Soprano turns into Butterfly with Vancouver Opera

Mihoko Kinoshita brings a deeply Japanese sensibility to one of the art form's most famous roles.

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      It’s hard to think of a background better suited to playing the tragic title character in Italian composer Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly than Mihoko Kinoshita’s.

      Born in Japan and raised by a music teacher, she has the kind of innate understanding of a culture that only comes through blood. But it was the soprano’s five-year stint in Italy, where she debuted in the role a decade ago, that brought her a fuller perspective.

      “The story is Japanese and the background is Japanese, but this is Italian grand opera,” she emphasizes to the Straight, taking a break at Vancouver Opera’s East Side headquarters before rehearsals begin for the day. “I have to think, ‘This is not Japanese drama; it’s Italian music.’ And for me the language is so important. I try to find the meaning inside the meaning and express it so deeply.

      “I used to take Japanese sensitivity into it, but that’s completely wrong!”

      Kinoshita, who has made this her signature role, has also developed more insights into Cio-Cio San, the young woman betrayed in the famous opera.

      “Cio-Cio San is a Japanese girl and very soft and timid and too much shy, but sometimes she is so fun and has deep love for Pinkerton, for her baby boy, and for [her maid] Suzuki. So the contrast is so good,” the affable diva relates. “She’s very strong—inside, she is like Tosca, but she does not show it on the exterior,” she adds, referring to the jealous superstar of Puccini’s other warhorse opera.

      Kinoshita says she finds new shades to the character in every production she does, working with new directors and conductors, not to mention new versions of Pinkerton, the U.S. naval officer who falls in love with his beautiful “butterfly”, Cio-Cio San, and then dumps her for a proper American wife. When Kinoshita appeared in Vancouver Opera’s previous production of Madama Butterfly in 2010, she was the centre of a contemporary visual feast, with sculptor Jun Kaneko’s multicoloured parasols, geometric-patterned kimonos, and ribbons of blood that poured from Cio-Cio San in the unforgettable finale. This Butterfly, she reveals, will be much more classical in tone, allowing the characters, under director Michael Cavanagh, to really come to the fore.

      “There’s a little more of the Japanese style,” she says, adding she has studied Japanese classical dance for the part so she knows how to move authentically, “and there is more acting. It is very intense.” Just how intense? In a typical Butterfly performance, Kinoshita reveals, she loses two full kilos, not just from sweat and exertion, but from the fact she doesn’t like to eat much before taking the stage. That and the emotional catharsis mean she’s tired, but she loves to feast late after a show—always on Japanese food, if she can find it. And happily, she’s got a lot to choose from in this town.

      “I love Houston, where I live now, but I can’t eat sashimi there because it won’t be fresh,” she says with a laugh.

      Kinoshita has travelled the world since studying singing in Japan—something she always loved more than the piano lessons she had as a kid. And one of her favourite parts of her job is comparing the audiences in different parts of the globe, and how they relate to Cio-Cio San.

      “When I sang Butterfly for the first time in Italy, they knew every word and I felt the emotion of the audience—I was very much together with the audience,” she explains. “After that, I immediately performed it in Japan. And Japan is so quiet! In Italy, it’s a different kind of quiet.

      “Then I did it in the U.S. and the audience is laughing a lot at the funny scenes. I was shocked. At the curtain call, they were yelling ‘Bravo!’ very, very loud. They were showing that they were enjoying the show. Maybe in Japan they are enjoying it, but they are not showing it.

      “And then, after living in the U.S., I sang Butterfly in Japan again and the audience was so quiet again, and I said, ‘Oh!’ ” she continues, feigning surprise and then laughing at her new sense of culture shock.

      From all those performances, Kinoshita knows Butterfly through and through, but last year another profound experience brought her an entirely new light on Cio-Cio San: she gave birth to a child. “I’ve been very interested in how different it is before having the baby and now after the baby,” she says of the rare opera role that requires a character to express a complete bond with a child—the risk of losing him can make the tragedy all the more achingly overwhelming.

      Vancouver Opera presents Madama Butterfly at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Saturday and Sunday (March 5 and 6) and March 10 to 13.