Opera isn’t exactly known for taking a minimalist approach to, well, anything, and even within that world, Madama Butterfly certainly doesn’t often see praise for its restraint. One of the most widely seen operas in the world—the seventh most-often produced, worldwide, according to online scorekeeper Operabase—it carries some hurricane-sized expectations of spectacle, as its butterfly wings flap out the doomed, cross-cultural romance between a US naval lieutenant and his Japanese bride.
But for his approach to a classic, director Tim Albery, along with the designers, had other plans.
“One of our first instincts was that it shouldn’t be too pretty all the time,” he says, sitting in the Jubilee’s rehearsal hall. “Because everyone thinks it’s all about blossoms and cherry trees, pretty pretty, and it’ll all be rather charming to look at and lovely. Which is fine, but we decided to make it charming to look at at the points when someone was making a point of being charming. It’s very beautiful, but I think it’s quite austere.”
This is Albery’s third time directing Butterfly, as part of Edmonton Opera’s 50th anniversary season. It’s a remount of a remount of his take on the script, which first appeared back in 2007 and then saw revival in the UK in 2011, garnering rave reviews along its way. Most of that cast is returning, here, and yes, Albery notes, in key moments will come the cherry blossoms and gorgeous colours and picturesque Japan. But only when such things serve the story at hand.
“I don’t like lots of stuff just for the sake of it,” he says. “If you don’t need it for the story, let’s not have it, [that] dressing and furniture. If it’s just sort of there to be nice rather than to get to the heart of the story. I want to find out what’s going on, and let the design support that, rather than detract from that.”
Albery’s certainly a charming conversation: at one point, he takes off mid-interview to go find production photos in another room. He strolls back a few minutes later humming a tune. He’s a bit under the weather, a handful of days away from opening: a flu’s made its way through some of the cast and crew, though thankfully nobody on stage seems to have it at present.
Taking a more minimal approach to the spectacle of the maximal art of opera, he notes, means you end up relying on performers capable of more than just singing all the right notes.
“In this case, we’re lucky: everyone in the group are good performers, not just people who can sing,” he says. “[Anne] Sophie [Duprels, who plays Cio-Cio-San], when we did the final run-through in this room, she was still recovering from not being at all well [from the flu], so she basically didn’t sing—but it was amazing, because she was so committed and so in it. Some of the chorus people who hadn’t seen it [yet], they stayed to watch the end, and they were crying. She wasn’t even bloody singing! But she was very, very intense.”
Sat, Apr 5 (8 pm); Tue, Apr 8 & Thu, Apr 10 (7:30 pm)
Directed by Tim Albery,
Jubilee Auditorium, $40 – $140