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