Calgary Opera premières new look for Madame Butterfly

Lights and Japanese shoji screens bring intimacy to tragic story

It’s a well-recognized fact that theatrical productions — whether plays dance theatre or operas — are collaborative efforts. While the onstage performers get the applause they would have no place to stand and receive their accolades were it not for the efforts of the artistic team behind them.

Calgary Opera has hired lighting designer Harry Frehner who has illuminated dozens of its shows and set designer Bretta Gerecke for an all-new production of Madame Butterfly . The Puccini classic tells the story of the geisha Cio-Cio-San (Sally Dibblee) who marries an American Navy officer Lt. Pinkerton (David Pomeroy) with tragic results.

Needless to say creating a new production is an expensive endeavour. “It costs a lot of money to fill that stage with interesting stuff. Nobody has the funds to do a new show every show. You have to figure out what serves your audience best” says Frehner of a company’s decision to create a new production versus renting sets and costumes from previous North American productions.

In a rare scenario for Calgary Opera Madame Butterfly is actually its second new production this year coming on the heels of The Flying Dutchman — that show was supposed to use a rented set but a last-minute change of plans necessitated an original production.

Calgary Opera last staged Madame Butterfly in 2001 using a version that is still available on the rental circuit. “We can’t do that production because everyone has seen it” says Frehner.

Hence a completely new one which as Gerecke explains they hope will have a rental life beyond its première at Calgary Opera. “That’s always the goal” she says adding that her contract requires her to create a set that will fit into a certain number of trucks so it can be transported across the continent. Frehner says the productions that are most popular are the ones that fit into one or two trucks — in fact a particular production was taken out of the running for Calgary Opera’s upcoming season because the fees associated with bringing five trucks to Calgary were too high.

One thing that helps economize space is the contemporary North American aesthetic. Audiences are no longer looking for the traditional “wing-and-drop” sets which involve pieces of scenery on either side of the stage that are painted in such a way to look three dimensional while upstage between the wings hangs a giant elaborately painted backdrop.

While Gerecke says Italian opera houses still use those sets North American productions have “shifted” to more minimalist stagings. For Madame Butterfly she researched Japanese architecture and landscape at the beginning of the 20th century. The set is raked sloping upstage from the audience and incorporates traditional Japanese shoji screens which can be reconfigured to enhance the intimacy of a scene. “Where a camera would zoom in on a two-person shot we do it with lights and screens” explains Frehner.

Gerecke makes a “conservative” estimate that she and director Glynis Leyshon considered a dozen different avenues before settling upon the final design. “There’s a lightness about this set. There’s a floating quality which reflects the world of the geisha” says Gerecke.

However in order to come to life the set needs the hand of a lighting designer. “When it’s not lit it’s just architecture. When it’s lit it will glow and animate in a completely different way” she says.

Frehner says to illuminate the set he employed a concept he learned while lighting dance productions. “In dance you light the air. You don’t see it you don’t feel it until someone’s in the space. This is in Butterfly as well” he explains.

In general he uses between 300 and 500 lights for an opera production which requires anywhere from 100 to 300 lighting cues most of which are never evident to an audience.

“My job is to help the audience see where to look” he says. “We’re there as very strong support in helping the audience get into the show.”

Essentially his role is to put others in the spotlight while remaining behind the scenes. As a lighting colleague once told him: “Nobody goes home humming the lighting.”