Vanessa Isiguen was a teenager when she first heard some of Madama Butterfly, the classic, early 20th-century opera penned by Giacomo Puccini. Isiguen's high school choir was performing a selection from the opera's famed humming chorus.
"It was gorgeous," said Isiguen. "I ran home and asked my mother to play the full opera on our record player. I thought, 'Wow, this is incredible.'"
Chaz'men Williams-Ali was even younger.
"It was fourth grade for me. It was epic," he said. "Fast forward to when I was in college and I had a full appreciation of the opera. But it comes full circle back to the fourth grade for me."
And now, both accomplished singers who have performed on some of opera's grandest stages, Isiguen and Williams-Ali will portray Madama Butterfly's star-crossed lovers in Opera Idaho's next production, slated for Friday, Feb. 16, and Sunday, Feb. 18, at The Morrison Center.
Dozens of works in popular culture have borrowed from Madama Butterfly: the play M. Butterfly, the film Fatal Attraction...
Williams-Ali: And of course, the Broadway musical Miss Saigon. But the original is the tragic beautiful story as told by the greatest opera composer of all time, Puccini.
Madama Butterfly was first presented in the early 1900s and seen through a western lens. Talk to me about presenting this to first-time, 21st-century audiences.
Isiguen: It definitely can be a challenge. But if you look at the underlying themes of love, sacrifice and betrayal, and the ultimate tragedy of Cio-Cio San's existence, it doesn't seem that far removed. She loves Pinkerton. She's even offered in marriage to other people when Pinkerton goes away, but she stays devoted to him, believing he'll come back to her.
Williams-Ali: I think Pinkerton has had the biggest shift in how people view him. In the 20th century, it was the norm for American soldiers and sailors to marry women in regions where we fought wars. A character in Miss Saigon called it, "playing house." Pinkerton was doing what a lot of men were doing, but Puccini wanted us to see Cio-Cio San as a real person with real emotions.
Most productions in the 20th century were criticized for being "whitewash productions," where primarily white performers played the lead roles in Madama Butterfly. But you're both people of color.
Williams-Ali: Indeed. My grandmother was Irish, my dad was mixed race. But I'm most definitely an African-American male.
Isiguen: I'm Filipino, Cuban and a little bit of Russian mixed in.
How does that inform all that you bring to Madama Butterfly?
Williams-Ali: There's not a single role that anyone can play, but especially people of color, where we don't bring our own experiences. That's what live theater, live music and particularly opera is all about it.
Can I assume that the life of a professional opera singer means you live out of a suitcase?
Isiguen: You're on the road a lot. It's a challenge, especially with relationships. But thank goodness for technology, especially Facetime or Snapchat.
Williams-Ali: I've been home possibly four to six weeks in the last three years.
Best of luck to the both of you. In the theater, we say "break a leg," but what about in opera?
Isiguen: We say, "in bocca la lupo." That's Italian.
Wlliams-Ali: And, "crepi il lupo."
Isiguen: "In bocca al lupo" translates to "Into the mouth of the wolf."
Williams-Ali: And "crepi il lupo" means, "I hope it dies."
Isiguen: But we also like "toi, toi, toi."
Williams-Ali: That's German. It's like "break a leg."