Yulia Lysenko stars in Princeton’s Madama Butterfly

OperaMetro (OM) had the privilege of chatting with Ms. Yulia Lysenko (YL), who stars in the Princeton Festival’s production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly this summer. How I would love to be doing this interview with Yulia in person, strolling on the walkways under the shade of the great trees on the Princeton University campus, but, alas, our schedules didn’t permit it and, what’s more, it seems to have been raining, cold and damp since 2016, maybe longer. Outside wouldn’t work anyway.

  Yulia Lysenko stars as Cio-Cio-San in Princeton's  Butterfly

Yulia Lysenko stars as Cio-Cio-San in Princeton's Butterfly

OM: Thank you for agreeing to talk to me today!

YL: You’re quite welcome.

OM: Sorry about the gray skies and the damp…not to mention the pollen!

YL: No problem.

OM: You’re performing probably one of the most affecting, emotional roles in the soprano repertory. Tell me a bit about your preparation for the role, your ‘history’ with it.

YL: I’ve never had the opportunity to perform the whole opera on stage before, just separate arias and duets at festivals and concerts. But I have been working to develop the character of Cio-Cio-San for the last few years with my mentors and coaches Lyudmila Bozhko (Ukraine), Teresa Zylis-Gara (Poland), Kaludi Kaludov (Bulgaria), and lately with a great American pianist and a coach Anthony Manoli.

OM: Ah yes, Teresa Zylis-Gara. Marvelous singer! Saw her many times at the Metropolitan Opera.

YL: She is the consummate artist. But all my mentors and coaches have been wonderful.

OM: Compared to other roles you’ve performed in your career, are there vocal or dramatic demands that are unique to Cio-Cio-San? Meaning, what other roles in your experience (or perception) is the role of Cio-Cio-San most like in terms of its vocal and dramatic demands?

YL: For me all my heroines are emotionally rich, expressive, multifaceted, and very expressive with their emotions unlike Cio-Cio-San.

OM: Unlike Cio-Cio-San?

YL: Well, when you think about it, Cio-Cio-San is more often calm on the outside while the orchestra transmits the storm of emotions inside her soul. With this role it is hard for me to stay calm with all that’s going on in her world.

OM: Tell about your conception of Cio Cio San’s character, her personality, mannerisms, etc. Is she a fragile butterfly or a strong woman or a mixture of both? And what, in your conception, are the transforming moments for her in the opera?

YL: I am impressed with how the characters are transforming during the opera. In the first act, Cio-Cio-San is an innocent young girl who wants to love and be loved. In the second act, after three years of waiting for Pinkerton’s return, she is 18 years old, but already a strong young woman who is still blinded by love and believes in a happy future. The first transforming moment for me is from Sharpless’s phrase: “What would you do Madam Butterfly, if he never returns?”

OM: The orchestra is rather clear about the impact of Sharpless’s question.

YL: Indeed! After this line, there is some dramatic anticipation added to her character. But she is defiant, she still believes in a happy future. Only in the third act, when she meets Kate, Pinkerton’s American wife, everything becomes clear for Cio-Cio-San. This is the last transforming moment, as she says, “it is better to die with honor, than to live without honor.”

OM: Powerful opera, to be sure. For the record, Butterfly is an opera I cry at the end of, actually a lot of the way through it!

YL: Oh yes. Madama Butterfly is the opera where there are a lot of emotional moments.

OM: Are there parts of Butterfly in which you, the artist, the real person, find particularly difficult to get through just because the moment is so emotional?

YL:  Puccini’s orchestra so vividly depicts emotions of Cio-Cio-San, that sometimes it is difficult to restrain my own emotions. The hardest to do it is in the last scene with her son.

OM: Would you say it’s become a favorite role?

YL: (chuckles) Right now of course my favorite role is Cio-Cio-San, but in a few months if I sing a different role, like Mimi, it will become my favorite.

OM: What other roles lie in your immediate future?

YL: I’d like to perform many roles in the future such as Tosca, Tatyana, Nedda, Liu and others. These will fit my voice the best just now.

OM: You’re a young soprano in the title role of one of the greatest operas in the standard repertory, staged as part of an important summer music festival. I’m sure it’s been a journey for you. What advice would you give to younger, less experienced singers who hope someday to be on the stage as you are now? In other words, what are the steps you took to be here in Princeton this summer?

YL: I think it all depends on you to find the way to your dream, so I don’t have a special secret to success. I mean, of course you must love your profession. That goes without saying, and that love should show in everything you do. And you have to do everything possible: always do your best, work hard, visit master courses, record yourself, analyze, etc. At least those are my steps. One day fortune will smile and you will be ready.

