Current Issue #477

State Opera soprano Bethany Hill’s Butterfly-Mikado balancing act

Soda Street Productions
Bethany Hill in Keep the Home Fires Burning, State Opera South Australia

Opera goers have two vastly different works to choose between when State Opera South Australia rolls out Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado and Puccini’s Madama Butterfly in November. With 11 concurrent performances sandwiched into one fortnight, Adelaide soprano Bethany Hill faces an even bigger challenge.

After a five-year absence Butterfly revisits the Festival Theatre stage in a visually opulent production by Kate Cherry that played in Seattle in 2017. Meanwhile Mikado comes in a widely admired, sparkling production by Stuart Maunder first shown in Queensland in 2011.

These two works, of course, lie at very opposite ends of the spectrum. One catapults us into the headiest depths of emotion while the other serves up romping light-hearted fun. But in their respective ways Butterfly and Mikado are both touchstones of the operatic art. Which one likes the most is entirely up to the individual – and it all answers to State Opera’s catch-cry of bringing more opera to more people.

Just imagine, though, what it is like for a singer who is in both operas, switching daily between characters while these productions run simultaneously. For there is one singer who will be doing just that: Adelaide soprano Bethany Hill. She takes the supporting roles of Kate Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly and Pitti-Sing in The Mikado.

“The roles are vastly different,” says Hill. “The challenge for me is working out how to sing a matinee of Pitti-Sing and then having a couple of hours to regroup before singing Kate Pinkerton in the evening, because it involves a complete psychological shift. But it’s exciting and I love this kind of work. You are getting more repertoire to the audience.”

Bernard Hull
Hill performs in Dido and Aeneas

The challenge starts with employing two radically dissimilar singing techniques. For Puccini it is a lung-filled, soaring bel canto style, whereas in Gilbert and Sullivan delivery has to be fast-paced and more allied to speech.

“You certainly can’t sing both of them the same way,” Hill explains. “One always approaches things with the same base technique, because that is really important for opera. In Puccini, the text is sung through a beautiful legato line, and the emotion is contained within that big, full sound. But in singing Gilbert and Sullivan, it’s all about the text rather than a constantly beautiful sound. You need a beautiful sound, but the words need to be more important because it’s almost like a sung play.”

Then it means becoming the characters of Kate Pinkerton and Pitti- Sing for two weeks. Both are supporting roles, but they are crucially important in their respective operas. The former is the American wife of US naval officer Pinkerton (who will be sung by Angus Wood) who has arguably the most pivotal moment in the whole opera when, in the final act, she confronts Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly, sung by Mariana Hong) and asks her to give up the child she has borne of Pinkerton.

“Kate comes in at the end and she has just a couple of lines to deliver. She tells Butterfly ‘I’ll have the child, I’ll take it back’. She’s not a black and white character. She’s just doing the thing that needs to be done, doing it to save her husband’s reputation. That’s why there is this wonderful contrast, because by the end of the opera Butterfly is hysterical and overcome with emotion. Kate Pinkerton can’t be that form of emotion – she is poised and reserved.”

Pitti-Sing could not be more different and yet she too exercises a powerful influence. She is a constant presence in Mikado and a hub around whom much of this opera’s free-flowing action spins. “She is one of three little maids and plays the spunky best friend of Yum-Yum, the lead soprano. She is just buzzing all the time but is wise beyond her years. So while she enjoys the ridiculousness of all the characters around her, she I think also enjoys the complexity of situations. And she gets great moments when, for example, she is the only one who stands up against Katisha, the villainess.”

Supporting, or ‘comprimario’ roles as they are also known in opera, can be like this. Typically they are maids, servants or confidantes who add dramatic texture to situations and can even profoundly alter the course of action.

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“Often they are bigger than may be assumed. They can even be leading roles if you choose to play them that way and if the director wants,” says Hill.

“My job is to do them both with integrity. So the way I approach Pitti- Sing is just as important as for Kate Pinkerton, because even though the emotions are different, they are nevertheless big emotions. In Mikado they’re emotions of joy and of fun. It’s light, but I think we need a lot of joy and fun in the current climate. My job is to help tell the story and to access emotions on behalf of the audience.”

As for how the two productions will look on stage? They will honour these respective works in different ways, says Hill.

“Stuart’s Mikado is highly colourful – he calls it ‘Hello Kitty on steroids’. So the look is contemporary, with big hair, big shoes and lots of frivolity. But what is really clever is that Stuart has presented a staging that places emphasis on the fun of the production while honouring its original concept and music. It will be something that all audiences can really love and enjoy.”

Kate Cherry’s production of Madama Butterfly has a completely different kind of energy. “It is a really luscious, traditional setting. It plays on traditional Japanese motifs and is all beautiful textiles and colours. I do love different interpretations in opera, but I also really love it when people go right back and do traditional settings. Here you are given a really beautiful look into how Butterfly would have been when Puccini premiered it.”

Two contrasting worlds they are, but each of them exhilarating as only opera can be.

9 – 23 November

Gilbert and Sullivan – The Mikado

14 – 23 November

Madama Butterfly

Graham Strahle

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