Once again, the Israeli Opera has taken to the operatic messiah. Puccini's poignant tale "Madamma Butterfly" is one of love and honor, recounting the story of a young butterfly forced to face the pain and loss of her honor when the man she loves impregnates her then disappears. We spoke with the young butterfly herself, Italian soprano Susanna Branchini, to find out her story in four acts.
Act I: Opera
How did you first become interested in this genre of music?
My mother. She was a pianist and a singer as well (she studied singing at the Conservatory of Toronto). When I was young, I'd sing at home thinking I was alone and no one was listening…I was wrong! She discovered my potential.
What is your favorite character you've ever played and why?
Lady Macbeth. She is a really interesting character, very nuanced. I know she is not exactly the "sweetest" women, but it is so exciting to stand in her shoes. It is always a challenge, too, since her personality is so far from mine. She is perverse, thirsty in ambition, and manipulative.
Also do you have a favorite Opera /composer?
Obviously Macbeth. I think it is an absolute masterpiece.
How do you prepare to really get into the character you’re playing?
Obviously, I start by reading the score – Puccini especially gives so many details. Then I try to identify with aspects of my character through her parts.
Has any role been particularly challenging for you?
Abigaille in Nabucco was a challenge. It was about 3 years ago, during a period when I was receiving offers to perform my debut in that opera. But I was insecure. Then I started studying the daunting aria “anch’io dischiuso un giorno," and felt that sensation I get when I eat chocolate! So I faced that aria head on and in just one year, I played Abigaille in 5 different productions.
What other obstacles have you faced over the years?
Much like life, careers are full of obstacles. What matters is how we decide to interpret these obstacles. I believe that nothing happens accidentally; every obstacle offers an opportunity for growth.
Act II: Madamma Butterfly
Is this your first time playing Cio Cio San?
This is actually my third time. My first time was in Savona a small city in Liguria (north of Italy) in 2003… I was very young and unaware. I was reaquainted with Cio Cio San in 2008 in Caracalla (Rome), and now, I will play her in Tel Aviv this July.
Cio Cio is such a psychologically complex character. Are there parts of Cio Cio that you can relate to as Susanna?
Fortunately no. But I think that suffering speaks a universal language. That’s the reason why we go out from a "Madama Butterfly" performance completely torn. The story is devastating. Cio Cio's fragility hurts us, especially in the second act, when she is still hopeful. As an audience, we feel the utmost of empathy for her.
How is your chemistry with the actor who plays Pinkerton? Does chemistry always come right away or do you have to work on that as a lead female singer?
I live every role as if it is my first time playing it, as if I don’t know the story ahead. The same goes for Pinkerton. If I judge him before getting to know him, nothing good will come. We are colleagues in a theater production trying to realize the same objective: to give credibility to a very notorious story.
How would you summarize "Madamma Butterfly" to someone who knows nothing about it?
Like the name suggests, she truly is a butterfly. She appears in the first act as a caterpillar: young, naive, delicate. In the second act, she evolves into a woman as she discovers disillusionment, then she becomes a chrysalis. Once she reaches the apex of pain, she dies as a butterfly.
Act III: Israel, Italy, and Abroad
You've performed in Israel before eh?
Yes. This is my fourth time here in Tel Aviv. First, I sung "La Boheme" in the Mann Auditorium in 2006, then "Turandot" as Liù at the Israeli Opera in 2008. Last May, I played Leonora in "La Forza del Destino," and now….
What are you most excited about in returning?
Feeling at home. It is always a pleasure to come back and find the same friendly people you left.
Are there differences in performing in front of an Italian audience vs. any other audience worldwide?
Singing in front of an Italian audience is the same as singing in front of your parents.
Act IV: Personal Life
Do you listen to opera in your free time?
Not anymore. In my free time, I need to detox. I appreciate classical music, especially cello and renaissance music. It calms me.
What inspires you?
Authenticity. I know it sounds strange, but for me singing is an act of truth. I can not sing something that I don’t feel deeply.
What other musical genres do you like?
My veins flow with Caribbean blood (from my mother’s side).
When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?
On stage…..but with a stethoscope in hand. Both my grandfathers were doctors. I grew up handling these strange instruments, but my real dream was to be on stage breathing stardust.
What other hobbies do you have?
I love painting, reading, and tennis. First and foremost, however, I take care of my little dog Trillo, my delinquent Jack Russel.
Can you share some words of wisdom?
Life's too short to lose time arguing. Always forgive.
If you could go back in time and tell 10-year-old Susanna something, what would it be?
Do not let fear decide anything for you.
What can you tell aspiring sopranos/singers?
Keep a strong concentration and determination. Make your decisions consciously and rationally. Remember, your life is in your hands.
What's next for Susanna Branchini?
Tosca and Nabucco in the Arena.
"Madamma Butterfly" will be performed at the Israeli Opera throughout July. Check the EVENT for dates.