Puccini: The final frontier

All right, let’s just get this out of the way: John de Lancie, who directs the San Antonio Opera’s season-opening production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, portrayed the evil “Q” in several different iterations of the Star Trek franchise. And, sure, he’s set his Butterfly on a volcano 1,000 years in the future. But make no mistake: This veteran actor, writer, director, and producer is the son of a virtuoso symphony oboist and a frequent lecturer on classical composers and their works in association with the Pasadena Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He is nowhere near out of his depth, nor is he caught up in some sort of sci-fi gimmick. So sorry, Trekkies, and rejoice, people who love opera but are a little intimidated by it. Mr. de Lancie’s opus promises theatrical surprises, but falls squarely on Puccini’s universal love story.

So `the production` is set in the future —

Well, it’s set in the future, but it’s not about the future. It’s a love story. And if you figure that Puccini is telling a story about a sailor who comes into a port and boffs the young girl and then takes off … well, we know that story. And that story could be told in any port city in the world. OK, he chose Japan, because Japan was sexy a hundred years ago … and that makes sense. `Puccini` was a showman, and Japan was very exotic. But a World War, an atomic bomb, a billion Japanese cars and television sets, and a sushi restaurant in every town, and it’s not so exotic anymore. This left me thinking, well, how do I get back this sense of exoticism? Because it has `Pinkerton, the male lead` looking around in wonder, amazed at how different, how strange, how fabulous everything is, how exotic all these people are. And in the traditional show, in the first 90 seconds on the traditional set, `Pinkerton` is saying, “But where do I live? Where do I sleep?” And there’s a little teahouse there, and they slide the doors back, and he’s amazed, and this `Japanese architecture` was very new back then. But then, so you’ve got this wall that slides back here, and the other one there, but everything just stays like that for the rest of the show. And that’s dramatically

So how do you get around it?

OK, so I said I want a clean slate. I realized I could do this with lights … set in this sort of volcanic, “other” landscape. So there are these two men who appear at the beginning, and `Pinkerton` says, “Where do I live? Where is my house?” And bzzzzt, here’s one section, lit. And he says “Where do I meet people?” and bzzzt, here another part of this landscape is revealed. And in this way, the characters and the audience come to realize this is a magical place.

So instead of a hundred years ago this notion of the exoticness of Japan being that it was a thousand miles away, now you’ve introduced this element where the exotic landcape comes from it being a thousand years from now. It’s time instead of distance.

Absolutely, absolutely. And what this allows me to do, what this allows the actors to do, is to story-tell. See, with many of these performers, who are wonderful, by the way, and `Principal Guest Conductor, Enrique Patron de Rueda`, many of them have done Butterfly a hundred times. They’re used to a fairly stylized operatic presentation, right? They tell me, “Well, and when this aria comes, I cross here, and I rest my hand on my knee, and I always gesture like this,” and I’ve had to tell them, no, no, no! Loosen it all up and relate to each other. Serve. The. Story. What I do, as a director, is to create moments. The moment when Butterfly realizes that `Pinkerton` has come back, after her three years of waiting, and then realizes but it’s not for her … `pauses, sighs, shakes his head` … that’s what’s so important for me. It’s been a very emotional rehearsal process, as a result.

It’s such a sad story.

Oh! It’s so sad! And every person in that audience can feel the deep sadness of that, should connect to the depth of the loss. It’s such a beautiful human experience to have.

There have been retellings of Madama Butterfly in recent years … for example M. Butterfly, which deals with two leads of the same gender, in which Butterfly is male. Or re-imaginings of the story through the lens of post-colonialism or ruminating on —

Sure, sure, like as a dramatization of Imperialism, for example. Sure.

Right. Where does your interpretation fall, with regards to politics, cultural preoccupations, that kind of thing?

This comes back to how I direct actors, see; again, we are in service to the story. You know, what I’ve tried to get actors to look at within each scene is, ”What the hell do you want? What does the character want?” And I’ve certainly been involved in productions … a director will say, “You symbolize this or the other abstract thing,” and I thought, ”But that isn’t what `Arthur` Miller wrote, he wrote this dialogue! I’ve got these lines and this character to work with.” You know … `acting` has to come from desire. A character may want social justice, or whatever, but in this scene, he just wants to get into her pants!

So yours is more a visceral approach.

Absolutely. You can’t act “Apartheid.” `laughs` You can act desire, anger, wonder, sadness, desperation, wanting.

What would you like the audience to come away with, from this production?

I want them to have come out of themselves, I want them to have been immersed in these human, relatable, emotional moments.

And what would you like them to know before they go in?

It’s not a Star Trek episode!


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