Robert Wilson’s “Butterfly” Poses in LA

Patricia Racette is a gifted artist. She has a beautiful voice, a natural instinct for the stage, and good looks to match. On her own she could probably come up with a memorable characterization of Cio-Cio San, Giacomo Puccini’s immortal jilted geisha – so when I learned that Los Angeles Times music critic, Mark Swed, had found fault with her performance in the LA Opera’s current production of Madama Butterfly, I was absolutely certain it was not Racette’s failure.

Only an inept stage director could get a poor performance out of Racette. That director might ask her to do something absurd – like sing a passionate love duet with somebody she neither faces nor touches, rave about the beauty of a million shining stars that are not out tonight, or deliver a heartrending farewell to her son when that little boy is a mile upstage. Yes, we’re talking about that insanely inept non-director of actors, Robert Wilson.

Wilson doesn’t want actors or singers. He wants “models” – although here I am borrowing the term from the famous film director, Robert Bresson, who demanded that his performers NOT act. He chose amateurs whenever possible, and he used them only once, never in a subsequent film. The fact that his Pickpocket and Au hasard Balthazar are great films is something of a mystery, really, since everyone in them is walking around and delivering their lines like zombies.

Unlike a film director, however, a stage director cannot truly control everything through selective editing – and thus Wilson’s “living installations,” as I like to call them (see my review of his Parsifal), do not work as well as Bresson’s films. Wilson deliberately eliminates stage directions specified by the librettist, obfuscates stage action to the point that only those already familiar with the opera know what is going on (rarely even then), and seems determined to create a visual world that operates independently of the text that inspired it.

Of course, 90 percent of the time, Butterfly comes to us laden with production clichés and its quaint 19th century racist caricatures. Costumes, sets and acting usually reinforce these. Wilson is to be thanked for discarding all of that. What Japanese influences he does use (although he makes them quite his own) come from Zen temple garden designs and the traditions of Nōh and Kabuki theaters. These are apt and marvelous influences. But Wilson’s stylized, ritualistic staging can inhibit what is best and most exciting in Western opera – the opportunity for artists to look into themselves, discover their characters and express deep emotion. In other words, Wilson’s work with actors is as far from the Stanislavsky method as it’s possible to get.

So, you have wonderful performers – Marcus Haddock as B.F. Pinkerton, Vladimir Chernov as Sharpless, Margaret Thompson as Suzuki, Peter Blanchet as Goro — and a fine orchestra conducted by Dan Ettinger – and what do you get? In this case, a very well-sung and conducted Butterfly, and a pleasant relief from your average Butterfly experience. But there is a price to pay.

In a Robert Wilson production of anything, everything is about Robert Wilson. It’s certainly not about Gluck, Wagner or Puccini, or any of the other composers upon whom Wilson has chosen to set his dehumanized, abstract visual fantasies.

Not that many of these fantasies are not extremely beautiful. If you require human beings to move around like automatons and to pose like statues or painted figures on a Greek vase with their hands riveted into spade-like forms or splayed like twisted branches, you can achieve some astonishing, even memorable effects; and if you place these half-frozen people in vast minimalist landscapes in which subtle lighting variations replace nearly all traditional stage settings, you may achieve an aesthetic effect of stunning austerity.

Unfortunately, if you are not seated dead center in a theater during a Wilson production, you will see many things that interfere with the purity of his vision. For instance, during the recent Wilson Madame Butterfly in Los Angeles, you might have been seated high up, very near the stage, but quite close to the auditorium wall, stage left. From that position you might have enjoyed Wilson’s highly stylized costumes, most of Stephanie Engeln’s elegant Zen sand-and-rock garden floor design, much of Heinrich Brunke’s complicated (but often irrelevant or awkwardly executed) lighting scheme – but you would also see literally half the stage dominated by the theater’s “teasers,” the hangings and/or solid constructions that are intended to mask the stage wings from the audience’s view.

True, such masking devices are a trademark of many standard productions, but in Wilson, where the purity of the visual picture is paramount, theater teasers are an embarrassment – and if the spotlight handlers cannot get their lights precisely pinned on the faces of the singers (that is, if the spotlight trails the performers as they move about, or if the light jiggles as it finds its target), more of the artistic integrity is shattered. In Butterfly, poor Cio-Cio San famously remarks that she has heard that in America people kill butterflies and pin them to a board. Ironically, Wilson illustrates this callous disregard for real life by nailing the characters in Puccini’s opera with spikes light from which the humans move at their hazard.

A puzzle, to me at least, is why so very many things in Wilson’s Butterfly are mimed whilst others are not. For instance, Cio-Cio San holds a real match to Pinkerton’s letter, but when it comes time for her ritual suicide, the hara-kiri sword inscription and the sword itself are invisible props. And it is not clear exactly how Cio-Cio San does herself in with this invisible object. She just keels over and dies (in little spasms), as if Suzuki had just served her some bad sushi, probably that deadly poison fugo so treasured in Japan.

In the long run, Wilson offers an often ravishing visual picture which sabotages itself by being set for one viewer only – Wilson himself, sitting dead center in the theater. (Actually, I doubt he even comes around for these old shows. He gets some “associate” like Christiane Lèvêque to come in and recreate them for him.) This Butterfly was invented in 2003 and exists on a videotape. And, in fact, it is in many ways his most successful creation. If you must go to a Wilson show, this is the one to see.

You may even like it – and Racette alone is worth the price of admission.


Los Angeles Opera


Saturday January 21, 2006 7:30 p.m.

Wednesday January 25, 2006 7:30 p.m.

Sunday January 29, 2006 2:00 p.m.

Wednesday February 1, 2006 7:30 p.m.

Saturday February 4, 2006 7:30 p.m.

Wednesday February 8, 2006 7:30 p.m.

Sunday February 12, 2006 2:00 p.m.

Thursday February 16, 2006 7:30 p.m.

Sunday February 19, 2006 2:00 p.m.


Patricia Racette — CIO-CIO SAN

Marcus Haddock — PINKERTON

Richard Troxell — PINKERTON (FEB 16 & 19)

Vladimir Chernov — SHARPLESS

Malcolm MacKenzie — SHARPLESS (FEB 16 & 19)

Margaret Thompson — SUZUKI

Peter Blanchet — GORO

Wayne Tigges — THE BONZE

Andrew Wilkowske — PRINCE YAMADORI


Jinyoung Jang — COMMISSIONER

Peter Nathan Foltz — REGISTRAR


Maryanne Mancini — THE MOTHER

Donna Marie Covert — THE AUNT

Adrien Raynier — THE COUSIN


CONDUCTOR – Dan Ettinger

ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR – Christiane Lèvêque

SET DESIGNER – Stephanie Engeln

COSTUME DESIGNER – Frida Parmeggiani



3 hours


One hour prior to each performance.


Duff Murphy from 91.5 Classical KUSC will lead the pre-performance lecture.


Pre-performance lectures are generously sponsored by the Flora L. Thornton Foundation and the Opera League of Los Angeles.

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