Israeli Conductor Soars in ‘Butterfly’


Madame Butterfly,” the story of a trusting 19th-century Japanese girl who falls in love with a fickle American naval officer, first captivated American audiences in 1900 as a play by impresario David Belasco. The Italian opera composer Giacomo Puccini saw the play’s London production and commented later that though he didn’t speak English, he completely understood the passionate characters and the emotion-laden story, which depicts the couple’s love affair and ends in tragedy. Puccini turned the story into “Madama Butterfly,” a work that has since become one of the greatest hits of the operatic world, beloved by directors and performers alike.

Among the most striking recent productions of this wildly emotional piece was one staged by the minimalist director Robert Wilson, which had its American premiere at Los Angeles Opera in 2004 to great acclaim. The production returns to Los Angeles in January, with an Israeli conductor at the podium and a celebrated soprano making her local debut. Patricia Racette, who has cut a wide swath through the classic Italian repertoire while creating roles in new American operas, will head the cast as Cio-Cio-San.

Puccini’s first attempt to set “Madame Butterfly” to music, mounted at La Scala in 1904, was unsuccessful, but a revised version later that year became one of the world’s most frequently produced operas. While Puccini incorporated Asian sounds into the opera, the score is filled with the lush, soaring music associated with the Italian composer.

Wilson’s austere production places the singers on an almost bare stage and restricts them to slow, precise movements influenced by Noh theater and modern dance.

“If you weren’t hearing Puccini coming out of the orchestra pit … you’d swear it was an opera by Philip Glass,” one commentator wrote of the 2004 production.

The spareness of the physical production doesn’t faze conductor Dan Ettinger, however, although the 34-year-old Israeli describes himself as “very emotional and dramatic.”

Ettinger, who conducted “Aida” for the L.A. Opera in 2004, told The Journal that he plans to counter the emotionality of “Madama Butterfly” with strict attention to rhythm.

“Many singers and opera listeners think Puccini’s music is free, because it loses its way in wonderful melodies and emotional expression,” he said. “But actually all of his operas are composed with very strict rhythm instructions that serve the drama well.

“This balance between wild emotions and strict rhythm in my music making should match Wilson’s minimalist physical production. I believe that the less the singers do physically on stage will bring out the inner emotion and drama that are so well built in Puccini’s score,” added the Holon-born Ettinger, who recently became music director and principal conductor of the Israel Symphony Orchestra and also conducts for the Staatsoper Berlin.

The production also marks Patricia Racette’s first visit to a Los Angeles stage, a debut long awaited by local opera lovers. She has sung many of the leading roles in the Verdi and Puccini repertoire, along with roles in classic French, Czech and Russian operas, to critical acclaim and ecstatic audiences around the world.

Racette, 37, is known as a champion of new works and has created leading roles in recent operas by Tobias Picker and Carlisle Floyd. In fact, Racette comes to Los Angeles from the world premiere of Picker’s opera “An American Tragedy,” based on the Theodore Dreiser novel, for the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

She performs regularly with the Metropolitan Opera, the San Francisco Opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Santa Fe Opera and the Houston Grand Opera. Covering performances earlier this year in Verdi’s “Falstaff” and Janacek’s “Jenufa,” reviewer D.L. Groover of the Houston Press called Racette “a consummate actor” and “one of opera’s greatest assets.”

She sang Cio-Cio-San in Houston last year, her first production of “Madama Butterfly” since her workshop days fresh out of North Texas State University.

“She brings this na?ve, terribly honorable girl to life just by the way she delicately closes her square paper parasol, or lightly dances a few geisha movements, or gently covers her mouth in embarrassment, or fiercely embraces her child in their last good-bye,” reviewer Groover wrote. “Racette, with effortless ease of tone and phrasing, with dramatic surety and star presence, is in a league of her own.”

But Racette gives just as much attention to characterization in the older European roles she performs, speaking in past interviews of the challenges of working with characters that seem two-dimensional or unbelievable to contemporary American audiences.

Puccini’s music, Racette told a Houston Chronicle interviewer, lends itself well to her voice, and she finds Cio-Cio-San an interesting and complex character. The role does present the challenge, she said, of acting like a demure geisha while singing like an Italian diva.

But she succeeded in doing just that in Houston, and in a way that should serve her well in Wilson’s austere mounting.

