Tacoma Opera presents a vintage ‘Madame Butterfly’

‘Madama Butterfly,’ opening at the Pantages, sees a debut soprano on stage and a find of authentic kimonos

Staff writerApril 11, 2014 

Tacoma Opera’s “Madama Butterfly” opens Friday at Pantages Theater.

TACOMA OPERA COURTESY PHOTO, PETER SERKO

On the Pantages stage, in front of latticed screens and painted cherry blossom, Naomi Ruiz stands waiting for a blocking cue. The Port Orchard soprano is excited — it’s her professional debut as Madame Butterfly, the loyal geisha dumped by an American naval officer with tragic results. But in Tacoma Opera’s production of the Puccini opera, the story of what Ruiz is wearing is just as operatic as the notes she’ll be singing.

“(My assistant) Jeffrey Weaver was helping me comb the wigs one night,” says costume designer Frances Rankos, who was preparing to sort out rentals of all the Japanese costumes necessary for an opera with 15 cast roles and a chorus of 12. “Then, out of the blue, Jeffrey suddenly said his partner’s mother used to be a kabuki dancer and he had a lot of kimonos in the garage, and would we like to use them?”

It’s the kind of offer small opera companies like Tacoma dream about. The costumes for “Butterfly” are around $2,500; Tacoma Opera only owns costumes for some operas. Rankos, who has done the opera company’s costumes for 29 years, is used to putting together period costumes from various sources — even sewing her own.

But to have an authentic set of Japanese kimonos, used in the classical Japanese dance-drama called kabuki, was a real gift.

Now hanging on Rankos’ costume rack in a dressing room underneath the Pantages stage are kimono after kimono in that delicate, slightly scratchy Japanese fabric: black with rich gold and orange, cherry and almond blossoms on the bottom, chocolate brown with intricate patterns of ivory squares, turquoise with floating white maple leaves, a tranquil watery gray-blue, a patterned indigo/white and a deep blue with pastel carnations and green tendrils scattered over the shoulder. The collection also includes many obi – the 14-foot-long fabric rectangles that tie a kimono at the waist and which are often the most elaborately decorative – plus underrobes and tabi (toe) socks.

Weaver’s late mother-in-law, Hatsuko Swiney, danced kabuki in her native Okinawa as well as the Lakewood/Tacoma area later in her life. Weaver, a local actor and assistant hair designer for “Butterfly,” is lending the kimonos to Tacoma Opera for the production.

To add to the good timing, singer Karl Marx Reyes, who plays the relentless matchmaker Goro, offered a kimono he’d found some time ago at a Japanese import shop in Seattle. It’s the one Madam Butterfly will wear at her wedding to the feckless officer Pinkerton. Shining like gold lacquer, with pink and blue chrysanthemum blossoms and an obi with brilliant gold geometrics, it falls around Ruiz like a golden waterfall, accentuated by her waist-length black hair.

In keeping with the authentic costumes, Rankos is tying every obi the traditional Japanese style, which can take as long as 10 minutes. The wedding obi is the one exception: Rankos has rigged it with a clip to facilitate a quick change for Ruiz.

The effect — as the cast and chorus form a tableau in front of Carey Wong’s lushly-planted, lattice-screened Japanese set from the company’s last “Butterfly” in 2004 — is stunning, with a garden of colorful parasols blossoming out of the pale woodwork and faux rice paper.

But it’s not just the kimonos that are authentic in this “Butterfly” production. Ruiz herself is bringing years of study, reading and historical research to a role that she’s always dreamed of singing.

“I’ve loved ‘Butterfly’ from the beginning,” says Ruiz, who recalls singing the “Flower Duet” with her mother when they were studying singing at Central Washington University at the same time. Ruiz went on to a master’s degree and performer diploma at Indiana University; since then she’s been landing roles around the country.

But when she landed this role in Tacoma, she brought out the “Butterfly” score her fiance had given her as a birthday present years ago, and started studying: the 1898 short story by John Luther Long, the 1900 stage adaptation by David Belasco that inspired Puccini to write his opera in 1904, as well as the semi-autobiographical 1887 novel “Madame Chrysanthme” by Pierre Loti, and the lives of geisha in general.

What Ruiz found was that Madame Butterfly is more than just a gullible geisha.

“She has faith, love, hope, yes — but she’s also human,” Ruiz says. “There’s something that comes in at the end, a bitterness. And in the book, she has a temper! She has moments of doubt that lead, in the end, to her death. So I’m bringing all that to Butterfly, plus my own soul, a little bit of myself.”

It’s a tough role, one that requires the soprano to be on stage for more than two hours. Ruiz has lost weight in the process, something she’s trying to make up for by eating and drinking plenty and sleeping as much as she can.

She also has a strong cast surrounding her: Seattle tenor Jon Farmer (last seen in Tacoma as Rodolfo in “La Bohme” and Don José in “La Tragedie de Carmen”) as Pinkerton, Barry Johnson (last year’s Major General in “The Pirates of Penzance”) as the hapless U.S. consul Sharpless, and newcomer Sarah Larsen as Butterfly’s maid Suzuki. Denes Van Parys, musical director for opera at the University of Puget Sound, conducts, and Igor Vieria, who last directed “Butterfly” in Ashland, Ore., makes his Tacoma Opera debut.

But even with historical research and vintage costumes, the real passion of this romantic opera lies in the music, Ruiz says.

“I’m doing my very best to respect what Puccini wrote,” she says. “All the drama is there in the score.”

Tacoma Opera

What: “Madama Butterfly” by Giacomo Puccini

Who: Tacoma Opera, directed by Igor Vieria

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Sunday

Where: Pantages Theater, 901 Broadway, Tacoma

Tickets: $14-$88

Information: 253-627-7789, tacoma opera.com, broadwaycenter.org.

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 rosemary.ponnekanti@ thenewstribune.com

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