The Jerusalem Opera performs Puccini

Butterflies abound for the lead soprano.

(photo credit: URI RUBINSTEIN)
Yasmine Levi-Ellentuck is no stranger to the Jerusalem Opera company, but she says that the upcoming production of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly is a new and far grander kettle of fish.
The 32-year-old soprano will play the title role in the three upcoming performances, which kick off at the Ashdod Center for the Performing Arts on December 28, followed by two shows at the Jerusalem Theatre on December 31 and January 2.
“I was in last year’s production of The Marriage of Figaro, but this one is much bigger,” says Levi-Ellentuck.
“The standard is much higher, we are playing in bigger auditoria, and there is a different orchestra.”
The latter refers to the Tel Aviv Soloists Ensemble, conducted by Omer Arieli. The international artist roster includes Italian stage director Gabriele Ribis, tenor Avi Klemberg, bass Yuri Kissin and mezzo-soprano Anna Peshes.
For Levi-Ellentuck, the Jerusalem production has been a long time coming, and Puccini’s opera is largely responsible for sparking her interest in the art form.
“It was the first opera I ever saw, when my grandmother took me to see it at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York for my bat mitzva. She was my stepgrandmother, and she’d been an opera singer herself in America. As a kid, I sang in a choir, and I studied piano at the music conservatory in Karmiel, but I didn’t really know what opera was,” she says.
In fact, Levi-Ellentuck’s grandmother had helped to prepare the groundwork for the youngster to get the most out of the experience.
“My grandmother wanted to introduce me to the world of opera.
She got us really good tickets, and she bought me a disc of the opera with [Italian soprano] Mirella Freni. I knew the opera really well, but I fell asleep in the middle of the show. It’s very long,” laughs Levi-Ellentuck.
Madame Butterfly became Levi- Ellentuck’s operatic touchstone, even though she never thought she’d get to sing in it, let alone take on the lead role.
“I knew the score of Madame Butterfly very well, but when I began to realize that I was moving in that direction [of becoming an opera singer], I didn’t think I’d be able to take part in the opera because it was for a certain type of voice, and that simply wasn’t me,” she says.
Levi-Ellentuck duly hit the opera singing road and began learning and performing a wide repertoire of scores, which did not include Puccini’s work.
“I was very surprised when Omer [Arieli] offered me the part in this opera,” she says, adding that the current venture ticks all kinds of personal boxes for her.
“When I’d talk to my late grandfather on the phone in America, he’d ask me to sing some aria from Madame Butterfly. So this is an emotional thing for me to play this role in the opera. And the storyline of the opera is very moving, too,” she explains.
Madame Butterfly was first performed at La Scala in Milan in 1904 and has sustained a high level of popularity. The story takes place in Nagasaki, Japan. The original plot is contemporary with Puccini’s era, but the current Jerusalem Opera rendition brings the action closer to the present, placing it in the aftermath of the obliteration of Nagasaki after the Americans dropped atomic bombs there and on Hiroshima in August 1945.
The tale centers around the marriage of American naval officer Lt. Pinkerton to a 15-year-old geisha, the title character. The lieutenant does not take the nuptials too seriously and soon abandons his young bride and returns to the United States. The teenager finds herself in a difficult position. She not only gives birth to a son, whom she cares for without the financial or emotional support of her absentee husband, but she also becomes a social outcast in Japan after taking on her husband’s religion.
For three long years Madame Butterfly steadfastly awaits her husband’s return. When he eventually shows up, he does so with his new wife by his side.
The teenager’s dreams are shattered, and a tragic end is inevitable.
“The story of this opera is very different from anything I have performed before,” says Levi- Ellentuck. “There is the history of the Japanese people and the geishas and also the story of the little boy.”
The latter provided the soprano with a hefty nonmusical challenge as well and forced her to take a step back from the emotional aspect.
“I connect very strongly with what happens with the baby. I want to have children myself some day.
It is a very difficult situation to deal with. Actually, I mainly worked on not connecting too strongly with the content of what I am going to sing. For the first month or so, when I got to the finale, I’d start to cry. It’s hard to sing that part,” she admits.
That must be quite a challenge. Anyone who has ever attended an opera performance, even the more comic ones, knows there is almost always an emotional outpouring. Levi-Ellentuck says she was given a good tip by her American voice coach about how to convey powerful feelings without being swept away herself.
“She said I should move the audience without being moved myself,” says the soprano. “She said I had to teach people how to feel what I needed to feel, what I felt in the past, and what they should feel.”
Madame Butterfly also offers a portent of the post-modern global village and highlights an encounter between highly contrasting cultures.
That will come across in the production’s set and costume designs.
For Levi-Ellentuck, the Jerusalem Opera production has been quite a formative experience.
“Butterfly is optimistic the whole time, and she never wavers in the three years she awaits her husband’s return,” she says. “It is only when she sees Pinkerton with his wife that she realizes that things are not going to work out the way she had dreamt. I am an optimistic person, so I had to do some work with myself to take that on board.”
‘Madame Butterfly’ will be performed on December 28 at the Ashdod Center for the Performing Arts; and December 31 and January 2 at the Jerusalem Theatre. For tickets and more information: *6226 and