“It’s a really good vehicle for opera putting its best foot forward in the community.”
For its 80th season opener, Pittsburgh Opera general director Christopher Hahn just wants to please the crowd.
“For a banner opening like your 80th anniversary, you want everybody to be happy, everybody to come and everybody celebrating,” he says. “[Madama Butterfly] is such a perennial favorite that people can never see enough of [it].”
That’s been true in Hahn’s experience, considering he oversaw the work as the artistic administrator at the Los Angeles Opera, and the Pittsburgh Opera last performed the program for its 2012-2013 season. But, don’t expect a repeat performance.
“Every time I’ve done it, I’ve done it in a different production so people always get a new look at it,” Hahn says.
Pittsburgh Opera opens with the Puccini work at the Benedum Center from Oct. 6 to Oct. 14. Set in Japan in 1904, the story revolves around Cio-Cio San, or Madama Butterfly (Soprano Dina Kuznetsova, making her Pittsburgh Opera debut), a young geisha who falls in love with Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton (Tenor Cody Austin), a U.S. naval officer who considers their love affair as a casual fling. They wed, and his departure leaves Butterfly hopeful he’ll return. Tragedy ensues when he does.
Madama Butterfly. Pittsburgh Opera. Through Oct. 14. $14-$164. Benedum Center, 237 Seventh St., Downtown. 412-281-0912 or www.pittsburghopera.org
Hahn says that, thanks to its popularity and topical themes, including imperialism and the effects of culture clash, this particular opera speaks to many generations who haven’t experienced a Pittsburgh Opera production.
“It’s a really good vehicle for opera putting its best foot forward in the community,” he says.
According to Kuznetsova, who plays the title character, she first heard about Pittsburgh Opera as a young student visiting the city. Now taking the stage for the first time, she feels her career has come full circle after years of wanting to sing in Pittsburgh.
“I know it’s reputation. I love being here and it’s a great company,” she said.
Laurel Semerdjian, who plays Suzuki, Cio-Cio San’s maid, also expresses similar sentiments. The mezzo-soprano is a former Pittsburgh Opera resident artist who considers Pittsburgh her home base. This is her first time back with the company.
“It’s like a big homecoming reunion,” she says.
However, this is not Semerdjian’s first time singing the role. She’s performed it with the Sarasota Opera in Florida in 2017 and with the Syracuse Opera in March. But, thanks to the mix of new artistic direction and cast members in each production, it’s hard to get bored.
“[It] makes my job so much more interesting,” she says.
According to Kuznetsova and Semerdjian, the joys and the challenges of the work are intermixed. Kuznetsova says she’s challenged by telling a sensitive, believable story over two hours, but finds joy from the score, character development and timeless themes.
“There are so many layers to Madame Butterfly and layers which are relevant in the modern as well as 100 years ago or 400 years ago when it was written, and just how one addresses them,” she says.
Semerdjian says the role’s onstage responsibilities — Suzuki acts as the props manager, tea maker and child wrangler — can be hard to balance, but feels it’s a fulfilling one.
“Kind of balancing all of that with the singing and the acting is always a challenge, but because it’s so much to handle, it ends up being really rewarding in the end,” she says. “It’s a role that I absolutely love to do.”
According to Semerdjian, the resident artist program has prepared her for a full-time career in opera, both nationally and in Pittsburgh, which she calls her homebase.
“They really have prepared me well to come back and be a principal with them,” she says.
After “Madama Butterfly,” Pittsburgh Opera will stage Englebert Humperdinck’s “Hansel & Gretel,“ based on the Brother’s Grimm fairytale, from Nov. 3 to Nov. 11, with a cast made up of current and former Pittsburgh Opera resident artists. They will stage a reimagined version of Mozart’s “Idomeneo,” about four star-crossed, war-torn royals from Crete, from Jan. 26 to Feb. 3. The company then stages Tom Cipullo’s “Glory Denied” in its Strip District headquarters from Feb. 23 to March 3. They then perform Puccini’s “La Bohème” from March 30 to April 7 and finish the season with Donizetti’s comic opera, “Don Pasquale” from April 27 to May 5.
According to Hahn, there’s something for everyone in the season, from the children who will enjoy “Hansel & Gretel” to opera fans who will take to “Idomeneo,” a less common opera.
“I’m very happy with the extraordinary texture and range of the season because it allows us to reach out to all different segments of our audience and population,” he says.
Although he wants to please the crowd, Hahn wants them to think, too.
“I’m very hopeful that it will be a very popular season, as well as a searching one,” Hahn says, “one that’s thought provoking and not just entertainment, but very entertaining.”
Amanda Reed is a Pittsburgh Current Staff Writer. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.