With 'Madame Butterfly,' opera takes wing again for the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera

With 'Madame Butterfly,' opera takes wing again for the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera

March 19th, 2017 by Barry Courter in Life Entertainment

Shannon Kessler Dooley, right, plays Madame Butterfly and Willa Grace Hansard plays her son Sorrow during a rehearsal in the Read House's Terrace Ballroom for the Chattanooga Symphony and Opera's production of Madame Butterfly on Wednesday, March 15, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

Gallery: With 'Madame Butterfly,' CSO reminds patrons the 'O' is for 'Opera'

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If you go

* What: CSO presents “Madame Butterfly.”

* When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 23 and Saturday, March 25.

* Where: Tivoli Theatre, 709 Broad St.

* Admission: $25-$125.

* Phone: 423-267-8583.

* Website: www.chattanoogasymphony.com.

Coming up

Read more about the CSO’s production of “Madame Butterfly” in Thursday’s ChattanoogaNow section.

* Bob Bernhardt, CSO conductor

* Shannon Kessler Dooley as title character Cio-Cio-san

* Eric Fennell as U.S. Navy Lt. B.F. Pinkerton

* Levi Hernandez as U.S. ambassador Sharpless

* Jason DuRoy, rehearsal accompanist

 

When it comes to staging an opera such as "Madame Butterfly," there are obvious considerations. You'll need an orchestra, some singers who can also act, some costumes, someone to conduct and one or two people to make the sets and handle the lighting.

But there are many more things to consider. You'll need a place for the out-of-town technicians and artists to stay, and they'll need transportation and places to eat for perhaps up to three weeks. You'll also need a place to rehearse, preferably a space that is available all day, every day and one that is as big as the actual stage where it will be presented.

You'll need makeup, of course, a seamstress, a set builder, vaporizers, a first-aid kit for everything from blisters to cuts to scrapes, guys to load equipment and sets in and out, a director, someone to make sure the speakers in the dressing rooms are operating properly, and well, you get the idea.

"I started planning for this two years ago," says Kathy Allison, operations manager with the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera.

The CSO is staging two presentations of Giacomo Puccini's 1904 masterpiece "Madame Butterfly" this week.

It's the first grand opera to be presented here since the CSO did Puccini's "La Bohème" in 2009. That presentation was also the last staged grand opera for Bob Bernhardt, music director emeritus of the CSO.

It Takes Money

The CSO and Bernhardt didn't stop doing opera because it wasn't popular. It was because the other thing you really need to produce an opera of the size and grandeur of "Butterfly" is money — lots of money — and the country went into a recession about eight years ago.

"The thing that got us this back is the thing that made it go away when the recession hit us," says Bernhardt.

"The dollar. You need the dollar."

Even while opera productions were straining the CSO's finances eight years ago, fans were filling up the Tivoli's seats.

"That's true — the seats were good, but the cost was so high," Bernhardt says.

"My contention then was that they were the most multigenerational shows that we did. Teenagers were there on dates, and our longtime donors came. But even I couldn't argue against the financial strain of staging them."

For this opera, the CSO has raised about $66,000 in additional funds through a $30,000 anonymous donation and another $36,000 through monies from digital marketing company Prime Communicator, the William Montague Performing Arts Fund and the newly formed Opera Ambassadors Program.

The Opera Ambassadors Program is designed to raise funds and awareness for the medium. Funds are generated by asking donors to give an extra $500 earmarked for future operas on top of their regular donation to the CSO.

Even with that extra money, Bernhardt says, it "will be the greatest feat in the history of finance if we break even."

So, if staging an opera is so expensive to the point of not being financially viable, why do them, one might ask. Fans of operas contend they are an important art form that combines everything good about theater.

Operas, when done well, have everything, says Shannon Kessler Dooley. She is singing the lead role of Cio-Cio-san in "Butterfly." She currently lives in Wilmington, N.C., and was in Pittsburgh before that. She performs around the country several times a year.

"Opera has something for everyone," she says.

"The sheer power of the voice, unamplified, is amazing. And the stories Puccini is still around because it's very accessible."

Dooley does a lot of outreach with children and often tells them, "Even if you don't like the singing, you can find something. If you like sewing, the costumes are stunning. If you like shopping, there is set design and you can be a set master."

It Takes Time

The CSO began planning this production almost two years ago when it became clear funds might become available. It takes that long to get singers contracted, find costumes and sets, which are being rented for this show, and figure out the logistics of everything from getting sets on and off stage to where and when people will enter and exit.

Allison says among other things, she has gone through stored inventory of old costumes, makeup and sets to see what is still usable.

"Makeup has a shelf life," she says.

She says the Read House has provided rooms for the seven visiting cast and crew members, as well as its Terrace Ballroom for a rehearsal space. In the past, rehearsals were held in the basement of Memorial Auditorium. The Read House is closer to the Tivoli, and the two-block walk is more convenient, she says.

In all, the production will involve about 110 people, including 12 tech, 25 chorus members, 20 vocalists, 50 musicians and another 10 or more set, costume and makeup people.

"Opera is a feast for the senses, but it comes at a cost," Allison says.

It Takes Organization

Directing is Helena Binder, a Vermont resident originally from New York. She has been here since March 3 working on the production. On Tuesday, she was inside the Read House, staging the opera's climactic final scene with Bernhardt, Dooley, rehearsal accompanist Jason DuRoy and Eric Fennell, who sings the role of Lt. B.F. Pinkerton, Cio-Cio-san's American love interest.

As Bernhardt nibbled on a sticky bun while conducting with a pencil instead of a baton, director Binder and Dooley, who is in a kimono while everyone else is in street clothes, went over everything from where to stand, how fast to walk and on which beat things should happen. Even with the lighthearted mood in the room, the tragic scene, which we won't give away for those unfamiliar with the story, is still extremely emotional and powerful.

Binder has directed "Butterfly" eight times in the last 20 years and once earlier this year, she says. Each production is different because of the cast, the venue and the set, but she says she does them all in a traditional Japanese style. Some operas are updated or altered when it comes to costuming, setting, even time and place.

Binder has a strong background in kabuki theater and uses elements of it in the plays she produces. She and Bernhardt were college classmates and have worked together several times over the years. In fact, she directed "La Bohéme" here in 2009.

"Butterfly" will be sung in Italian with supertitles. Binder says the dialogue is more straightforward than in some operas and therefore easier to follow.

It Takes Heart

"Madame Butterfly" is the story of a Japanese girl who marries an American soldier. When she announces she has converted to Christianity to please her new husband, she is outcast by her family. Then she is almost immediately abandoned by her husband when he returns to America. Three years later, he returns with his new wife to take home the child Cio-Cio has borne him.

Dooley says she has done "Butterfly" four times, but that it has taken on new meaning since having a child of her own.

"It is easier to understand the sacrifice that Cio-Cio makes now," she says. "It's not just theory. It's very real. What wouldn't you do for your child?"

For Bernhardt, that is what makes this such a powerful opera.

"It's why I love it so much. It is completely human. Everything about it is human."

Contact Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6354.