The Making of Madame Butterfly

On the 23rd of March 2000, the morning after Kemp Company’s performance of Dreamdances in Santander, the Directors of the city’s new theatre, the Palacio de Festivales – Roman Calleja and Juan Calzada – expressed their desire to commission Lindsay to direct an opera of his choice. Little did we know, at that brief meeting, how many crucial collaborations this would lead to with these two men over the following fifteen years, (they would also be responsible for The Tales of Hoffmann, Elizabeth’s Last Dance, and two Spanish tours of Kemp Dances). At that meeting, an excited Lindsay said he would think about which opera. As the Dreamdances tour continued, hewent through his mysterious decisional processes for several days and then announced that he wished to direct Madame Butterfly.

For the next two years, all the countless phases and decisions concerning the preparation of every aspect of this production was gradually developed… fitting in simultaneously with intense work on two other operas, the mammoth production of The Fairy Queen in Spain, plus Mascagni’s Le Maschere in Italy. Purcell, Puccini and Mascagni! In the same period he also performed repeatedly in his own Dreamdances in Italy and London, planning or staging Dance productions for other companies in Turin, London and Holland, teaching, exhibiting drawings and decorating his ex-monastery in Todi. Hopping backwards and forwards non-stop between different countries, composers and projects was a bit like juggling a dozen bottles while running a full marathon. Madame Butterflyfinally opened on November 14th 2002, in the grand Palacio de Festivales theatre in Santander, in coproduction with the Gran Teatro of Cordoba. It went on to be performed on more than 20 occasions in Spain and Italy… for an opera, a clear sign of success.

In his original programme notes for the production, Lindsay described why he had chosen to direct this particular opera: “There are three main elements that dominate my attraction to Madame Butterfly: its unbearably tragic love story, its setting in Japan and… the Sea. And also, of course, Puccini’s music… which contains all these things and more.”In thesenotes he explainedin more detailthe more personal reasons of his choice, particularly his intense lifelong love of Japanese culture… from childhood Japanese gifts brought back from his sailor father’s journeys to the Orient, his fascination with Japanese culture andart, watching Kabuki Theatre in his early twenties in London, and later theseries of ecstatically-received performances in the 1990s of the Lindsay Kemp Company’s repertoire in Japan. As with all his inspirational influences, he was not interested in copying: he absorbed deeply, and then transformed everything into his own personal version… in this case continuing to interweave eastern and western cultures. His personal relationship with Japan and east-west mixing had already led to one of his greatest productions and performances, Onnagata – The Song of Orpheus, premiered in 1990.

And the Sea? For Lindsay this personal element would be what wove everything together. In his programme notes he wrote about his fascination with… “oceans,  transcending, connecting and confusing different cultures, symbol of the infinity that lies beyond identity, and of freedom, ecstasy and death…separating and joining the destinies of Cio-cio-san and Pinkerton… and expressing my love for sailorsand seaports, and for drowned sailors flying like angels with seagulls’ wings… and of course my father, lost at sea forever, always present.”

The sea, meanwhile, during the two years of on-and-off pre-production activities, had gradually flooded this Madame Butterfly, embodied in the brilliant fixed but variable set, designed by Giuliano Spinelli, then an insistent and persuasive design student who received Lindsay’s insistent poetic suggestions about the presence of the sea and found a way to satisfy him. The result was a highly original and imposing Japanese hilltop dwelling, stylised but also very real, framing the sky and the glistening changeable sea far below. Our Photo Gallery confirms the powerful and almost constant presence of the sea in this production.

What else made Lindsay Kemp’s production of Madame Butterfly so special? No single outstanding or original feature, rather a huge range of uncompromisingly and passionately processed details, many of them so small as to bealmost imperceptible. Throughout his career he had always insisted “I never try to be original: all I want to do is figh tuntil my visions come true”. But his visions were always evolving. In the late 1990s, in his own early sixties, his tastes were becoming less baroque, only partly on account of the changing economic climate. This led to smaller and simpler productions, constructed around three or four performers in a series of separate pieces. But this was also the period when he began directing his first operas: somewhat richer possibilities were possible, but a shift towards simplicity was still evident and permanent. After all, a deep aesthetic maturing was only natural during the thirty-five years between Flowers and Madame Butterfly!

A special advantage of the 2-year preparation period was the possibility and time to apply even greater passion on visual detail… here especially concerning the Japanese costumes for Butterfly: he was very much aware that Cio-cio-san’s family were poor (unlike some productions, where they all resemble members of the Imperial household). In years of touring Japan with his Company he had alternated visits to Kabuki, Noh and Butoh shows with obsessively searching traditional markets to buy old and antique kimonos and accessories. He was thus able to choose nearly all the costumes for the Santander production from his own large collection, many of them authentically old and poor, but others able to shine unforgettably on the bodies of Cio-cio-san’s Geisha friends in Act One.

This meant that in the first act the chorus– along withhis patient note-taking assistants– endured endless experiments and changes of mind during rehearsals, concerning which member of the chorus should wear which kimono and obi or carry which coloured paper lantern, and who should consequently stand next to whom. Like a painter adjusting  anr readjusting his composition. Despite this, Lindsay was much loved by all the choruses and extras he worked with, in all his opera productions, because he treated them as individuals, not masses… encouraging each person to develop a personality, respecting and entertaining them… and always giving each one a signed original drawing on the first night.

