Language of love

By Andrea Estrada, South Coast Beacon

Lost love and a clash of cultures mark the opening of Opera Santa Barbara’s new season as the company presents Giacomo Puccini’s classic “Madama Butterfly,” opening Oct. 4 at the Lobero Theatre.

Shu-Ying Li, a rising young soprano from China, performs the title role as Cio Cio San, the Japanese geisha also known as Madama Butterfly, who falls in love with Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy.

Tenor Steven Harrison, who played Rodolfo in Opera Santa Barbara’s production of “La Boheme” last fall, returns to the Lobero from leading roles in Europe to play Pinkerton, the military man who marries Cio Cio San on a romantic whim but doesn’t take his vows seriously.

Baritone Mel Ulrich makes his Santa Barbara debut as Sharpless, the U.S. Consul at Nagasaki who, after discouraging the Pinkerton/Butterfly nuptials in the first place, has the unenviable (and, as it turns out, impossible) task of informing Cio Cio San that after three years away from her, Pinkerton has returned to the United States and taken an American bride. Madama Butterfly learns the truth when Pinkerton comes back to Nagasaki with his new wife. Grief-stricken, she seizes her father’s dagger and plunges it into her own chest.

Written at the turn of the 20th century and first performed at La Scala in Milan in 1904, “Madama Butterfly” tells a timeless tale of love, romance and heartbreak and of cultural differences that become a wedge to keep human beings apart. Opera Santa Barbara’s “Madama Butterfly” marks third productions for both Harrison and Ulrich. Harrison has sung the role of Pinkerton in Germany and Taiwan, while Ulrich has played Prince Yamadori in three performances and Sharpless in one. As a performer, Ulrich said, reprising a role or simply revisiting an opera as a whole give him a new perspective on the work. For Harrison, the difference (between one production and another) is somewhat internal. “Even in doing something far-fetched and far-out, there are similarities. The heartbeat and motivation of the characters are the same,” he explained. “That’s the reason they last for centuries. That’s what touches the audience. Whether you have Boheme on Mars, the relationship between the characters is what makes them the same.”

Harrison began his opera career in 1994 as an apprentice with the Santa Fe Opera. Having begun studying piano at the age of 5 and then taken up the oboe at 9, he started developing his voice about the time he went off to college. Since then, Harrison has gone on to perform at the Brussel’s Royal Opera La Monnaie, singing the roles of the jail keeper and the Grand Inquisitor in Luigi Dallapiccola’s “Il Prigioniero” and appeared as Don José in Bizet’s “Carmen” in Brussels, Ghent and Liège. Making his European debut as Don José in “Carmen” with the National Opera of Estonia, he was the first American opera singer to perform in that theater in more than 50 years.

Harrison has performed with the Syracuse Opera and the San Jose Symphony, the New York Opera, the Washington Opera and Opera Lyra in Ottawa, Canada. He made his Carnegie Hall debut with the Opera Orchestra of New York. Last year he made his Deutsche Opera am Rhein debut as Don José in “Carmen” and Turiddu in Cavalleria Rusticana. He also performed the Verdi Requiem with the Bangor Symphony in Maine and “Carmen” in Munchengladbach. One of his favorite places to perform, however, is Santa Barbara. “In my immediate memory I can’t bring to mind a more loving or nurturing environment,” he said, “one that embraces artists and nurtures them so they can perform at their best.”

Of all the roles Harrison has played, two have required him to push his creative envelope. Canio in Ruggiero Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” and Radames in Giuseppe Verdi’s “Aïda.” “Typically they’re sung by more experienced tenors,” he said. The characters were “brought to life” for him, he said, by his New York coach Martin Yazdzik. The ability to touch a person’s heart, Harrison added, makes a great performance.

Following his performances in Santa Barbara, Ulrich will return to his home base in Dallas to perform the role of Schaunard in “La Boheme.” He looks forward, he said, to sleeping in his own bed and spending time with his family. Then it’s off to Denver where he’ll reprise his role as Schaunard with Opera Colorado; Pittsburgh to play Escamillo in the Pittsburgh Opera production of “Carmen;” Washington, D.C., as Stanley Kowalski in André Previn’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” and San Francisco as Donald in San Francisco Opera’s “Billy Budd.”

Ulrich’s introduction to opera took place in Germany when he and a group of other high school students studying abroad attended a production of Mozart’s “Così fan Tutte.”  Although he didn’t enjoy that particular performance, Ulrich knew he liked to sing and during his sophomore year at the University of Washington in Seattle he auditioned for a part in “The Ring.” From there he became a member of the chorus of the Seattle Opera.

Since then, Ulrich has played the title role in New York City Opera’s “Don Giovanni” and performed at the Metropolitan Opera, Puerto Rico’s Teatro de la Opera, Florentine Opera Orlando Opera and the Salzburg Festival in Austria. Dividing his time between singing and parenting, Ulrich believes fatherhood has improved his stage work. “As an artist it makes you better,” he said of parenthood. “You’re forced to perform even when you’re feeling less than optimal. Your routine gets broken up so you’re less reliant on it.”

Harrison, a bachelor without so much as a cat to care for, agrees. “Singing is such a selfish career that your world becomes limited and narrow unless you expand your knowledge and open your eyes to the world around you.”