From the moment we're invited in as guests to the wedding, promoter Raymond Gubbay's presentation of Madam Butterfly has us hooked. The production, which recently toured the UK, features a set by David Roger that is not only audacious in its use of a 15,000-gallon lagoon to provide a metaphor for isolation, but one that invites reflection upon Pendleton's blatant deceit and Butterfly's naive faith in her husband's fidelity. Love truly is blind, and how acutely it has been framed for us.
To create such atmosphere in any production is an achievement; to do so in an arena setting is frankly laudable. Many operas--Aida for example--lend themselves to the grand gesture. They were, after all, intended as popular spectacles when they first appeared. Butterfly is no such spectacle, dwelling as it does on Puccini's obsession with the vulnerability of a solitary woman. Nevertheless, this production is faithful to the origins of opera as a populist medium, particularly for the UK audience, where in recent years this art form has become the preserve of the rich.
To make such a closely observed drama work in the characterless cavern of an arena, three aspects of the performance were vital. The actors themselves had to be capable of projecting their presence way beyond what would be the norm--no small thing for a group of performers whose skill lies primarily in their singing, rather than their acting, abilities. The sound reinforcement needed to maintain the dynamic of movement about the stage, yet sustain the lyric to the furthest seat, but in a discrete way. And the setting, like the sound, had to be accessible to the most distant seat.
Bobby Aitken of Autograph Sound is a veteran of opera in arenas, but he still found some special challenges to Butterfly. "These days, we take the technology for granted, using delay and speaker positions to move the sound image. But pulling down that image for the majority of the audience, who are seated below the level of the main PA clusters, was very tricky with this set. Tucking stuff in around the house in the middle was not so bad, but with just 220mm (8.6") between the pond surface and the walkway decks, peripheral positions were vulnerable. If anything fell in the water or caused waves, then we could lose whole areas of low-level sound system."
The sound image manipulation was more involved than just pulling it down to general stage level; Aitken also employed his skills to move it with the performers around the playing area. "With the orchestra in the north position relative to the stage, with their own stereo clusters immediately above, we had vocal clusters positioned east, west, and south around the stage. East and west were run as a separate group. Thus, if the principals moved upstage, toward the orchestra, and behind the house, we could lift that part of the system 3 or 4dB to make the sound more pronounced from the back."
Perhaps the nicest touch was out in the arena. With director David Freeman eager to exploit the dramatic space such venues present, entrances were placed through the seated audience. "We put a couple of Meyer CK1 downfills out in the hall, in the southeast area where Butterfly first makes her entrance," says Aitken. "All the principal singers wear two radio mic sets (a Sennheiser SK50 system) for backup reasons, something we were able to use to our advantage. As Butterfly moves from her entrance point in the arena to the stage, some 40 yards (37m), we take signals from both radios and feed each to different parts of the system, from the CK1s to the south cluster, moving her voice as she progresses the room." This technically sophisticated exercise succeeds in producing a simple but rewarding effect.
So too with David Roger's set. Beautifully understated, it reflects the Japanese preoccupation with simplicity and resonates tranquillity. Yet, like a Japanese kimono, it conceals the complexity of its construction. "To be blunt, I hadn't really thought about Butterfly before," says Roger about his first impressions, "I thought it was possibly too sentimental. Working on it made me realize it is a powerful drama." It was the original staging of Butterfly, at the Royal Albert Hall early in 98, which determined how Roger would approach his task. "The physical situation of having to do it 'in-the-round,' instead of having the usual divide of an orchestra pit, meant that the audience would be close enough to see the actors' expressions. That directness made it feel more like a Greek tragedy, more of a drama."
Staging it thus was Gubbay's idea, but Roger was given control of the set budget. "With just one set possible in such an environment--with little changes I grant you--the idea of using a water-filled set turned out to be not as expensive as it might have looked. The walkways and central structure, built by Scott Fleary, were quite simple. For the lagoons, getting the four pools made up to "reservoir grade" was entirely the responsibility of Lancaster-based Water Sculptures. The pools are entirely self-contained, draining to holding tanks, the local water authority having deemed them a potential pollution source if run as a mains system. The hydraulics are fairly straightforward; the only problem they presented Roger was in their prolonged use. "The bottoms of the pools are decorated with a corrugated material and painted to resemble gravel in a Japanese rock garden, something revealed in the second act, when the pools are drained. This material is laid in, taped together, and then painted. Each panel is per forated to allow filling and draining of the pools. Repeated use [the production does multiple shows at each venue visited] caused the tape and paint to part. We did have one of the larger rocks float off the bottom, but fortunately, it was during afternoon rehearsal," Roger says.
Rocks apart, response to the show has been good, the sound at the RAH production receiving critical praise. Encouraged by the buoyant ticket sales, Gubbay is taking the production south to Australia next year, with a possible visit to Japan thereafter.