August 18, 2014
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Edmonton Opera celebrates its 50th year with Madama Butterfly

Michael Vecchio
Gateway Writer
Apr 02, 2014

Madama Butterfly
Presented by the Edmonton Opera
Directed by Tim Albery
Music by Giacomo Puccini, Libretto by L. Illica and G. Giacosa; sung in Italian with English supertitles
Starring Anne Sophie Duprels, Luciano Ganci and John Fanning
Runs Saturday, April 5 at 8 p.m., Tuesday, April 8 and Thursday, April 10 at 7:30 p.m.
Jubilee Auditorium (11455 87 Ave.)
Tickets $40 – $145 at tixonthesquare.ca

Fifty years ago, Giacomo Puccini’s iconic Madama Butterfly graced the stage at the Edmonton Opera as the first production in their premiere season. Half a century later, the production is back, and 50 years of singing are celebrated in a nostalgic return to the company’s historic
inception.

From its humble origins in October 1963, Edmonton Opera has grown into one of the leading opera companies in Canada, attracting singers of international acclaim to star in its productions. While the company itself is still young, its presence in Edmonton is a testament both to the popularity of opera and the dedication of those who brought the art form to Alberta’s capital.

“Fifty years is all relative, it’s a blink of an eye really in history. But it’s been a labour of love from the beginning to continue the operatic tradition in Edmonton,” Tim Yakimec, General Manager of Edmonton Opera, says.

Though the performance of opera has a long and storied international history, it has, like most art forms, fought to stay relevant. To some, opera may seem stuffy, intended only for socialites and hardly relevant to contemporary audiences when much of it was written more than 200 years ago. But Yakimec insists it’s all a matter of perspective.

“I don’t think that stuffy opera exists — there can be a version of that, (but) it depends on how you approach it. I think opera is always relevant because if you go for the truth, there’s that shared connection,” he says. “If you approach the work or production in a truthful manner to make that connection happen, I don’t think it’s really stuffy. It’s about getting past that first perception.”

Certainly the first 50 years of Edmonton Opera has been about establishing that connection and breaking down negative perceptions, which the company will continue to do with Madama Butterfly, one of the most popular and frequently performed operas in the world. Unlike earlier works of opera which were often based on mythology or some moral religious setting, Puccini’s operas dealt with more realistic, gritty scenarios and characters that are easy to identify with. If presenting opera in a truthful manner is important to connect with the audience, then surely Puccini’s masterpiece is just the work to do so.

Written in 1904 and based on the short story Madama Butterfly by John Luther Long, the opera tells the story of B.F. Pinkerton, a lieutenant in the US Navy stationed in Japan. It’s there he meets and falls in love with a young geisha named Cio-Cio San, whom he calls Butterfly. Despite a proposal and eventual marriage, Pinkerton regards their romance as a temporary fling and leaves Butterfly behind upon returning to America. Three years later, Pinkerton returns to Japan to a heartbroken Butterfly, who’s been anxiously awaiting his return all while raising their child on her own. With an American wife on his arm, the Lieutenant attempts to take possession of their child, leaving Butterfly to make a heart-wrenching and tragic decision.

For director Tim Albery, who comes to Edmonton after previously producing this production in London, Madama Butterfly has a mass appeal not necessarily found in other operas — not solely because of its story of love and heartbreak, but also because of its music.

“(Puccini) writes incredibly approachable music that isn’t difficult in the way that Wagner or Verdi (are) acquired tastes,” Albery explains. “This is full on, in-your-face music that you can immediately go with — you don’t have to have any knowledge of classical music to say, ‘This is really wonderful.’ ” 

Puccini, who lived from 1858 to 1924, stands as one of the greatest operatic composers the world has ever seen, and his melodies and arias are widely celebrated and known to nearly all, even those who don’t attend the opera.

“Puccini was an incredible showman,” Albery says. “His skill in writing was amazing. The little twists and turns in his operas are so well thought through and he has a real flare for telling a story in a really clever theatrical way, yet it’s still quite honest. He probably would be writing musicals if he were alive.”

But once Edmonton Opera’s anniversary production of Madama Butterfly is finished, what does the future of Edmonton Opera and opera in general hold? Yakimec and Albery agree it’s difficult to foresee where exactly a constantly evolving art form like opera will head, but Albery is optimistic about the company’s future.

“Live performance will never die. Whether we’ll still be watching opera in 50 years time, who knows, but I think we’ll still be performing live and having that shared experience of seeing theatre live. It doesn’t have to be an endless recycling of 19th century repertoire. We can say that this art form (opera) has a future now in the present.”

If the last 50 years are any indication, then there’s much to look forward to when it comes to seeing high calibre opera performances in Edmonton. Madama Butterfly will rightfully serve as the crown for the past 50 years of great seasons that have enriched Edmonton’s art scene, as well as an excellent introduction for those who have yet to experience the powerful narrative of the opera.

“When I was offered to direct an opera for the first time, I had only ever been once and it was pretty terrible,” Albery says with a laugh. “But eventually I became inveigled with it and loved it and I think the same thing happens with audiences. It’s often just that first step that people need to make.”

There’s certainly no better time to take that first step than with Puccini’s masterwork.



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