Morality and Music: as an opera director believing absolutely in the centrality of the work’s music, from the beginning Lindsay was aware of the problem posed by Madame Butterfly’s narrative in terms of cultural and ethical judgement today. Is Pinkerton simply a Yankee bastard? Yes, but the music that comes from his mouth is often irresistibly beautiful and genuinely (at least at the time he sings it) tender and loving. It would be musically impossible to sing much of it simply as a bastard, unless one was prepared to change the orchestra’s notes. His answer (respecting the librettist and composers’intentions) was to make clear Pinkerton’s superficiality and immaturity, his inability to restrain his impulses or foresee the tragic consequences of his behaviour. Unforgivable? Nearly, but perhaps the years-long gap between Act One and Act Two justifies some doubt as to what has happened in the meantime  in this man’s life… enough to hypothesise a possible sincerity in his anguished condemnation of his own actions in Act 3. Some degree of Pardon and Mercy are not impossible. This was Lindsay’s reading, because that was what the music told him. The same thing was true of Sharpless, the aged alcoholic Consul, anguished intermediary between the two lovers, a character Lindsay identified with deeply: also a condemnable and tragic role, and in this production played perfectly and powerfully by the great Italian baritone Antonio Salvadori.

This leads to a quick reflection on the importance of casting for this production: everything was calmly agreed with the producers, who were always willing to suggest singers musically equipped to fit Lindsay’s vision of their dramatic roles… a crucial factor in the production’s success. The Italian conductor Angelo Cavallaro conjured up exquisite textures from the orchestra, and his aristocratic aura never stopped him from participating in the playful but passionate team spirit that Lindsay always spread to every participant onstage or offstage… especially in this case, given the extraordinary number of performances over several years. The Italian-Japanese soprano Mina TascaYamazaki was totally believable as the heroine, in terms of genuine Japanese gestuality and movement, and of rich characterisation and emotional power: Lindsay always searched for performers who were not “acting”, but “being”, and Mina was one of them, especially in this production, where she revelled in the dramatic freedom Lindsay allowed her. We had asked for her to play Cio-cio-san after working with her as Pamina in The Magic Flute in Italy in 1999, and we would later ask for her to play Violetta in La Traviata. Lindsay also admired and was eventually extremely happy with Alfredo Portilla as Pinkerton, Annamaria Popescu as the ever faithful Suzuki and Eduardo Santamaria as the scheming Goro… all of whom responded enthusiastically to Lindsay’s directing skills and to the unusual amount of time he had obtained for their acting/being rehearsals… as well as working on the musicality of their movements. For all such rehearsals, Nuria Moreno – Lindsay’s “leading lady” in his own Company – was again totally invaluable throughout this production as director’s assistant. Other key collaborators were Giuliano Spinelli, the brilliant set designer, and Quico Gutiérrezthe extremely sensitive and creative lighting designer, patient enough to sit through endless lighting rehearsals to accommodate Lindsay’s requests for “More light! We have to see their eyes!” The costume designer, of course, was Lindsay Kemp… ever ready to try out yet another item from his kimono collection.

All of the above, from the beginning until this point, probably fails completely to transmit how special Lindsay’s staging of this opera was, how lovingly and rhythmically every aspect of every moment fitted with the music, whether filled with movement or immobility, through shadows, colours or moonlight, in a constant flow of beauty. Public and critics alike invariably described the continuous fusion of beauty with tragedy, often swept away by the awareness of having experienced a masterpiece. Lindsay had not ‘tried to be original’, but his vision had been filled with poetic inspiration, and had fully ‘come true’. One could take the example of Act One’s wedding scene, its frozen under-lit tableau moments, where only Butterfly and Pinkerton were active, in a pool of light to one side, until the whole stage came to life again. Or the magical sequenceat the beginning of Act Three, seen through tulle, with Butterfly’s dreamlike misty pre-dawn ecstasy at the top of the hill beneath the towering white trees, watching the sails of the distant boat carrying her beloved across the bay and docking in the port; then the dawn advancing, with the geishas in the distance excitedly waiting for their sailor boyfriends and rushing off with them to unknown offstage happy endings. Or Act One’s intimately delicate love duet with its shadow sequence on the paper bedroom walls, which then opened to reveal thestarry climax beneath a breathtaking moon in a vast night sky. Or the Act Two white petal dance, later echoed savagely during Butterfly’s ritual suicide by a burst of blood-red petals falling on her body as the lights faded.

Lindsay’s deep pleasure in creating this production was palpable: hot on the heels of the baroque miracle of The Fairy Queen a few months earlier, his staging of the Italian-Oriental operatic tragedy of Madame Butterfly was one of his greatest creations. 2002 was his peak Opera year… and he just loved it.

N.B. Sic transit gloria mundi…the physical transience of most opera productions has always existed. In the case of Kemp’s Madame Butterfly, after the last shows in 2008 the stunning set and costumes were stored for several years in the storage warehouses of the Palacio de Festivals. During the subsequent economic crisis, around 2011 the Santander administration decided to eliminate the cost of its warehouses and their content. Our friends Roman Calleja and Juan Calzada were no longer in charge of the Palacio, but they asked us if we could help find a zero-cost buyer in Italy, as they were trying to do in Spain. The idea of such beauty being deliberately destroyed seemed unimaginable. Several negotiations came close to succeeding, but eventually time ran out, and alas, the kimonos, props and sets, the faded ocean, the sacks of red petals, the paper lanterns, and the work and creativity of hundreds of people went up in flames and disappeared forever. We shed our tears. At least the photo gallery on this website survives… as long as there are people who willlook at it.

David Haughton


Gallery_1: Programme

Gallery_2: Act 1

Gallery_3: Act 2-3