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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