Cio-Cio San charms cinema
Published: May 01, 2012 07:10 PM Updated: May 02, 2012 03:45 PM

Scene from Madam Butterfly


Zhang Liping as Cio-Cio San

Zhang Liping as Cio-Cio San

Director Julian Napier

Director Julian Napier 


Last Thursday night was the first time Chinese soprano Zhang Liping sat among audience members at Saga Cinema in Beijing to watch herself through 3D glasses, in a filmed performance of Madam Butterfly at the Royal Opera House in London. The highly anticipated 3D cinema version opened to a group of moviegoers and opera lovers at the Beijing International Film Festival.

The screening, lasting over three hours, didn't influence the audiences' enthusiasm for the movie. Some who had attended Zhang's live operas before said that the 3D versionoffered a different opera experience. They patiently waited until the last minute of the Q&A section for the casting team for the screening.

"I've never seen myself performing on stage in such refined details," said Zhang, who has sung live on stage for years but was only recently shot for film. "With the details, I saw a few [blunders] in my acting!"

Director Julian Napier felt lucky to cast Chinese soprano Zhang as the lead role of Cio-Cio San in his second 3D opera production following Carmen, a collaboration between the Royal Opera House and film-makers RealD.

"Her performance and singing is so powerful that [it can be described] as almost perfect. I was shocked when I first heard her singing on stage," he told the Global Times.

Madam Zhang

As one of the top four opera performers in China, Zhang has taken starring roles in Italian, French and German operas, such as La Traviata, La Boheme, Turandot and Faust. After graduating from the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing in 1989, Zhang enrolled at the Vancouver Academy of Music in Canada. In 2004, she was the first Chinese lead singer at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, performing as Cio-Cio San, or Butterfly. After the overwhelming success at the House, she was coveted by many prestigious operas houses, including London and Berlin.

After moving Carmen to the silver screen, Napier hoped to shoot something "new and full of energy." He checked the performance list at the Royal Opera House and was immediately attracted to Madam Butterfly, which starred Zhang as Cio-Cio San and James Valenti as her disloyal lover Pinkerton.

"Puccini's classic tale about love and betrayal is exactly what we wanted. The message is still [applicable] nowadays, even some hundred years later. Your actions have an affect on others," he said.

It is a timeless story of love, sacrifice and the ultimate betrayal, played through arias, duets, trios and choruses. Set in Nagasaki, Japan, Cio-Cio San, a Japanese geisha, falls in love with American naval officer Lieutenant Pinkerton. The officer views the marriage as a casual affair. But for San, it means renouncing both her family and religion to be with her unfaithful lover.

"The story is told using beautiful and sensual music. The main role in this musical drama is critical, and Zhang didn't let me down. Her [performance] perfectly captures a woman falling in love and dreaming of a happy life in the first act, a loyal wife awaiting her husband's return from America in the second act, and a desperate woman betrayed and abandoned after hearing her husband re-married in the last act, where she kills herself," he said.

Filming challenges 

Although Zhang has performed on various esteemed stages of the world, it was challenging to film a movie.

"Being filmed was new to me. Most shots were close-up. The lighting was too bright for an opera performance, but normal for a 3D movie. The role of Cio-Cio San is challenging for sopranos, singing from the beginning to the end. Luckily, we didn't change anything for the movie," said Zhang.

Shooting a live show is different from a normal movie set. In films, you can "rehearse, shoot two minutes, stop, mark the place, then continue," said Napier, who has been shooting 3D films for over 10 years. 

"You can't stop if [things aren't exactly] what you want, because it's a live show. You can't tell the actors where to stand and how to perform. We shot three nights of live shows, hoping to make a full film, but accidents happen. For example, after greeting guests in the first act, the officer put his hat under his left arm before singing. But he tucked it under his right arm the second night of the performance. We correct post-production," he said.

For the filming process, the directing team stationed 10 cameras in the theater shooting for three nights, for two and a half hours each night. The team from the Royal Opera House was invited to record the singing, matching sound effects. 

"Shooting operas in 3D is risky. We could have picked something safe and traditional, but we didn't. Our movie will give people access to classic operas, [without requiring] the formal dress of the opera house," said Edman Chan, General Manager of RealD Asia.

Napier recalls his impression when viewing the first rehearsal of Carmen.

"I was just a few feet away from [the performers], rehearsing a song with a piano. I've never been that close to that kind of vocal talent. I realized that I needed to put this into cinemas and bring it to audiences. That is what 3D can do," Napier said.

"I am always looking for new 3D projects, including ballets and Shake.