Seattle Opera's new production of "Madama Butterfly," opening May 5, 2012, marks the company debut of acclaimed soprano Patricia Racette, who invests her young geisha Cio-Cio-San with vocal prowess, experience, passion — and nuances of classical Japanese theater.

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Which Italian opera was based on a Broadway play that was adapted from an American short story, inspired by a true incident in Japan, as evoked in a French novel?

That pan-global lineage belongs to “Madama Butterfly,” the 1904 opera classic, and composer Giacomo Puccini’s favorite among all his operatic works. One of the most-performed operas in the world, “Madama Butterfly” conveys through its mellifluous score the heart-rending tale of a romance between a young Japanese woman and an American naval officer, and its tragic aftermath.

Seattle Opera’s new production of “Madama Butterfly” marks the company debut of acclaimed soprano Patricia Racette, who has won bravos in the demanding lead role of 15-year-old geisha Cio-Cio-San. She has logged more than 100 performances in the part, at the Metropolitan Opera, the Sydney Opera and elsewhere.

In addition to her vocal prowess, experience and passion, Racette invests her Cio-Cio-San with something else: nuances of classical Japanese theater.

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Between rehearsals in Seattle, Racette reminisced about her memorable introduction to singing “Madama Butterfly,” in the late 1980s.

“I was young and green and part of the Merola young-artists program at the San Francisco Opera,” said the petite, vivacious American diva. “This was the first opera I’d sung in a foreign language.

“We went over to Japan for a month on a cultural-exchange program. And I studied there with Japanese teachers who taught us so much, like how to move and walk like a geisha. A samurai even taught me how to commit the ritual suicide. Before we did a performance of ‘Butterfly’ at the gravesite of the first Japanese singer to do the role, Tamaki Miura, I was wrapped in eight layers of kimonos.”

The evolution of “Butterfly”

Racette brings that cross-cultural adventure to an opera embraced in the East and the West but also recently critiqued, in some circles, for its European, Imperialist-era view of all-consuming love and self-sacrifice.

It all began with 19th-century “paper marriages”: unions between Japanese women and Western visitors to Japan, which the men viewed as convenient temporary arrangements but their partners took more to heart. There was one fabled incident of a singer in Nagasaki, Japan, with the stage name Butterfly, who married a Scotsman, gave birth to their son and was abandoned by her husband. His brother “reclaimed” the child and raised it with his wife as their own.

That poignant tale stirred the imagination of Pierre Loti, a French writer and naval officer familiar with Japan, and became the fodder for his novel “Madame Chrysanthemum” — the basis of a lesser-known opera by French composer André Messager.

But what moved Puccini to compose his own version was a play titled “Madame Butterfly” by prominent American writer-producer David Belasco, adapted from the John Luther Long short story of the same title. Long had the bereft wife Cio-Cio-San commit suicide after her husband, Lt. Pinkerton, left her and Japan — and years later, returned with a new American wife.

Watching Belasco’s short play in London in 1900, Puccini reportedly was deeply moved — despite his tenuous grasp of the English language. The “exotic” setting, the outsized passions, the cruel misunderstandings and tragic climax were the stuff Italian opera was made of.

Today it is easy to view the piece as a projection of Western fantasies about Japanese culture, young Japanese women as exquisitely devoted love objects and part of a vogue for “Orientalia” that swept Europe after long-isolated Japan opened its borders to the West in the 1850s and exposed its vibrant cultural traditions.

Would a very young woman in Cio-Cio-San’s position have risked being renounced by her family to marry an American? Would she have committed suicide with her father’s sword to save face?

These are questions a social historian might answer quite differently than an artist of Puccini’s temperament and attraction to tragic operatic heroines (Mimi in “La Bohème,” Manon in “Manon Lescaut,” etc.).

But Puccini didn’t just rely on sentiment. Though he had never been to Japan, he avidly studied and incorporated some of its musical traditions and devices into his score. He also consulted with the wife of Japan’s ambassador to Italy, who knew of true stories very similar to Butterfly’s and introduced him to Japanese folk songs from which he borrowed.

As a leading contemporary Butterfly, Racette defends Puccini’s conception of the character heartily.

“I don’t like that image of her as a helpless victim,” she declared. “She is the victim of circumstances, of a tragic cross-cultural misunderstanding.

“And she’s a human being. She has moments of doubt. She’s real, and relatable.”

Racette noted that after the famously disastrous 1904 premiere of “Madama Butterfly” in Milan, Puccini revised the opera significantly over its next several (and far more successful) engagements — making, in her words, “Cio-Cio-San more assertive, and Pinkerton less of a jackass.”

Getting the geisha right

Racette has starred in productions of the opera ranging from the very conventional to the very postmodern. She describes the Seattle Opera version, directed by Peter Kazaras, as somewhere in between the two.

Racette’s rich, robust voice earns raves in the part, but her detailed and sympathetic portrayal of Cio-Cio-San is much admired, too. In a Metropolitan Opera “Madama Butterfly” staged by film director Anthony Minghella, The New York Times praised Racette’s “facial expressions, gestures and physical tics” as those “of an innocent, trusting girl” and concluded, “Hers is a performance not to be missed.”

Such accolades may stem in part, Racette agrees, from that month in Japan years ago. “I still get goose bumps when I think of our movement teacher showing us the tiniest movements of a geisha’s walk: her gestures, the way she holds a teacup. It was something I will never forget.”

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