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Opera Singer Liping Zhang Recalls The Highs And Lows Of Her Trademark Role As Madama Butterfly

Soprano Liping Zhang has encountered some obstacles in her career, but few so concrete as that which faced her during a 2003 production of Madama Butterfly in Baltimore, Maryland.

Handling Giacomo Puccini's acrobatic vocal score was no problem for the virtuoso singer, and neither were the theatrical challenges inherent in playing the title character.

"I think the role really demands someone who has the voice, and who can perform, and who looks the part--and I have everything the role needs," Zhang says confidently, reached at a downtown Vancouver hotel.

But director Vivien Hewitt's staging of the 1904 opera, which concerns the doomed love between a Japanese geisha and an American naval officer, proved more than a little problematic.

"That was very interesting," says the Hunan, China--born diva, choosing her words carefully. "All there was on the stage was a big rock. We asked, 'What's the rock about?' and the director said, 'The rock represents Butterfly's heart, Butterfly's sexual life, Butterfly's pregnancy...' But I couldn't tell that from that rock! It was just a big, big rock on-stage, and that's it!"

She laughs--in part because of the absurdity of the image, and perhaps also because she's not going to have to sing to a stone when Vancouver Opera's new production of Madama Butterfly opens at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre next Saturday (November 27). Under Vancouver Playhouse head Glynis Leyshon's direction, the cast might find itself theatricalizing Puccini's narrative in some unexpected ways, but the set design and costuming will be relatively straightforward.

"Well, I'm just going to have to ask you to go see it," says Zhang coyly, when asked about Leyshon's vision for the piece. But a moment later she relents, and lets on that she's enjoying some of the veteran thespian's innovations.

"It's going to be a very interesting production, actually," she allows. "We've only staged three acts, so we haven't gone that far yet, but I know that in my last act, the suicide scene, she [Leyshon] is going to have four ancestor spirits come to me. I call them, and they will present Butterfly with her father's knife, and then she's going to kill herself."

Ancestral ghosts are a new addition to Puccini's plot, but Zhang doesn't resent this directorial intrusion. She's also aware that even the greatest divas sometimes have to do more than just stand there and sing.

"You are an actress, on-stage, and you have to be touched by the role that you're doing," she comments. "If you're not touched, the audience is not going to be touched." That's a lesson she learned six years ago, when she began singing the role that has since become her trademark.

"The first time I did Madama Butterfly was in London, at the Royal Albert Hall, and the guy who directed the production [David Freeman] was not an opera director," she recalls. "He was doing a lot of Shakespeare, theatrical things. So I learned a lot from him. He was trying to teach me how to represent a character on-stage; it was a really great experience. And at the end the guy came to me and said, 'You know, Liping, I never expected an opera singer to be such a good actor as you are. If one day you don't sing anymore, you come to me. I'm sure we can do something very exciting.' That was a really great compliment, for me."

Theatricality aside, Zhang believes that Madama Butterfly, and indeed most of Puccini's work, can stand on its own merits. "He was a genius," she says, adding that Butterfly doesn't need the trappings that come with this Vancouver mounting.

"I think it should stand just on its beauty. It's like you go to a gallery and you see a painting, and you try to imagine what life was like at the time the painter was painting, but the opera, it's real, on-stage. It's the real life of the times that we're representing, and that's a really amazing thing."

Vancouver Opera general director James W. Wright doesn't disagree with that assessment, although when told of Zhang's views he laughs and says, 'Of course, as an artist she would say that." But he's also proud that his organization has decided to contextualize Madama Butterfly through a series of panel discussions, exhibitions, and Puccini-related performances. Views of Japan, as the initiative is called, includes everything from Lotus Blossom Special: Metamorphosis and Misidentification in Madama Butterfly, a philosophical drag show that plays the Western Front on Thursday and Friday (November 18 and 19) to a walking tour of Vancouver's historic Japantown hosted by historian John Atkin on Sunday (November 21).

"It's not that we think Madama Butterfly needs this; it doesn't," Wright allows. "It's a great, great work of emotion and music, and a wonderful story. But it makes the work more interesting for lots of people, and gives us an opportunity to demonstrate that it has meaning for today.

"There were 150 people at the [Vancouver Public] Library a couple of nights ago to hear a talk about redress for the internment [of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War]," he adds. "And, boy, that really gives opera a contemporary, meaningful place in the community."

No one will be hurt if listeners come to Madama Butterfly knowing a little bit more about Japanese--and Japanese-Canadian--history. But there are other factors that contribute to this century-old opera's ongoing success.

"In this particular role," Zhang opines, "I think there are a lot of cultural misunderstandings between the American man and the Japanese woman. But also I think men and women are different; they think about things differently. Still, love is the same. I think it's universal."

And so, too, is the eternal appeal of Puccini's masterwork.

Madama Butterfly runs at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on November 27 and 30, and on December 2, 4, 7, 9, and 11. For ticket information, call 604-683-0222. For more information on Views of Japan, visit the Vancouver Opera Web site at