OM: So tell me, dear Yulia, what are your favorite pastimes, interests or hobbies, things that make you smile or relaxed when you’re not working hard, studying, rehearsing, or performing?

YL: In my free time, I like to relax with my family outdoors. They are a source of great happiness in my life.

OM: I wish you the very best in your upcoming performances of Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly with the Princeton Festival. Give my best to Richard Tang Yuk and Steven LaCosse and the other members of the cast and orchestra.

YL: Will do, thank you!

The Princeton Festival’s production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is performed in the Matthews Theatre at the McCarter Theatre Center, 91 University Place, Princeton, NJ, 08540, on the evening of Saturday, June 16 @ 7:30 p.m., and the afternoons of Sunday, June 24 and July 1 @ 3:00 p.m. Richard Tang Yuk, the Festival’s Artistic Director, will conduct; Steven LaCosse is the Stage Director. Other principals include Janara Kellerman as Suzuki, Matthew White as Pinkerton, and Paul La Rosa as Sharpless.

Tickets for Madama Butterfly may be purchased through the Festival’s website: https://princetonfestival.org: the McCarter’s telephone number is 609.258.2787.

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Berkshire Opera Festival stages Rigoletto

The summer brings opera to the Berkshires on the stage of the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, MA, as the Berkshire Opera Festival presents Verdi’s classic Rigoletto, arguably one of the most popular operas in the entire repertory. Once again, OperaMetro (OM) has the privilege to chat with Jonathon Loy (JL) and Brian Garman (BG), the Festival’s Stage Director and Conductor, respectively; once again, it would be nice to do this up in Massachusetts, face to face, back and forth, but the constraints of time/space force the good old fashioned electronic communication mode (did I really say that?)

OM: Gentlemen, a pleasure as always.

JL: As always!

BG: As always!

OM: Now with Madama Butterfly and Ariadne auf Naxos successfully behind you both, you’re taking on Verdi’s Rigoletto. Given that it’s an older style of opera both musically and dramatically, are there any challenges in front of you to “sell” it to today’s audience? First, have either of you worked on Rigoletto before?

JL: I have both directed and assistant directed Rigoletto before. I’ve also been listening to since I was a little boy.

BG: This will be my third production of Rigoletto; in fact, Rigoletto was the piece that made me fall in love with opera in the first place when I was a teenager, and it planted the seeds for my deep love of Verdi.

OM: Wow, likewise here: in fact it was the first opera I did standing room at the Old Met, though it was not my first Verdi opera in the House. Always a deeply felt favorite. But it is of an older style than Butterfly or Ariadne, yes?

  Sebastian Catana sings Rigoletto

Sebastian Catana sings Rigoletto

JL: Yes, but it’s perfect in its own way. And as they say, “if it ain’t broke…” Brian and I, we aren’t really changing anything about how we go about producing opera, whether it’s Puccini, Strauss, or now middle Verdi.  We just hope that every year we learn a little more about what works best with our resources and implement small changes here and there as necessary. But the core of how we produce an opera remains the same.

BG: I agree with Jonathon. There are no significant changes we're making to way that we produce opera. When you start a company, there's always a little guesswork involved about the unknown elements, but your plans are based largely on past experience. I feel we were also a bit lucky to have guessed right about so many things.

  Maria Valdes is Gilda

Maria Valdes is Gilda

OM: (turning to the camera, an aside) Rigoletto, jester at the court of the Duke of Mantua, is despised because of the mean barbs he aims at the courtiers and their women, but, secretly, he has a young daughter Gilda, his only joy, whom he shields from the evils of the world. Monterone, a noble father, publically denounces the Duke for molesting his daughter; when his rage and indignation are mocked by Rigoletto, Monterone lays a father’s curse on him. Rigoletto is greatly unsettled by this. Without knowing her identity, the Duke sees Gilda as just another conquest, disguising himself as a student to make contact with her; in the very same evening the courtiers, thinking Gilda is Rigoletto’s mistress, kidnap her and give her to the Duke. Rigoletto vows to have the Duke assassinated, but Gilda, not wanting the Duke harmed, takes the fatal blow herself. Rigoletto discovers too late that the corpse in the sack he's about to dump in the river is his daughter, not the Duke. Monterone’s curse comes true. (back to the interview) Tell me, given the story of Rigoletto, has your conception of the opera been influenced by the past year’s “Me Too” movement, to name one? Have contemporary politics and social awareness had an impact on your take on Rigoletto?

