Opera - Floats like a butterfly

Soprano imbues Madama Butterfly with spirituality

Until the blossoming of her opera career crowded out time available for anything else, soprano Allison Charney sung as the High Holiday cantor for Baltimore's Temple Oheb. It is a rare and recent phenomenon to find a woman in the traditionally male position of chanting the scriptures for the congregation on the High Holidays, so unusual that even Charney found her own high voice odd when she first began singing the ancient services. But with the blessing and support of the cantor who had trained her, Charney was soon welcomed to her new position.

"I have a conflicted relationship with my religion," says Charney, who will perform the marathon lead role of Cio-Cio-San in the Atlanta Opera's upcoming production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly. "A part of me believes in it 100 percent, and a part of me thinks organized religion is nonsense. ... But somehow it's still important to me."

In Butterfly, Charney plays a young Japanese geisha who marries a U.S. Navy officer, Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton (Jorge Lopez-Yanez). To the displeasure of her uncle, a Buddhist priest, Cio-Cio-San gives up the religion of her ancestors and eagerly embraces Pinkerton's, vowing to be a good Christian wife and mother.

Unfortunately, Pinkerton takes his vows — and the fragile Cio-Cio-San's well-being — far less seriously. He says the necessary rituals and signs the required marriage contract (which contains a monthly exit clause), but they mean nothing to him. On the very day of his marriage, he tells an American consul (Sharpless, played by William Killmeier) that he intends one day to marry a "real American wife."

For Charney, singing as cantor and Cio-Cio-San both involve performing words that mean something, words that are not empty ritual recitations. "A passage in the Bible is like a passage in Puccini: It's about getting yourself to the truth of the matter." The contradictions of her own faith and those of Cio-Cio-San disappear as she sings. "There's a bigger belief in the music and what the text does to you. Religious music is a way to bring you to another place — to fill you with some sort of spiritual meaning, some sort of moral meaning."

That chance for meaning brings people back to hear the same exact Yom Kippur service for the 38th time. And it's why we can find inspiration in Cio-Cio-San's faithful determination even though we (and virtually everyone else in the opera) know that her loyalty is misplaced.

For three years, Pinkerton is absent at sea, leaving Cio-Cio-San to fend for herself and raise the child she has borne to Pinkerton. During these years of separation, Cio-Cio-San feels the pull of her ancestors' traditions and their disapproval of the choices she has made. (Director Henry Akina introduces some unconventional but interesting elements on the stage to show this internal conflict more explicitly.) But still she stays loyal to her promises.

Then Pinkerton returns to Nagasaki and Cio-Cio-San — with his "real" wife in tow. Rejected and disgraced in the eyes of both East and West, Cio-Cio-San decides that suicide is her only honorable option. She gives her child to Pinkerton and slits her throat. "In the end," says Charney, "she is noble and strangely fulfilled in that honor." The act has a meaning to it that has nothing to do with anyone else, a truth that acknowledges no other authority.

It doesn't matter in the end whether Charney is Jew or Gentile, as long as she sings something true. It doesn't matter whether Cio-Cio-San is Christian or Buddhist. All we see is the enormous strength and courageous honor she develops over the course of the opera. She becomes a better saint or bodhisattva than all the fickle faithful who conspire to break this butterfly's wings.


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