Over the course of two performances this weekend, one of Cliff Baker’s longtime wishes for the Arkansas Repertory Theatre will be fulfilled: to put a fully orchestrated opera on the Rep stage. In a collaboration between The Rep, Opera in the Rock and the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, Puccini’s 1904 masterpiece tragedy “Madama Butterfly” will go up 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 17, and 2:30 p.m. Sun., May 19, with Francesca Mondanaro as Cio-cio San, Daniel Foltz-Morrison as Pinkerton, Sarah Stankiewicz Dailey as Suzuki and Theodor Carlson as Sharpless.
We talked with OITR Executive Director Kate Sain and OITR Board Chair Josh Price ahead of the opera’s two-performance run. Get tickets here.
You all are dedicating this show to Cliff Baker, the late founder of the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, and someone who was instrumental in elevating the arts scene as a whole in Arkansas. What’s the connection of OITR’s “Butterfly” to Cliff’s legacy?
Initial meetings about OITR’s possible partnership with the Arkansas Repertory Theatre had been in the works since well before our 2018-19 season was set. Cliff had expressed to us that one of his initial dreams for The Rep’s space was to produce opera. He had a love and appreciation for all types of theater and believed utilizing it for opera would be an intimate and amazing opportunity for Arkansans. He was instrumental in helping make this production of “Madama Butterfly” a reality and it only made sense to dedicate it to his memory.
Opera in the Rock’s productions have been an exercise in spotlighting local talent — and, some would say, proof that hiring locally doesn’t mean compromising the quality of the singing. This show is certainly no exception. Tell us about the Arkansas residents (or Arkansas-connected folks) in this cast.
There is exceptional talent here in Arkansas, and it is important to both nurture and feature these artists to bring benefits both to Arkansas and to the individuals themselves. The majority of our cast is either Arkansas native or closely connected through either school or family. The role of Pinkerton is being played by Daniel Foltz-Morrison who went to UA Little Rock to pursue his master’s degree. Other local talents include Tania Kelly, a 15-year-old Little Rock Central High School student who is debuting her first operatic role with Opera In The Rock. Even the role of The Registrar is being played by Stephen Ray, a Ouachita Baptist University graduate and Grand Finalist of the 2008 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.
Mea culpa: In the May issue of the Arkansas Times, we noted incorrectly that “Butterfly” had piano accompaniment by Gio Antipolo. In fact, the two performances will feature full orchestration from the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra. That’s some heavy lifting, financially and otherwise, and marks a first for The Rep. What is it about Puccini’s music that demands this treatment, for you, and how did you set about putting it all together?
Gio Antipolo has been an incredible accompanist for the rehearsal process and we are grateful to him for sharing his skills with OITR! However, this landmark production will feature the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra conducted by Geoffrey Robson. OITR received a grant from The John and Robyn Horn Foundation which enabled us to present “Madama Butterfly” with a full orchestra. This grant meant that we could work with the ASO, which then motivated us to find a space that would provide an intimate setting for a beautiful and landmark operatic production for the Arkansans we serve. “Madama Butterfly,” in particular, brings with it a unique and brilliant score that necessitates full orchestration. The Japanese influence on Puccini’s orchestration requires unusual items, like gongs and chimes, that intensify the colors used in the orchestration and make it pertinent to the storyline. Geoff was instrumental in making sure we had the authentic percussion elements, and with the orchestra on stage, it will be incredibly interesting to watch the musicians at work together with the cast to bring the story to life.
For fans of opera, the timelessness and transformative qualities of Puccini’s music are probably evident, but I want to ask about the choice of this particular opera. Why is a story set in Nagasaki in 1904 important in 2019?
Relevance is something that OITR continues to strive for in Central Arkansas. Ultimately, opera, like all theater, is about telling a story. This particular libretto carries with it a type of historical and dramatic relevance to all people in 2019. The emotional connection we feel with the characters in this opera evokes an active pathos in audience members that echos real human relationships. Theater is an experiential art form that utilizes plots to elicits thoughts, explores emotions and awakens the senses. The historical context of this opera is especially pertinent to Arkansans because of the Japanese internment camps that were once located in Southeast Arkansas and in use until 1945. Forgetting this type of historical injustice spells disaster for future generations. Bringing this type of historical context to the forefront means moving toward a more enlightened and invested audience. This production promises to connect and engage audiences on a variety of levels through both human connection and historical perspective.