It was all the rage in the naughties; the film industry cottoned on to the macabre trend in Japanese horror. The stories of the Heian period (794 – 1185; the last division of classical Japanese history, considered by many to be the pinnacle of the country’s artistic expression) were suddenly terrifying audiences everywhere. For some time, you couldn’t turn a corner without a bedraggled, double-jointed Asian girl crawling from a TV set and chasing you, hair akimbo.
But a hundred or so years before filmmakers began capitalising on Heian folklore, Giacomo Puccini sewed a seed for what has this year become the inspiration for Madama Butterfly – Julia Barbach’s interpretation of the renowned opera.
Part of this summer’s inspired Grimeborn festival – the wonderfully heretical version of operatic old-timer Glyndeboure – the performance was teased to a handful of audiences (not nearly enough!) for 5 nights only at the end of August. It was presented in the depths of the Arcola Theatre, Dalston, in one of their compact studio spaces. The space was made to feel darker, smaller and more unsettling than usual.
“We wanted the audience to be part of it. That’s the beauty of this venue – you’re right there, in it. It’s intense,” explains the music director of the piece, Paul Wingfield. “In a traditional opera house you can be somewhat divorced from the performance. But not with this version. And all credit for that goes to Julia.”
Barbach invited him onto the project having spent time working together at the Royal Opera House where Wingfield spent 2012-2014 contracted as a conductor, part of the Jette Parker Young Artist programme (he’s just 31). Since leaving he has conducted the likes of Carmen for the Mid-Wales Opera and La Grotta di Trofonio for Bampton Classical Opera.
But for Madama Butterfly, Wingfield was repetiteur (he is normally to be found waving the baton). In this performance, he carried the production singlehandedly from behind the piano. In an early review of the piece, Mark Pullinger remarked that “you didn’t miss the orchestra” – quite a compliment and undoubtedly true. Given that Wingfield’s job was to not only provide the skeleton for the cast to add flesh to, but to do so using just one instrument, was this a challenge?
“Musicians need to train, just like athletes do,” he says. “It’s about getting the pacing right so that it sounds big enough. I have to create a wash of sound. More than what’s written. If I simply played what was printed then it would just sound like a piano piece.”
Much like a cook has ingredients, Wingfield’s job on Butterfly was to turn the score into something of a feast. But a bog-standard Victoria Sponge wasn’t enough here. It had to be a Croquembouche. “I go through the score, pin point which bits do what; a score is capable of making an infinite amount of different colours in the hands of the right person,” he explains. It boils down to making the piece more orchestral – which sounds simple enough if you’re a pro. But a piece of this magnitude requires hard graft. Wingfield was sure to know the music in its orchestral form in order to represent it adequately. The colours he speaks of were created, indeed. By upping the base and creating more resonance he became a one-man orchestra.
But while over at the piano it was like a Konica advert from 1995, on stage things were pretty black. While Grimeborn is known for producing lesser-known operas that offer themselves more to obscure interpretation, Madama Butterfly is a die-hard classic. Does this make it riskier to mess around with?
“New music has risks but it also has a cleaner slate as no-one has heard it. It’s scary to put on a piece that everyone knows – a piece with tradition and memory attached to it, like this one. Particularly in opera, where there are strong opinions on concept. Grimeborn is the right place to experience a new take on a classic. People buy into it more. As a musician, it’s exciting to try and win over new audiences in a sector populated with an aging generation.”
Despite a career in the arts that has gone back as far as he was a child, Wingfield had strangely never dealt with Madama Butterfly in his studies or work until this year. In January, he acted as assistant conductor on Raymond Gubbay’s version at the Royal Albert Hall and then fatefully this came along.
“It seemed like a good project to do. And Julia had this exciting new concept for it,” he explains. “Obviously we couldn’t change a note of the music but it was open to interpretation. Butterfly is usually done straight. But there’s this tradition in Japan of revenge ghosts, which lent itself to the story so well.”
In this version, Butterfly is already dead when the opera begins, with the premise swapping between a ghost world from which she is watching, and real-time, which she is experiencing. The performance is a time-loop – the idea that Butterfly is trapped in a purgatorial limbo. When taking their seats, the audience were faced with a scraggly haired, dishevelled Butterfly already on stage, on her knees, almost attacking the floor with a piece of chalk.
“This is a nod to her childishness and to going insane. The chalk tally marks on the floor tells us she is stuck, going around and around and around. She’s a prisoner of her own mind.”
None of this is alluded to in the original story; yet seeing it play out before you doesn’t make you question it. Burbach’s vision made unmitigated and almost painfully obvious sense. Perhaps then, the feel of this piece was never quite right to begin with. When it premiered in 1904 it flopped. Puccini then snatched it back and revised it for re-release three years later. But the supernatural take on it was truly 2015. The setting was candle-lit, childish, chaotic. Paper danced through it as a theme, alluding to frailty and destruction. A string of Japanese lanterns canopied the back of the space, some of them torn and burnt out. Paper cranes hung like a child’s mobile from the rafters. There was a delicacy about the stage, made to feel all the more fragile by the fact that the audience were practically sat on stage with the performers.
“We had a great team,” says Wingfield. “The cast rose to the challenge and it’s such a hard job. Especially for Natasha Jouhl (Madama Butterfly) who remains on stage the entire time, with no chance for a break or a sip of water.” Refreshingly, Wingfield is a musician with a particular zeal for the art form, which made his union with Burbach somewhat of a dream team. “I care about what’s happening on stage. It’s important that there’s an overlap between the drama and the music. I asked Julia if I could be involved in the direction which she welcomed. She’s fast, intense, efficient. Her ideas are brilliant. She actually gave a shit about the acting. The cast were luxury. Everyone got it. It was an exciting rehearsal room.”
This click was evident; and this opera was not just about music and song. It was acted. There was movement, dance almost – which made it all the more ethereal and ghostly. The music, the vocals, the physicality – everything bled into each other. Unlike many, this opera was performed, not simply sung.
The butterfly-in-a-jar allusion screams out at you in this adaptation. But not in a floral, flappy way; it’s sharp and tragic. The piece should have been renamed Madama Moth; the anti-butterfly. The story deals with an array of unsavoury themes, which compliments the darkness of this version. Butterfly is entertained by an American man at the age of 15 (which is a plot-point that hasn’t translated well with time) who she converts to Christianity for. After marriage, she is abandoned by him, and renounced by her Buddhist uncle. She reverts to the guidance of her ancestral gods as a result, rather hypocritically.
Wingfield disagrees that she is a charlatan: “Butterfly is rejected by her lover, renounced by her family and belongs to no-one. I think it’s moving that she reverts.” He retains, however, that she isn’t a sob story. “Puccini makes her non-sympathetic. She can be a bitch. She treats Suzuki terribly. She is manipulative, unpredictable and a complex character in her own right.”
One bold directorial move from Burbach was the absence of a child actor in the part of Butterfly’s son. While this may have worked nicely with the theme (ghostly Japanese children are always an effective scare tactic), the use of a simple white spotlight as a symbol of the boy was incredibly touching. This glow was literally the light of Butterfly’s life.
The tragedy of this opera leaves you slightly icy afterwards; affected. And to Wingfield, this means he has done his job: “I want us to move the audience. When performing I can’t afford to get too personally involved, but it’s a poignant experience. I mustn’t allow myself to experience the emotion we are trying to create, or else I’d be a total wreck.”
Paul Wingfield will work with director Jamie Hayes next month at the Birmingham Conservatoire of Music.
Information regarding the 2016 Grimeborn schedule will be released next year.
By Andrew J. Bullock