Oak Parker Christine Steyer will be playing the role of Butterfly in the upcoming production of Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly at Village Players Theatre. I recently had a chance to catch up with Christine in between rehearsals for the show.
She’s a very busy opera singer. After performing in La Traviata at Village Players last summer, she performed in Germany. So far in 2007, she made her Tulsa opera debut as Frasquita in Carmen and performed the role of Abigail in The Crucible with Chamber Opera Chicago.
She has won two major vocal competitions during the past year. She was recently awarded the Founders’ Award at the Altamura/Caruso International Voice Competition, and she was awarded first place in the 2006 National Opera Association Competition.
I asked Christine what it was like to approach a difficult role like Butterfly for the first time. She said she approaches a new role in stages, starting one year in advance. First, she reads the book or play on which the opera is based. In this case, Madama Butterfly is based on both.
Next she listens to famous recordings, in this case sopranos Anna Muffo and Tebaldi. She said that Tebaldi’s voice was too big for her to follow, but Muffo’s voice is closer to hers, and she found it most helpful.
Next she reads the opera with the score to identify the tricky parts, musically and vocally, identifying the long dramatic passages where she may have to pace her singing. She also tries to see a performance of the opera.
Many actors in theater chose not to see a show before they are to perform it so that their characterization is “fresh.” Steyer, however, says that opera is different. Unlike theater, opera performance is based on a long tradition that has been passed down from the great conductors and singers of the past. She notes that productions of Madama Butterfly have standard breath marks or retardandos that are not in Puccini’s musical score, but that 99 percent of singers and conductors will take. The audience comes to the performance with the same expectations.
According to Christine, the best part of learning a new role comes when she can start singing and memorizing the part. Then she starts making connections between various parts of the opera. For example, Puccini will place a small musical cue in Act III that reminds Butterfly of something she sang in Act I.
Steyer also brings to Butterfly her experience of living in Japan for a year. She jokes that this is the first production where she has been able to use all three of her bachelor degrees in Asian studies, studio art and vocal performance.
In addition to singing, She has designed the set, costumes and promotional material for this production.
When she lived in Japan with a family, she learned how women function in Japanese society. She said Japanese men talk in low guttural voices that can sound aggressive, but women speak with softer inflections and at a higher pitch. They also move differently. In fact, she has hired a Japanese movement expert to coach the singers playing Japanese characters in this production.
She learned that as a mountainous island country, poor in resources, the Japanese tend to appreciate small things, from living spaces to art. According to her, the people tend to have different interior lives than Americans. She sees this in the Butterfly character, who says to her American lover Pinkerton in the first act, “Love me a little bit, love me like a child.”
While in Japan, Steyer learned about the Shintoism, the dominant religion in Japan. Unlike Christianity, Shinto is inclusive of other religions so that one can be Shinto and some other religion as well.
This helped her understand the radical gesture Butterfly makes after she meets Pinkerton at the outset of the opera by going to the local mission and converting to Christianity. That leads to her expulsion from her family and sets her on a course that will lead to her eventual suicide.
Madama Butterfly runs from June 8 through June 24 at Village Players Theatre in Oak Park. The opera will be performed in Italian with English narration. To purchase tickets, visit village-players.org or call the box office at 866/764-1010.