Pittsburgh Opera will launch its 2018-‘19 season (the company’s 80th) on Saturday evening, October 6, with the first of four performances of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. This perennial favorite, directed by Linda Brovsky, will mark the return of Antony Walker to the podium – a conductor sure to make the most of the composer’s exquisite orchestration, and the production includes a promising amount of vocal talent as well. Soprano Dina Kuznetsova will make her company debut in the title role, and tenor Cody Austin returns in the role of the American Lt. B.F. Pinkerton. Baritone Michael Mayes, who made such a favorable impression in his company debut in the spring, returns as Sharpless. Of special interest will be the return of mezzo-soprano Laurel Semerdjian, former Resident Artist with Pittsburgh Opera, in the role of Suzuki.
Ms. Semerdjian, last heard with the company in The Rake’s Progress, has sung the role of Suzuki with Syracuse Opera, and critic Linda Loomis noted a “honey-smooth mezzo-soprano voice and a stage presence that translate into a stunning performance.” When she sang the role with Sarasota Opera, June LeBell wrote that her “gorgeous voice, almost a contralto rather than a mezzo, was clear, clean and well produced,” and found her interpretation of the role “heartbreaking.”
Ms. Semerdjian’s versatile repertory with Pittsburgh Opera in past seasons includes the contemporary Meg March in Little Women and Gertrude Stein in 27, as well as older works such as Nabucco and Rodelinda. Her last performance in Pittsburgh, as the harrowing witch in Resonance Works’ Rusalka, was an operatic thrill not soon to be forgotten. She recently took the time to share some thoughts on the upcoming production of Madama Butterfly.
On the subject of returning to Pittsburgh Opera and the Benedum, she spoke with genuine enthusiasm. “I’m so excited! I can’t wait. It’s one of my favorite theaters to sing in. It’s so huge. The first time that I stepped out there as a Resident Artist when I did Otello, I just kept thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, this place is so huge. How is anyone going to hear me?’ But it’s actually the most forgiving place to sing, and it kind of feels like you’re singing in a giant bathtub. I’m really excited to be singing in Pittsburgh again. This feels like my home now, so I kind of feel like I have a little bit of the home court advantage.
“This is my first time working with Dina Kuznetsova. I’ve never met her before, so I’m really looking forward to getting to know her and working with her. When Pinkerton leaves, Butterfly and Suzuki are raising his child on their own, and they really are this beautiful parenting couple – this co-parenting couple – and the love story between the two of them is something that I just never get tired of. This is my third time doing the opera, and I never get tired of exploring it. It’s always fun to do it with a different ‘Butterfly,’ too because you get to explore your relationship with that person on and offstage. It’s just a really special role.”
On the complexities of her role: “There are so many balls that you have to juggle. You’re the onstage props mistress. You’re in charge of making the tea and striking props and making sure that the kid is where he or she needs to be at all times. Also, up and down, up and down on your knees, so knee pads are always a must for Suzuki. And then balancing that with this intense drama near the end when Suzuki knows what’s going to happen because she knows the tradition. She knows deep down that Butterfly will take her life out of honor, so you have to balance all of the drama on top of the things you have to remember as a singer. It’s a lot of work, but it’s so rewarding.”
“It’s such a moving piece,” she said of Madama Butterfly – and opera in general. “I think that even today it’s an applicable story. I think sometimes people think of opera as dated or inaccessible, but in this work, a very young woman falls in love and gets her heart completely shattered. I think it’s a really accessible story for everyone. And the music is just so amazing and so perfect in every way. I think if you’ve never seen an opera before and want to, this is a perfect first opera. Puccini is everything you can want in opera.”
And Ms. Semerdjian has demonstrated time and again that great singers such as herself are an integral part of opera, as well.
A Pittsburgh native, George B. Parous began his studies of music and the ‘cello in grade school before his interests turned to opera, its performers and history while in his teens. He has been acknowledged as a contributor or editor of several published works (the first being “Rosa Raisa, A Biography of a Diva,” Northeastern University Press, 2001), and is currently working on his own biography of the German-American dramatic soprano, Johanna Gadski, who sang at the Metropolitan during the “Golden Age of Opera.” A retired IT Analyst, he is an avid genealogist, and has traced his maternal line to 8th century Wessex, England. He’s been a contributor to Pittsburgh in the Round since 2014.