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'Butterfly' Recollections

Director Ron Daniels Uses Flashbacks to Tell the Tale of Troubled Love in the Far East

November 03, 1998|CHRIS PASLES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Puccini begins his "Madama Butterfly" with a busy fugue to indicate the bustle of activity surrounding the upcoming marriage of Cio-Cio San, the title character, and American naval Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton.

But director Ron Daniels starts his production for Opera Pacific--which opens today and runs through Sunday in Costa Mesa--in silence.

"A man walks on stage and looks at this beautiful Japanese box, something he's not seen in many years," Daniels said during a recent interview over lunch near the Orange County Performing Arts Center. "He opens it, picks up some old photographs, looks at them for a moment, puts them back, picks up this American flag, unravels it . . . and at that moment the music starts."

The man is Trouble, Cio-Cio San and Pinkerton's child, now 40. He is rediscovering in the course of the opera the story of his mother, who committed suicide so that he could grow up an American.

"It's a very simple framework that allows me to do certain bold strokes that otherwise would not be possible," Daniels said. "Trouble appears, but he doesn't speak at all. He looks up and he begins to visualize the opera.

"So that is the extent of his participation at the beginning. After a while, I take him out and then I bring him in again at certain points just to witness it. Dramaturgically, his presence just allows me to say, 'Right, there was this image, and then this image and this image.' But the focus remains on Butterfly.

"This is a love story. The story of this woman who sacrifices herself to allow her son never to look back," he said. "That's why she kills herself."

Daniels sees himself primarily as "a storyteller."

He sees Pinkerton, for instance, more as a boy than as a culpable ugly American. "He's an 18-year-old sailor," Daniels said. "He's irresponsible, a vagabond and not necessarily aware of consequences, which is what he learns in the course of the opera."

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The director also has definite ideas about Sharpless, the American consul at Nagasaki, where the story takes place.

"I have a feeling that Sharpless is secretly, completely in love with Butterfly. He's enthralled by the sound of her voice. My sense is that it is Sharpless who has been paying her rent all these years."

The production was created last year for San Francisco Opera, which ran it as if it were a Broadway show--a performance every night for a month.

"We had four casts in San Francisco," Daniels said. "What [general director] Lotfi [Mansouri] . . . was interested in was the notion that this type of run would allow people to come to the opera who had never been to the opera before.

"So there was clearly a responsibility to encounter the opera freshly, not with the notion that people will have seen it many times and are interested in a [new] reading, but something that was attractive, popular, direct and told the story.

"One of the things I often talk about either with designers or actors is the idea of the Japanese garden: You take away, you take away, until you reveal the essence. So there are these quite beautiful, strong images.

"Every single image [set and costume designer] Michael Yeargan and I discussed in great detail," Daniels said. "The very last gesture of the opera is [where Trouble] embraces his own childhood. He embraces the child, the old Trouble, as if he has now come to terms with his past."

British by extraction but Brazilian by birth and upbringing, Daniels, who is in his mid-50s, in some ways can identify with Trouble.

"I only went to England [for the first time] when I was 21," he said. "So I have been, as it were, a cross-cultural exile. So I'm very interested in that. . . . I thought that notion of the Japanese tradition wrapped in an American flag in many ways symbolizes a lot what cross-culture is, the two cultures actually inhabiting one human being."

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He studied acting in Brazil and was a founder of the Teatro Oficina in Sa~o Paulo. In 1977, he began a 15-year stint as an associate director with the Royal Shakespeare Company, followed by five years with the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass.

His first (and only other) opera production was Mozart's "Il Re Pastore" for Boston Lyric Opera in 1997. He found directing it "amazingly difficult [because] all the narrative events don't match the musical events and all the musical events don't match the narrative events," he said.

"But working with Puccini is something different," he said. "With Puccini, every single dramatic event is matched by a musical event. The music is a blueprint. In many ways, it's quite easy to direct because you have this blueprint. So you yield to that, and it becomes very pleasurable."

His next projects are plays.

"I'm doing Shakespeare's 'Macbeth' in New York, and then I'm doing 'Lear' in Sa~o Paulo. I'm also doing a workshop of a new play in Seattle and I've tried to set up some movies [in Los Angeles].

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