for empathy and awe. What opera pushes both to the breaking point like Butterfly? We empathize with Cio-Cio San as a young girl taken advantage of, as a single mother at her most desperate, and as a representative of an entire culture seduced and destroyed.
What theater music generates as much awe, from the whirling turbulence of the opening to the cosmic love duet to the horror of the final chord—perhaps the most devastating major triad in all of music? Beyond sensuality and melodrama, at the opera’s heart lies deep conflicts about cultural appropriation, modernization vs. faith, and the valuation of women. In balancing those issues, Puccini returned again and again to the humanity (and inhumanity) at the heart of every character and interaction.
There may not be a scene I find more uncomfortable to sit through than the Act I love duet, precisely because the music is so ravishing and sincere. Unlike the ensembles of La bohème with their bird’s-eye views of everyone’s inner emotional lives, we experience this scene from Cio-Cio San’s perspective. To lose yourself in this music is to become her, hoping against hope for a new world where these pleasures are endless. In a sense, the orchestra and I become Pinkerton: fanning ever more passion, more irresistible Western intoxication, and becoming intoxicated by it ourselves.
To perform Butterfly, we have to embrace both its sonic splendor and its brutality. Coming to grips with Puccini’s vision has stretched me as an artist, musician, and theater lover.
I have been so lucky to have had such an exceptional team with me. This is a cast of singing actors, all committed to finding truth. If this is your first production of this extraordinary work, welcome. Its beauty and deep humanity may well stay with you forever.
These conductor’s notes are also published in the Madama Butterfly program book.
Ryan McAdams, a Missouri native, is one of the most exciting conductors of his generation, in symphonic, operatic, and contemporary music. ryanmcadams.com