“Racette conquered the basic dilemma of the role: how to look Japanese, act 15 and sing like a hot-blooded Italian two or three times that age,” reviewer Charles Ward wrote in the Houston Chronicle. “Outwardly, the geisha was graceful and respectful; Racette’s stylized movement was effortless. Inwardly, she had a steely, single-minded commitment to idealized love.”

The L.A. Opera’s production of “Madama Butterfly” opens Saturday, Jan. 21, at 7:30 p.m., at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, with subsequent evening performances on Jan. 25 and Feb. 1, 4, and 8, and matinees on Jan. 29 and Feb. 12 and 19. Tickets to “Madama Butterfly” range from $30 to $205, and are on sale at the L.A. Opera Box Office, by phone at (213) 972-8001 or online at www.laopera.com.

 

Jewish Advocacy, Guerrilla Style


The set is a converted garage in Pico-Robertson. Eight Hollywood hopefuls dressed in T-shirts and cargo pants, holding shovels and frying pans, are waiting for the camera to start rolling.

A boom mike looms overhead and a klieg light shines in their faces, but for screenwriter Shlomo Heimler, these things matter less than the fact that for him this shoot, which advertises volunteering in Israel, is one with soul.

“This is the most meaningful work I have ever done,” the 38-year-old former advertising art director said. “When you go to work, there are typically no emotions involved, but this is all heart and soul, for everyone.”

Heimler, who is from Chicago, is one of 15 fellows of Jewish Impact Films Fellowship (JIFF), a local organization that is training budding filmmakers from all over America and Israel to make short films that will serve the Jewish community and Israel. The fellows were chosen from 100 applicants for their commitment to — and idealism for — Jewish causes. They came to Los Angeles to spend three weeks in a Jewish film boot camp that gave them a crash course in the basics of filmmaking as well as lectures in Israel advocacy and Jewish philosophy. They were also assigned to write, direct and produce three or four short films on Israel and Judaism.

JIFF’s mission mirrors that of another local organization, JFlicks, which also wants to use the tools of Hollywood to create meaningful and fun films that will repackage Judaism for a media-savvy generation. But while JFlicks are 8- to 10-minute documentaries, JIFF films are 1- to 2-minute one-concept affairs, more like commercials than films. Like moveon.org and reelectbush.com, Web sites that revolutionized grass-roots political advocacy with their “homemade” advertisements that users can send in, JIFF wants to create a guerrilla-style Jewish advocacy. Organizers hope the program’s short, sharp, very-low-budget films will spread like a virus from Jewish computer to Jewish computer via e-mail and Web ads, inspiring all who watch them to be proud of being Jewish and ready to go to Israel.

“The Internet is such a powerful tool to get the word out,” said Michael Borkow, a senior fellow at JIFF and the co-executive producer of the Fox sitcom “Quintuplets.” “I just think this is a brilliant idea to use the talent and resources that are available here in Hollywood to try and get some positive and well deserved publicity for Israel and Jewish themes.”

JIFF was developed by Borkow along with David Sacks and Jason Venokur, two observant TV producers; David Weiss, an observant screenwriter; and Rabbi Yaacov Deyo from Aish HaTorah.

During the first week the organizers bought in guest lecturers like Danny Kaufman, an experienced commercial director, who spoke about getting a message across in film; Barry Edelstein, a Shakespearean director from New York who lectured on directing actors; and Bob Hayes, who gave the group a crash course in lighting. In addition to that, the group heard from actor/comedian Larry Miller, who spoke about his journey to Judaism, representatives from Palestinian Media Watch and the Middle East Media Research Institute and received lectures in Jewish philosophy from Rabbi Daniel Feldman of Yeshiva University. The group also had many brainstorming sessions where they tossed around ideas about different short films they could make and they started writing the scripts, which Sacks and company critiqued for them.

Production started the second week. The fellows worked together assembling actors who would work gratis, finding locations and getting props, all for a budget of $50 per film. By the end of the fellowship they had made 30 films in all, ranging in subjects and concepts.

Some, like Heimler’s “Stop the bleeding” which showed red-colored news photos of terror attacks in Israel, which were meant to draw attention to the Middle East conflict and stopping terrorism. Others like Bonnie Lipsey’s “The world is an unreasonable place. Meet it on its own terms. Do good deeds without reason,” highlighted an aspect of Jewish philosophy. Lipsey said the quote belongs to the Lubavitcher Rebbe. The film showed a grown man sitting and playing with toys in a toy store; in the next shot he goes to give the toys to sick children in hospital.

