The Portland Opera opened Madame Butterfly this past weekend. Recently I sat down for a generous and sprightly chat with Caitlin Mathes (the mezzo-soprano who plays Kate Pinkerton) and André Chiang (the baritone who plays Yamidori) at the Portland Opera studios. They told me some surprising things, and tried to shut down some preconceptions about the art form, informing me that opera does not require fancy clothes. Nor is it just for old people (both Mathes and Chiang are in their 20s). Nor is it expensive (or, at least, not always). Madame Butterfly is a period piece, set in the early 20th century, so Chiang and Mathes tried to frame it within the landscape of the current entertainment industry...e.g. television.
A review of the show will appear in the Mercury's forthcoming print issue. Read an excerpt of our Q&A, after the jump.
You mentioned your performances change night to night; I think opera is normally considered something very traditional and staid—I was curious how you insert yourself into the roles.
André Chiang: Well, there are the characters, the Butterflys, the Toscas, the Don Giovannis, who have very distinct attributes to them. But they’re characters. They’re framework. They’re circumstances that you would put yourself in. Nowadays, we’re seeing [more] musical theater influence, more theater directors are now doing operas, and so they’re going at these old staid concepts from completely different angles. Like with us, we’re going to have opportunities to do new takes on these roles. I always feel like, being a young opera singer, I use these allegories, like with old school tennis, with John McEnroe. You watch tennis now, and everyone is moving so much faster.
Caitlin Mathes: How sleek it is!
AC: Everyone is using better equipment. They’re in better shape. Now the matches are these epic, physical grinding rounds. In the golden age of opera, it was all about the golden voices. These voices that were just amazing when you listen to them, but if you watch them, very rarely would you find someone that could touch you visually and aurally. Now as a young singer you’re being forced to progress as a human faster. We’re in a lot of ways needing to be able to touch parts of our psyche that typically you would take longer to nourish. I feel like this is part of the reason that the opera world is so small. There are lots of singers out there, but few of them actually are successful. And it’s because you have to be able to mold everything and still keep who you are as a person, so you’ll be happy.
CM: As far as young opera singers go, there’s been a trend in the last, I dunno, ten years, where opera gets more and more influenced by musical theater. And you have to cross over.
AC: It’s not really as stock as it used to be; it used to have a stock feel to it. If you watch ‘80s recordings at the Met or anything, or you see these things on PBS. You can see why that’s how it should’ve been at that time. You can see how it fit the era, and the country, and how the medium had been growing at the time. Now with these high-def broadcasts, everyone can see an opera in the movie theater if they want to…even though it’s way too expensive—I don’t know WHY it’s so expensive. Also in this particular city, why wouldn’t you try seeing an opera? When you talk about opera and it’s this entirely American thing—where people sit down quietly [and] listen, [whereas] if you see an opera in Italy or somewhere...
CM: People straight up boo.
AC: It’s like a sporting event in a lot of ways. That’s their heritage. It’s like going to a football game. You want to cheer when someone is doing something great. And if someone’s doing something bad, you can boo. I equate seeing opera to going to see a really great drama in general. Sometimes they’re comedies, though they’re not the Judd Apatow comedies...They’re not slapstick. BUT, I would equate them to seeing a good movie. I feel like A Beautiful Mind would be a beautiful opera.
CM: Interview with the Vampire?
CM: The best!
AC: That’s the way I see it; they’re just basically these movies, these dramatic movies.
CM: It’s not in your house. You’re out, and you’re experiencing something new. It’ll be shouted at you. Controlled shouting.
AC: If you’ve seen an opera, even if you didn’t like it, every opera that’s being produced now is basically critically acclaimed. It’s like seeing a best-of of everything. The coolest part is that it’s not just watching Inception over and over again, and knowing exactly what it is. It’s like seeing new people do Inception! The whole time! Who wouldn’t want to see the best of the best, being DONE by the best of the best, in completely different ways.
if you were to put your (Madame Butterfly) characters into reality TV, what would happen?
AC: This one would, be, definitely, a three season, a TWO season show. Pinkerton would be like the Situation. He just kind of does what he wants. He doesn’t have any game—the Situation doesn’t have any game, if you watch that show (Jersey Shore).
CM: Kate (wife of Pinkerton) would maybe be on the Bachelor. She would definitely be one of the super self-absorbed, eyes-shut characters.
AC: Just say it. She’s a bitch.
CM: She’s a bitch. She’s not trying to be!
AC: It’s just how she was raised. My character in the opera is Yamadori. I’m obviously the spoiled rich boy, who usually gets what he wants, but doesn’t get what he wants.
CM: You’d have a small dog.
AC: I’d be the Paris Hilton of this one. It would totally be a three season show, if it followed the plot. You would see the bourgeoning love at the beginning. Then, cut to season 2, and it turns out he (Pinkerton) is GONE for forever. Like, what the crap!
CM: He’s not in season two, and then he just shows up, with his girl.
AC: He did a Dave Chapelle thing! Where he goes off to Africa for three years, and no one knows what happened to him, then comes back, very meagerly, in the second episode.
CM: He sends a tweet.
AC: He’s like, “I messed up! Aww crap.” Turns out she was preggies the WHOLE time. There’s the issue: She was pregnant the whole time. It’d be like a weird Real World situation. With servants and stuff. I could see confessionals happening.
CM: What channel would that be on?
AC: Bravo would definitely carry it. There’s a lot of drama in there.
There's two shows left of Madame Butterfly, this Thursday and Saturday. Tickets are available here, including some for just under $30, and, if you happen to be a student, there are $10 (!) rush tickets available at the box office an hour prior to the show.