Tag Archives: The Humming Chorus

Lee Blakeley Talks Directing “The Humming Chorus”

Madame Butterfly (2016); Photo: Ken Howard

Madame Butterfly (2016); Photo: Ken Howard

“The Humming Chorus” is a rare moment of peace in the tragic love story that is Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. In the scene, Butterfly does not sing or move for three minutes. She holds a silent vigil, waiting for Pinkerton (her American husband) to return, while an off-stage chorus sings. “The Humming Chorus” is a scene that carries an enormous amount of emotional weight, highlighted in LA Opera’s current production by director Lee Blakeley’s novel take on which character the scene belongs to.

For Blakeley, whether he is directing theater or opera, it is all about storytelling. When he signed on to direct this production of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, he went back to basics. His primary job in the early stages of directing was to answer the question, “What do you strip away to find the essential truth of the piece?” He knew the first thing he had to do was rid himself of any preconceived notions of what the opera could be, which can be difficult with such a familiar work as Butterfly. With a blank sheet of paper and the libretto, he listened to Puccini’s music, while working through the text.

Blakeley came to understand that the essential truth – or theme – of Madame Butterfly is “loyalty in the face of adversity.” That singular theme informed all of Blakeley’s directorial choices for this production, whether it was the decisions he preplanned (for example, updating the setting to 1904, the year the opera premiered) or choices he “discovered along the way,” while working with singers.

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An Inspired Puccini Composes “The Humming Chorus”

Milena Kitic as Suzuki in Madame Butterfly (2016); Photo: Ken Howard

Milena Kitic as Suzuki in Madame Butterfly (2016); Photo: Ken Howard

In the fall of 1900, Giacomo Puccini sat in a London theater, mesmerized by a play entitled Madame Butterfly: A Tragedy of Japan. In the play, “Butterfly,” a Japanese geisha, abandoned by her American naval officer husband, Pinkerton, awaits his return. Puccini immediately grasped the operatic potential in the play’s doomed love story and clash of cultures. Yet one scene in particular—created by the play’s writer, producer and director, David Belasco—inspired him most of all.

Butterfly sits in the center of the stage, holding an overnight vigil, awaiting Pinkerton’s long-overdue return. For several long minutes, she does not speak. Time passes. The sun sets, the stars come out, fade, and then the sun rises again. In the audience, Puccini and those around him truly empathized with Butterfly. The powerful staging eliminated all the distractions, allowing them to focus solely on her emotional plight. It was at that moment that Puccini not only resolved to make Butterfly his next opera, but he also decided to make Butterfly’s vigil an arresting musical moment. Such a long stretch of silence had never been explored in opera and he was determined to see it come to life on the operatic stage.

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