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Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre giving audience favorite 'Madama Butterfly' new life

Scott Olinger's scenic design reflects the spirit of Japan for #x201c;Madama Butterfly.#x201d; Cedar Rapids Opera Theatr
Scott Olinger’s scenic design reflects the spirit of Japan for “Madama Butterfly.” Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre and Orchestra Iowa musicians are bringing Puccini’s masterpiece to the Paramount Theatre stage in Cedar Rapids on Friday evening (1/17) and Sunday afternoon (1/19). (Scott Olinger/Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — The horrors and harmonies of “Madama Butterfly” are like “catnip” to modern audiences, conductor Daniel Kleinknecht said.

Puccini’s tragic love story is coming to the Paramount Theatre stage Friday evening (1/17) and Sunday afternoon (1/19) under the artistry of Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre and Orchestra Iowa.

Set in Japan early in the 20th century, it’s the tale of a young geisha, Cio-Cio-san, meaning “Butterfly,” who falls in love and prepares to marry an American naval officer, Lt. B.F. Pinkerton.

She gives up everything to marry him — even converting to Christianity, much to the disdain of her family. But Pinkerton is entering into a sham union with Butterfly, intent on marrying an American woman when he returns home. His heartless actions trigger a series of sorrows that end in tragedy — and one of opera’s most beloved, heartbreaking arias.

Audience members would be well-advised to take tissues.

“It’s one of those pieces that means a lot to me,” said Kleinknecht, of Coralville, the opera theater’s founder and artistic director. “It’s so well-written. The plight of Cio-Cio-san always speaks to me, and it just reminds us of our humanity at a time when we’re in a cool land of culture and of civilization right now. It’s one of the darkest periods I’ve ever lived through, and especially at times like this, I think we need to be reminded of how important it is to be good citizens, good human beings.

“We see an example of what not to be in this opera, in the role of Pinkerton. We also see what it means to be a totally openhearted person,” he said.

... That’s the value of good art — it reflects our humanity — and this piece does it more than just about any other piece in the repertoire.”

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It’s the fourth time the local opera theater has mounted “Madama Butterfly,” with previous productions in 2000, 2006 and 2009.

“The fact that even though it was written over 100 years ago, it has those themes that weave back into contemporary life,” Kleinknecht said. “ ... We can’t help but to be drawn to those over-displays of emotions that it has — that juxtaposition between the horror of the story and the beauty of the music. ...

“It’s almost like catnip for human beings. It’s something we find pleasurable and sorrowful at same time,” he said. “It makes us think and it makes us cry, and it makes us cry in public — and those are good experiences. Those are things we really long for as human beings. We cry with others in the presence of others, and that doesn’t happen very often.”

This production features a multicultural cast, and Kleinknecht said the focus will be on the universality of the situations.

“We’re trying to take the singers as they are now, who they are now,” he said.

Kleinknecht traveled to New York last April in search of his principal performers. There he found lyric soprano Yulia Lysenko, a native of Ukraine, now living with her husband and young daughter in Austin, Texas.

“What I heard in her voice was an ability to have a strong power, an ability to sing full, but also an ability to float the high notes in a very pianissimo way,” he said. “When I can find a singer who can do that, it’s very special. She just has all that. She has the power, she has the control.

“The fact that she had done the role meant a lot to me, because it’s a Butterfly vehicle, and the Butterfly has to be able to do it all,” he said, “and I didn’t want to take the chance on it being somebody’s first. She just sang the heck out of her audition and was available, so we got her.”

Because a child plays into the story’s tragic element, Lysenko said she wanted to wait in adding the role to her repertoire until she had a child of her own, believing that real-life experience would intensify her understanding of the role.

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“The hardest part is the last aria,” she said. “I can do it just once (in a rehearsal). If I really feel it, I will cry, and I can’t sing it again.”

She and her husband, a musical conductor, came to the United States in 2017 for the sake of their daughter, now 6. They wanted to flee the unrest in their homeland, to give their child a better, more comfortable life than she might have had there. The move was hard. The couple worried that it could be difficult for two professional musicians to find work here, so Lysenko’s husband changed his focus to information technology.

“Now I think it was the right step,” Lysenko said.

Jeremy Brauner, a tenor from Jersey City, N.J., is portraying Pinkerton.

“He’s probably the only one who doesn’t think he’s bad, until the very end,” Brauner said with a laugh. “He’s detestable.”

A child of privilege, Pinkerton is emboldened by that, said Brauner, who is debuting the role and making his first appearance with the Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre.

“(Pinkerton) comes from a military family and probably didn’t have to think for himself,” Brauner said. “His whole life has been laid out for him, and he’s very entitled, and not necessarily respectful of other people’s cultures. Everyone should pretty much bend to him. It’s very timely.”

He’s relishing the chance to play a villain, an opportunity not often afforded to tenors, he noted.

“Puccini writes beautiful music, especially for tenors and sopranos,” he said. “In addition to the music, it’s an acting piece. How do you embody somebody that is the villain, but in his mind doesn’t think he’s a villain? ...

“It’s a timeless story. It’s honest, it’s heartbreaking,” he said. “It really is a gift to be able to play this character — not just the music, but the substance of his story arc, because at the end, he does realize his remorse. It’s too late, and it’s utterly heartbreaking, and I’m sure it just ruins the rest of his life.”

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Kelly Hill, a mezzo-soprano originally from Bettendorf, now a doctoral student at the University of Iowa, is thrilled to return to the Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre. She began that relationship as one of the troupe’s Young Artists, and is now stepping into the role of Butterfly’s attendant, Suzuki, a part she understudied 10 years ago with the local company.

“I’ve come full circle now, being able to perform the role,” she said.

While traditionally, Suzuki can be played as an older, more maternal figure for the young Butterfly, Hill and Lysenko are both in their 30s, so Hill is enjoying finding the common ground between the two female characters.

“What we’re hoping to explore, with (the director’s) inspiration and instruction, is ... this unit, this bond between Butterfly and Suzuki ... the bond between two women who are now fending for themselves.

“Even though there is a difference in class between the two of them, there is mutual respect and understanding and love and camaraderie,” she said.

The support Suzuki gives Butterfly transcends the actions of a maid, who might merely tend to the props and Butterfly’s appearance.

“I so much enjoy being able to be onstage in a role where I can help send my energy with my stage presence and with the energy of the reactions I can give my counterparts while they’re shouldering more of the musical responsibility,” Hill said. “It’s actually fun. It gives me the opportunity to play more.”

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

GET OUT!

• What: Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre, with Orchestra Iowa, presents “Madama Butterfly”

• Where: Paramount Theatre, 123 Third Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids

• When: 7:30 p.m. Friday (1/17) and 2 p.m. Sunday (1/19)

• Tickets: $19 to $69; Paramount Ticket Office, (319) 366-8203 or paramounttheatrecr.com; half-price student tickets available only by phone or at the ticket office,

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• Extra: Discussion with Stage Director A. Scott Parry one hour before each performance in the Paramount’s Encore Lounge

• Details: cropera.org

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