First female conductor at NNTT performs 'Madama Butterfly'

by Chiho Iuchi

Staff Writer

Japanese audiences, especially women, may have mixed feelings about Giacomo Puccini’s opera “Madama Butterfly.”

However, they may become intrigued when they learn that a new production, which tells the story of a geisha abandoned by her U.S. Navy officer husband, is being staged under the baton of Canadian Keri-Lynn Wilson — the first woman to conduct an orchestra at the New National Theatre, Tokyo (NNTT) in its 16-year history.

Ahead of her shows in Japan this fact was the last thing on Wilson’s mind.

“My approach is to just hope that everybody is judging me as a musician and not as a female,” she says. “I think it is a waste of my energy . . . if I have to think, ‘OK, they are judging me because I am a woman.’ It just doesn’t help me.”

Wilson, 46, admits audiences may still take note of her gender, but believes that orchestras are over it within five minutes after they start making music together.

Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Wilson played the flute, piano and violin growing up, and had a special affinity for the symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven and Anton Bruckner.

She studied flute and then conducting at The Juilliard School in New York. It was in those days that she also developed an interest in opera. She would often go to the city’s Metropolitan Opera, where her future husband, Peter Gelb, would eventually serve as general manager. She has been active conducting both operas and orchestras around the world since she was 23 years old.

Collaborating with the NNTT, Wilson says she has the utmost appreciation for the orchestra and choir as well as the technical crew. She also suggests, though, that the venue should provide English subtitles and aim for more co-productions with major overseas opera houses. Those two things, she says, could help the NNTT expand its non-Japanese audience.

When speaking about “Madama Butterfly,” Wilson admits the plot is “completely old-fashioned.” She adds that modern independent women generally do not sacrifice their lives to a man in the same way that the opera’s vulnerable lead character Cio-Cio San did.

“(However,) it’s a beautiful story of love and obviously a tragedy,” Wilson says. “Puccini was fascinated by this story and Japanese culture. His way of interpreting Japanese culture in his language of music, how he combines the words with music and highlights the libretto are amazing.”

The role of Cio-Cio San is set to be played by Greek soprano Alexia Voulgaridou. Wilson says there might be some weight on her shoulders ahead of the performance.

“I think there’s a certain pressure on a Cio-Cio San who has to perform in Japan if she is not Japanese,” she says. “The singer is extremely conscious of the movements of Japanese women, so I feel sorry for her with all these women in the audience who are staring at her every gesture.”

“Madama Butterfly” has been performed at the NNTT twice so far this time around. Voulgaridou, who performed the title role on Feb. 2, played the 15-year-old as naturally as Russian tenor Mikhail Agafonov performed the role of Lt. B.F. Pinkerton and Japanese baritone Eijiro Kai as American Consul Sharpless. Although Voulgaridou’s high tone during the climax was just shy of perfect, her deep and gentle voices impressively conveyed the sorrow and despair of the young woman.

Wilson’s precise and sensitive baton led the orchestra at a proper pace, laying off the tempo rubato. This produced a balanced tension between the instrumentation and the singers. She proved that Puccini’s music, “which has so much emotion in it,” is what makes the story seem real. Though the situation is old-fashioned, the audience was no doubt convinced of the love between the couple during a long duet on their wedding night, and the betrayal Cio-Cio San feels as she takes her life in front of her child in the finale. With Wilson making history at the podium, though, this particular woman felt somewhat satisfied.

“Madama Butterfly” will be performed at the New National Theater, Tokyo, on Feb. 5 (7 p.m.) and Feb. 8 (2 p.m.). Tickets cost between ¥1,500 and ¥21,000. For more information, call 03-5352-9999 or visit