Monday, November 7, 2016

Director wants 'Madama Butterfly' to be about the story and the music — not her

Lesley Koenig comes to Indiana University as an opera director with 30 years of experience and a cross-cultural appreciation of the difficulties of staging "Madama Butterfly" in 2016.

The production, which opened last weekend at the Musical Arts Center on the Bloomington campus, travels to Indianapolis this week for two nights at Clowes Hall.

Koenig, now general director of Weston Playhouse in Vermont, began her career as a teenager working for the San Francisco Opera. By the age of 23, she began decades of association with the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where her first job was directing "Salome" with Grace Bumbry.

"Madama Butterfly" tells the story of the misguided love affair and marriage between an American naval lieutenant and  Cio-Cio-San, a Japanese geisha, in the early 20th century. It's one of the Puccini "Big Three" — worldwide favorites by the Italian composer (1854-1928), the other two being "La Boheme" and "Tosca." It was last presented in Indianapolis several years ago by Indianapolis Opera before that company entered a hiatus leading to its reconstitution last year.

Koenig has never worked on "Butterfly" before. She especially looks forward to having her work staged in two different halls, both using the same casts as in Bloomington (including double-casting in the major roles). She takes a viewpoint that goes against the grain of the past several decades, in which the concept of "director's opera" has exercised a controversial hold on opera production.

I offered the possibility that "Butterfly" is director-proof in that its story is quite firmly rooted in its time and place. 

Lesley Koenig, "Madama Butterfly" director, likes finding the truth in the story and the music.
"People do change it," Koenig replied, quickly indicating that's not her choice. "My belief is that you get an opera the way it is. You're given a fabulous score and all these words. Who am I to change that?

"I want you to walk away saying that you have seen 'Madama Butterfly," Koenig said simply and definitively.

Still, her work with the production team puts her special stamp on the show. The set is not traditional; detail is sparser. The idea of a zen garden, with its flowing lines and angles and abstractness, is part of the look.

Costuming helps with characterization. "In most productions, Pinkerton (the naval lieutenant) walks on in a crisp white uniform," Koenig said, adding that her experience in the Far East acquaints her with the fact that Westerners often feel ill at ease in the climate. "I wanted all the Americans not to look pristine. Everyone is a little winded," not just Sharpless, the U.S. consul, who admits to it.

The wilted look suits Pinkerton's character as well, Koenig added. "He's not a lovely man. He's a bit of a cad. What he's saying right from the start is really quite brutal. At the end, he feels bad about what happens, but he's not a gentleman."

Cultural clash has been so much in the news lately, but the director focuses on the story and the characters. Productions searching for "relevance" are not her cup of tea. "It's about the story and not about me," Koenig said. "And it's not about the present day. With so many directors, it's all about them, and that does nothing to enhance the piece."

True, she says, there's a hierarchy about gender in Japan that's clear down to the present day. "I didn't play that up here at all. They look and they behave the way they should behave."

Any stamp Koenig puts on a production is intended to reveal what is already there in the story, the characters and their circumstances. She has made some problems for herself, as she puts it, in stipulating only one entrance to the room that the unit set displays. This is to express the confined nature of Cio-Cio-San's existence as an abandoned wife, disgraced kin in her own culture, waiting for a husband she had every reason to believe would be hers forever.

"I wanted a sense of it being its own defining space," Koenig said. "It's the opposite of freedom. Things are preordained. People just can't be coming in from the side. They have to enter the space that belongs only to her."