September 24, 2006


Madama Butterfly Is Ready for Her Close-Up (MATTHEW GUREWITSCH, 9/24/06, NY Times)

At 52 [Anthony Minghella, the Oscar-winning director of “The English Patient,] claims to have the metabolism of a tortoise, meaning that he moves slowly. Decades ago, when he first to came to London as a young playwright, his friend and landlord David Parry, a conductor, was already pressuring Mr. Minghella to put his mind to opera. Nearly a year ago Mr. Parry got his wish when the English National Opera in London unveiled the Minghella “Butterfly.” (Mr. Parry conducted. Monday night, James Levine will do the honors. All later Met performances are to be conducted by Asher Fisch.)

The timing of the project fell just right for Mr. Gelb, who as president of the Sony Classical label released the soundtrack of Mr. Minghella’s film “The Talented Mr. Ripley” in 1999.

“When I was appointed in the fall of 2004,” Mr. Gelb said recently in his incompletely renovated office, “Anthony sent me an e-mail congratulating me. I wrote back saying, ‘When will you do your first opera with us?’ And he wrote back, ‘I am doing my first opera.’ ”

As it happened, Mr. Minghella had started down this same road with the London company before, only to withdraw in dismay at the realities of opera casting.

“In the movies I would have been auditioning Japanese teenagers,” he said, “but no teenager can sing ‘Butterfly.’ ” Yet, as he came to realize, the inherent make-believe of opera leaves the door wide open for theatrical invention. In the boldest stroke of his production, he cast the silent role of Trouble, Butterfly’s little son by Pinkerton, with a bunraku-style puppet, manipulated in plain sight of the audience by three operators from the experimental puppet troupe Blind Summit Theater.

This is Mr. Minghella’s solution to a problem many viewers might suppose does not even exist. Played the old-fashioned way for more than a century, Trouble’s scenes have always seemed as close to surefire as it gets. To the director Mark Lamos, whose “Butterfly” has been affecting audiences at the New York City Opera for many seasons, the boy’s entrance is one of the greatest in all of drama.

“If you don’t already know the story,” Mr. Lamos said recently, “it’s completely unexpected. He stands for Butterfly’s innocence as much as for the mistake that caused him. He’s a paradigm for his parents’ relationship, as most children are. But if he’s too little, he’s too cute and steals the audience’s attention in spite of themselves. If he’s too old, he’s not believable. Casting him takes great care. If he’s good and he’s carefully staged, it’s heartbreaking.”

Mr. Minghella was determined to evoke the heartbreak by other means.

“Once you give up your 15-year-old native Japanese Butterfly,” he said, “why cling to the 2-year-old child? Ask any Butterfly. Once the boy is onstage, the performance is all about managing the kid. A child can’t inhabit the part of a Eurasian orphan at the start of the 20th century. At best he can navigate his way around the stage.

“It’s as if you were doing ‘Henry V,’ and suddenly a real horse came onstage in a battle scene. The horse would invalidate the whole premise of the prologue, which invites the audience to use its imagination. What we want to say to the audience is: ‘Come with us. Let’s pretend together.’ ”

Wasn’t that, pretty much, the message of the theater guru Peter Brook’s classic manifesto “The Empty Space”? Yes, and it is a text Mr. Minghella reveres.

By all accounts audiences have responded warmly to the bunraku Trouble, and so have sopranos, though Ms. Gallardo-Domâs admits that her first reaction, seeing the production in London, was shock.

“It’s a big change not to have a baby, a boy, a human being,” she said. “But it amazed me to see how strong a presence the puppet is. And when I began work at the Met, from the first moment that I met my puppet son, we immediately had a relationship: Butterfly, the boy and the three puppeteers. Whatever my feelings are, the puppet interprets them, articulates them. He gives me concentration.”

As opera is a fusion of many arts, directing opera sums up all Mr. Minghella has learned in other disciplines. At the same time, he finds in this new line of work an unaccustomed freedom.

“I’m an interpreter in this context, not the creator,” he said. “The blessing is that I don’t have to know it all. I can bring in experts. Film requires one eye, one vision. You have to make a decision every three seconds. In theater the group carries the load. It’s not necessary to do everybody’s job, and there’s no pleasure in that.”

Now that he has taken the plunge into opera, chances are, there will be more.

Between how much money they makje and how annoying they are, you have to wonder if eventually movie actors will mostly be replaced by CGI, animation, puppets and the like.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 24, 2006 12:00 AM

The English Patient was stupefyingly boring. I only remained in my seat because I had taken an elderly neighbor who was basically house bound to see it and didn't want to dislodge her before the end of the movie.

I wonder that an operatic production could survive such a pace.

o/t - I just read that James Carville was the executive producer of the recent movie starring Sean Penn which must be really, really awful. It only got 1* out of 5 from our local liberal rag's resident "culture" critic who usually extols every piece of looney left propaganda that comes our way.

Posted by: erp at September 24, 2006 11:05 AM

The key to the English Patient is to root for the adulterers' deaths.

Posted by: oj at September 24, 2006 11:14 AM

Ah, the English Patient, another perfectly decent novel -- I'd give it a -plus not a C oj, and I think it's anti-European, and in many ways pro-Anglo-sphere, rather than simply anti-white -- destroyed by Hollywood.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at September 24, 2006 11:36 AM

B-plus, that should read.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at September 24, 2006 11:38 AM

movie actors will mostly be replaced by CGI,

I've been saying that for years, and expect the pr0n industry to once again lead the way in technological innovation for the Entertainment-Industrial Complex. (The hard part is still doing voices, and as the Simpsons voice cast has shown, you don't need to appear on screen to be "annoying." But who needs voices for pr0n, and think of the possibilities? No need to have PETA and ASPCA reps on the set of "Enumclaw Barndance 3", for one thing. And no need to schedule medical appointments for your "actors" either...)

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at September 24, 2006 12:24 PM

"Between how much money they make and how annoying they are, you have to wonder if eventually movie actors will mostly be replaced by CGI, animation, puppets and the like."

Terry Bisson wrote a very funny soft sci-fi novel that portrayed the future lot of actors and Hollywood just as you envision. The "actors" did not even have to be present for the shooting.

Posted by: Qiao Yang at September 24, 2006 5:08 PM

The whole puppet thing is not a bad idea but why does it look like a monkey?? That I find a bit racist.

Posted by: Mike at September 27, 2006 1:34 PM

...also, Minghella's logic doesn't make sense.
“Once you give up your 15-year-old native Japanese Butterfly,” he said, “why cling to the 2-year-old child?"
Yeah but, ummm, Cio Cio is still played by a HUMAN BEING!

Posted by: Mike at September 27, 2006 1:44 PM