  Jonathan Tetelman is the Duke of Mantua

Jonathan Tetelman is the Duke of Mantua

JL: Certainly. Everything that happens in today’s world, everything that happens to me, everything that I experience, everything that I observe influences my productions. This should be true for almost any stage director today, I imagine. While Rigoletto is most certainly about Monterone’s curse, my production highlights the most topical elements of a woman’s navigation in a man’s world and the inherent abuses of power. I do not believe the Duke is anything other than a selfish, misogynistic, sexually greedy man. Gilda does not move him in any positive way; once he has had her, that’s it. I believe this is also made clear in how Verdi writes for the Duke musically. Compared to the other characters he only sings in an “old fashioned” style, that is: recitative, cavatina, cabaletta. And what the Duke does to Gilda awakens her to some extent, but in all the wrong ways.

  Maya Lahyani is Maddalena

Maya Lahyani is Maddalena

Our staging will speak to the issue: All male characters will be in black or shades of black and gray, all female characters will be in white.  The sets will employ all black and white palettes contained in what is essentially a three-sided muslin light box. The starkness will allow the story to speak for itself, recognizing that some things really are black and white.

OM: Getting back to the music and its place in Verdi’s maturation, Brian, why is Rigoletto special?

BG: Each time I return to it I'm amazed at how innovative it is for its time, especially in terms of the way Verdi treated the orchestra and structural elements of the opera.

OM: One senses a departure from Italian opera scores prior to 1850 certainly. Looking forward, in what ways was Rigoletto Italy’s “music of the future,” to borrow Wagner’s phrase from just about the same time?

BG: When Verdi began his career, the operatic tradition in Italy -- largely established by Rossini -- was very conservative, musically speaking. In other words, there were orchestrations that served only to support the voice, heavy ornamentation of the vocal lines, even arias from other operas inserted a singer's request, and so forth. But Verdi was such a man of the theater that he was interested in music as drama, and had no use for these old-fashioned conventions. So he was always trying to transform them, make them more cohesive dramatically. We see a lot of these transformations in Rigoletto. Take the woodwind introduction to the recitative before Gilda's Caro nome in Act I, Scene II:  in the early 1800s, there was no use of "families" of instruments in Italian opera as we consider them today. This was an early example of a composer treating the woodwind section as a self-sufficient entity. Earlier in that Scene, we also see the innovative stroke of giving the dark melody of the Rigoletto-Sparafucile duet to the orchestra, leaving the voices to converse above it, rather than sing an old fashioned vengeance duet. The once obligatory off-stage band is used here for a real dramatic purpose in Act I, Scene I to illustrate the vulgarity of the Duke's court, and in fact, the first scene is, without precedent, constructed as a single organism from beginning to end. Verdi himself said he conceived the entire opera as a series of duets, and, indeed, there is only one conventional "double-aria," (for the Duke in Act II, Scene I). Neither solo, Gilda’s Caro nome or Rigoletto’s Pari siamo is structured like that. And this is the only opera in Verdi's output not to use large ensembles as act finales, apart from the ensemble that concludes Scene I of Act I.

OM: I always ask this question to you both: what part of Rigoletto is the most emotional for you? And why?

JL: Easy: watching Gilda’s journey is heart wrenching throughout, and the final scream from Rigoletto, Ah, la maledizione!, the orchestra's crashing final chords with the whaling tympani, his world comes crashing down around him as his daughter dies in his arms, with no one to blame but himself.

BG: This is difficult, because there are so many. But yes, probably the single most striking moment for me is when Rigoletto discovers that the dying person in the sack is actually Gilda. This is an utterly stunning moment -- out of the one-and-a-half billion (at that time) people in the world who could be in that sack, the only person Rigoletto knows it can't be (because he sent her earlier to Verona) is the person it actually turns out to be.  He set this whole scheme in motion out of a desire to avenge his daughter's dishonor and shame, and she ends up paying for it with her life.  And coming at the end of the storm -- with thunder in the low strings, lightning in flute and piccolo, and the men's chorus imitating wind -- Verdi's setting of this moment is breathtaking.

OM: As a father of young women, I find the opera very difficult to sit through, particularly the duet at the end of Act II (as written). And, of course, the end. Heart wrenching. Wotan's Farewell to Brünnhilde in Act III of Wagner’s Die Walküre is another.

Gentlemen, I wish you the best for Rigoletto in August!! A pleasure as always talking to you.

BG: And to you as well.

JL: Yes.

Other principals include Joseph Barron as Sparafucile and John Cheek as Monterone.

Photos were picked from the Berkshire Opera Festival’s website.

The Berkshire Opera Festival’s production of Verdi’s Rigoletto is performed on the stage of the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, MA, on the afternoon of Saturday, August 25 at 1:00 p.m., the evenings of Tuesday and Thursday, August 28 and 31, respectively, at 7:30 p.m.

Tickets may be purchased at the company’s website www.berkshireoperafestival.org  

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