Thursday, January 19, 2012

Five questions with mezzo-soprano Maria Zifchak

In a recent New York Times review, mezzo-soprano Maria Zifchak was praised for her "superlative" portrayal of Suzuki in the Metropolitan Opera's production of "Madama Butterfly." Fortunately for us in Arizona, she performs the same role in Phoenix from Jan. 27-29 and Feb. 4 and 5 in Tucson.

Zifchak first became familiar to Arizona Opera listeners as Dorabella in the 2005 production of Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte." One of the most well-respected opera singers performing today, Zifchak has sung a varied repertoire from Handel to Britten. She currently lives in New York City.

Q:  Your repertoire consists largely of supporting characters such as Suzuki. For you, where is the joy in playing this kind of role on the opera stage?

A:  I have had many opportunities to be a part of incredible productions with incredible casts. There is something very enjoyable about being able to be a part of things, without the pressure of carrying the show in a lead role. For me, it's the best of both worlds!

Q:  Suzuki is generally viewed as a loyal, dutiful servant – but not much more than that. Is there another dimension to her character that you try to bring out in your performances?

A:   I have found that many times the role of Suzuki is not considered very much. Because she is one of few words, some consider her just as a servant, and there is not much development of her. But if you consider her involvement in the story, she is the only one who is with Cio-Cio-San from the beginning of the story to the end. Three years have passed between Acts 1 & 2 and no one knows what has happened in Cio-Cio-San's everyday life but Suzuki. She has lived through every moment with Cio-Cio-San.

In my opinion, if her character isn't developed as one who is invested in the lives of Cio-Cio-San and her son, the Flower Duet and her reaction to the events in Act 3 make no sense.

Q: What is your favorite moment in “Madama Butterfly”?

A: There are many! I love Butterfly's aria "Un Bel Di." This naive young girl has imagined every single moment of Pinkerton's return. It is so full of love and anticipation.

There's also the moment in Act 2 when Sorrow (or Trouble) is introduced. "E questo!" The music is unbelievable and makes me well up every time!

Q:  What advice do you have for young singers?

A:   To enjoy every moment of what your career offers you. It's a very competitive career, yet it is the most personal. Look out for yourself and don't worry about what everyone else is doing. Learn whom to trust, take what advice is useful to you and leave it at that. This career takes years to develop and dedication that at some times takes over your life. On a completely practical level, it is best for all singers to have outside interests. It is important, in my opinion, to remember that singing is a job. It is not the definition of who you are as a human being.

Q:  What do you most enjoy about Arizona?

A:   I cannot get over how absolutely beautiful it is. I have visited here three times before and love to soak in the scenery. The sky is immense and feels so close and is gorgeous.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

In her first time directing Puccini's famous tearjerker, "Madama Butterfly" director Kristine McIntyre discusses the complexities of the opera's title role and why Butterfly isn't as fragile as you might think

It’s very common, and very tempting, to think of Cio-Cio-San, the title character of Puccini’s "Madama Butterfly," as one of the great innocent victims in opera. She’s easily dismissed by the other characters in the piece and by commentators and audiences through the opera’s tumultuous history. Certainly Pinkerton sees her as a child, a doll to do with as he pleases.

Sharpless too completely underestimates Butterfly’s emotional intelligence and her resolve. He assumes, wrongly, that Butterfly continues to see herself as Pinkerton’s wife out of a misguided sense of loyalty.

Arizona Opera presents "Madama Butterfly" January 27-29 at Phoenix Symphony Hall and February 4 & 5 at Tucson Music Hall

In fact, Butterfly is in possession of a game-changing secret: there is a child – Pinkerton’s child – and Butterfly understands how this raises the stakes. For while Pinkerton might be capable of abandoning her and the sham marriage, he will not abandon his own flesh and blood. Of course, she is right. The knowledge that he has a son does in fact draw the errant husband once again to the little hillside house.

Butterfly acts less like a victim and more as a young woman searching to redefine her place in a society which offers her few choices. She surely knows that marriages between Japanese girls and American service men of the sort brokered by Goro did not last beyond the length of the foreign deployment. Yet Butterfly chooses to give herself over entirely to her new life, renouncing her traditional Japanese religious beliefs, throwing away the ottoke (the figurines which represent the spirits of her ancestors) and attempting to oversee a completely American household, long after Pinkerton has left. Is it for love? Yes, I think so. But it is also a way to stop living the geisha life which she finds so hateful, and to have some measure of control over her fate, even though she is then trapped between the two societies.

It’s true that Tosca takes matters into her own hands in an impressive, if impulsive, way, and that Manon always retains a firm belief that she can improve her lot. But I’m not sure that either would have the patience or moral fortitude to embark on Butterfly’s path: to willingly be ostracized by one’s family and society, to turn down a marriage that offers comfort and security, to live for years on a slim hope, and even in the end, to believe so strongly in one’s sense of self that suicide becomes the logical alternative. Rather than allow others to define her – as victim, as abandoned wife, as abandoning mother – Butterfly again chooses her own path. She may indeed be a tragic heroine – certainly we wish that her love and faith had been better placed – but we cannot ignore the strength of her character or the nobility of her struggle.