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Ken Russell opera and theatre

Madama Butterfly

Madama Butterfly by Puccini staged in Spoleto, Houston and Melbourne in 1983.  Russell's American debut.  Site visitor Michael Thomas Roe says "I saw Ken's production of Madama Butterfly during Spoleto in Charleston.  It was unbelievable.  The "cast" was mingling around outside the opera house (in full costume) and I had this great feeling like I was in the middle of a Ken Russell movie!"

Lieutenant Pinkerton and Cio-Cio (apologies for the quality of the photo, from New York Tines 22 May 1983).

Russell says "I wanted to get across Puccini's message- the real clash between East and West. I mean, I feel the piece was prophetic. Why, for example, should Puccini have chosen to set in in Nagasaki? He could have chosen hundreds of other places in Japan. Well, when I saw that, the rest just fell into place. I worked back from the bomb and ended up in a brothel".  Ken's direction includes Madama Butterfly putting a Mickey Mouse mask on her child to illustrate his Americanization, at the wedding feast the sailors bring cans of beer.

"There is nothing predictable about Mr. Russell's handling of ''Madama Butterfly.'' While he is hardly the first director to tamper outrageously with an operatic masterpiece, his treatment of Puccini's opera is certain to produce some critical and public fireworeks. For one, he has updated ''Butterfly'' to World War II, just prior to Pearl Harbor. For another, he has turned Cio-Cio San into a prostitute working in the red light district of Nagasaki. Goro has become her pimp, while Lieutenant Pinkerton is a callous American opportunist. The opera ends with an elaborate simulation of the atom bomb falling on Nagasaki... And yet, despite Mr. Russell's bold updating of Puccini's 1904 plot (derived from a 1900 David Belasco drama), not a single note of the opera's score nor a word of its libretto has been changed and, indeed, the work is given in the original Italian. Still, there is no question that this is very much a Ken Russell ''Butterfly.'" (John Gruen, New York Times, 22 May 1983).

Ken Russell Madama Butterfly

The photos shows Ken Russell directing Rosalind Plowright and Richard Leech in the dream sequence in the Houston version.  The photo is by Ava Jean Mears.

Barry McCauley plays Pinkerton and Catherine Lamy plays Madama Butterfly. John Matheson conducts the Spoleto Festival Orchestra.  Ssettings were by Richard McDonald and  costumes by Ruth Meyers.

Donal Henahan in The New York Times of 23 May 1983 writes about the direction taking over the music "The choral and orchestral Intermezzo that ends the second act, when Cio-Cio-San and her child keep a sleepy vigil in expectation of Pinkerton's return, is one of opera's magical moments. During this evocative interlude, Mr. Russell puts on a comic-book pantomime in which Butterfly dreams of married joys to come, such as feeding her husband and child Corn Flakes out of an enormous box and Coca-Cola from a two-foot-high bottle. A hamburger of monstrous size and other touches of Americana add to the effect. The audience, understandably, laughed right through the music."

Madama Butterfly is the Italian title, in the UK it is more often called Madame Butterfly.


More stage work

Click title for opera or play The Rake's Progress *   Madama Butterfly * The Italian Girl in Tangiers * La Boheme *   Die Soldaten * Faust * Mefistofoles * Princess Ida * Salome * Weill and Lenya * Mindgame


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