“I came to this program a little leery, because a lot of the Israel advocacy people I have known are a turn-off,” said Katie Reisner who will be a sophomore at Brown University this year. “Even though I have strong feelings on the subject, I veered away from the debates in school because they were so polemical. This program showed me a fine balance, and I have been really impressed with the nuances that people are willing to delve into.”

One of Reisner’s films is of a woman who is arguing with herself about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The fellows themselves say the program has inspired them not to win Academy awards, but to become more involved in Israel advocacy and Jewish observance.

“It clicked to me that I need to go [to Israel] and help out in any way and for a long period of time,” Heimler said. “This inspired me to actively support Israel physically.”

For more information, visit www.jewishimpactfilms.com .

7 Days In Arts


Saturday

UCLA Live continues to impress today with its unique programming. Its exclusive commissioned event unites celebrated cartoonist Chris Ware (“Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth”) with NPR’s Ira Glass, host extraordinaire of “This American Life.” Together, they present “Visible and Invisible Drawings: An Evening With Chris Ware and Ira Glass,” a story presentation by them both, each in his own medium.8 p.m. $17-$40. Royce Hall, UCLA, Westwood. (310) 825-2101.

Sunday

It’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” Israeli-style in “Yossi andJagger,” new out on DVD this month. The bittersweet film is based on the truestory of two Israeli officers, gay and in love and stationed on theIsrael-Lebanon border. An official selection at the Berlin and Tribeca FilmFestivals, the film was also well received by numerous critics. The DVD includesa music video for a hit single from the film, never released in the UnitedStates. $29.99. www.strandreleasing.com

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Monday

Seven Days salutes fellow El Camino Real High Schoolalums Brent Goldberg and David T. Wagner for their latest achievement: Openingthis week is the screenwriters’ new film, “The Girl Next Door,” a bawdy romanticcomedy with a heart of gold about a boy’s infatuation with the girl next door,who turns out to be a former porn star. We’re sure hilarity ensues — after all,these are ECR boys. Opens April 9. www.thegirlnextdoormovie.com

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Tuesday

Dave Frishberg recently performed at Lincoln Center, and has written songs recorded by Diana Krall, Michael Feinstein, Bette Midler and Blossom Dearie. But Gen-X-ers will be most impressed by his contribution to “Schoolhouse Rock” — Frishberg is responsible for that song ingrained in nostalgic memory as the one that taught you how a bill becomes a law, “I’m Just a Bill.” He plays a series at the Jazz Bakery beginning today.April 13-18. 8 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. $25-$30. 3233 Helms Ave., Culver City. (310) 271-9039.

Wednesday

Before it was an Academy Award-winning movie, it was a Pulitzer Prize-winning play. The Rubicon Theatre Company presents Alfred Uhry’s “Driving Miss Daisy” beginning this week. For those who’ve been living under a rock, the play (and the film that followed) tell the story of the 25-year relationship between a Southern Jewish woman and her black chauffeur. See it this evening, in its original form.7 p.m. (Wed), 8 p.m. (Fri.-Sat.). 2 p.m. (Sat.-Sun.). $25-$45. The Laurel, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura. (805) 667-2900.

Thursday

First Michael Damian, now Brad Maule and Eric Martsolf. Soap opera stars keeps popping up in productions of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” Our theory: Perhaps the cheese factor helps with the crossover? Either way, Maule (of “General Hospital” fame) and Martsolf (Ethan Crane on “Passions”) play Jacob and Pharoah, respectively, in the latest production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. And cheesy or not, the show’s also a classic. Catch it this week only.April 13-18. 8 p.m. (Tues.-Fri.), 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. (Sat.), 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. (Sun.). $30-$95. Kodak Theatre, Hollywood and Highland, 6801 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. (213) 365-3500.

Friday

Philip Kaufman fans work to keep their blood pressure level tonight, as the American Cinematheque kicks off its “Writer and Director: A Retrospective Tribute to Philip Kaufman” with a triple hit. A double-feature of the erotically charged films “Henry and June” and “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” sandwich an in-person appearance and discussion by Kaufman.7:15 p.m. Series runs April 16-18. $9. The Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. (323) 466-3456.

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