The most tragic of operatic tragedies, Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is the tale of a 15-year-old geisha in 1904 Nagasaki, Japan. Cio-Cio San (Butterfly) catches the eye of a handsome American naval officer, and in the opera’s first act, they’re married in an elaborate, traditional ceremony outside the home he purchased for her high atop a mountain. She is accompanied by dozens of well-wishing relatives; it’s all flowers and rainbows.
Ah, but things go downhill from there – story-wise – as Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton has no intention of remaining loyal to his bride, or of remaining in Japan. He’s a lusty fellow, full of braggadocio and lies, and his deception leads to … well, it’s not good.
Madama Butterfly is closing out the season for St. Petersburg Opera Company, at the Palladium Theater; there are shows tonight (June 25), Friday and Sunday.
“It’s endured as one of the most popular operas of all time,” says artistic director Mark Sforzini, who conducts the orchestra for each performance. “Puccini is a master of melody, and a master of musical composition, and of tying the work together in a unified whole.”
The composer, Sforzini adds, incorporated nearly a dozen traditional Japanese folk songs into the score. “But he’s also the great composer of Italian grand opera. So he’s combining those two things into such an interesting and unique final product.”
Tenor Samuel Hall finds singing and acting the role of Pinkerton “a challenge, because he’s one of the most hated characters in opera. Because he’s so oblivious at the beginning, and so flippant. He just doesn’t seem to view Butterfly or even her relatives as real people. The whole thing to him is a caricature.”
When the naïve Butterfly renounces the Buddhist religion, and begins to practice Christianity to “please her husband,” she is renounced by her family. Soon after, Pinkerton gets back on his warship and sails away, promising to return. Three years later, he does. With a “proper” American wife at his side.
“For me, that’s a real 180 from my own personality,” Hall says. “So it’s been a real interesting challenge to try to get inside his head, and make him a three-dimensional character. As opposed to just playing him as not a nice guy.
“They say that no character believes they’re the villain in their own story. He has to believe ‘No, it’s no big deal. This is just what they do in Japan; she’ll get over it. It’s not a big thing.’”
For Russia-born soprano Zoya Gramagin, Butterfly is also a demanding role. “I’m not on the stage for the first 15 minutes, maybe,” she explains. “And there’s 10 minutes in the third act where they sing without me – but the opera is like a big marathon. I’m onstage almost the whole show. It’s a long distance run.”
Gramagin, who’s lived with her husband in the New York metro area since 2008, had all but given up on singing and spent her earliest years in America studying for, and receiving, an MBA.
But music had been her first and greatest love in Russia, and after a few years in marketing and finance she grew weary of business, and was accepted into the Mannes School of Music. She made her Carnegie Hall debut in 2015. Madama Butterfly is her first appearance with St. Pete Opera.
Similarly, after two years of study at the Eastman School of Music, Sam Hall put music on a back burner and had a 21-year career as an IT tech in his native Columbus, Ohio. On a whim – or was it? – he auditioned for a local “Opera Idol” competition and reached the semifinals. And suddenly, singing opera began to look like a lot more fun that tinkering with computers.
He sang with numerous Ohio opera companies, worked with the Sarasota Opera Apprenticeship Program and played the lead role in Faust with St. Pete Opera in 2017.
Along the way, Hall and his wife bought a house in Pinellas County. “That’s when I quit my day job,” he says. “Financially, it was a terrible decision. But there’s so much more in this world than finances. And I have never been happier.”
Tickets and info here.