Virginia Opera’s Updated Madama Butterfly Brings a Powerful Ending to the Season

VA Opera performing Madama Butterfly in Norfolk, VA. Photo credit - Dave Pearson

Norfolk, VA – What a way to conclude the 2023 / 2024 Virginia Opera season!! Honestly, it has been an emotional roller coaster as we were treated to a fun version of Wagner’s “Siegfried”, a hysterical rendition of Rossini’s “Barber of Seville”, and a suspenseful and powerful modern opera, “Sanctuary Road” based on the writings of William Still, a conductor in the Underground Railroad.

On March 6, 2024, at the Harrison Opera House in Norfolk, VA, Virginia Opera’s performance of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” put an exclamation point on an already phenomenal season. Director Mo Zhou flawlessly adapted the original story, which took place in early 20th century Japan to a more relatable post World War II Japan.

From the very beginning, as Navy officer, Lt. Pinkerton (Jonathan Burton) seeks a young Japanese wife with the assistance of, shall I say, a less than ethical wife broker, Goro (Zhengyi Bai). Burton and Bai were excellent as, for lack of a better way to put it, put on a show that would make any used car salesman envious, casting a dark cloud over the abuses of the time. Above and beyond the voice and music, their depiction of the roles added to the atmosphere. Trying to keep the sanity and, for lack of a better word, the humanity of the situation, Pinkerton’s counsel, Sharpless (Grant Youngblood) coaches and tries to keep the search rational.

Goro failed in his first sales attempt but delivered on the second round, catching Pinkerton’s attention, offering the hand of the very young Cio-Cio-San (Sachie Ueshima), a survivor of the Nagasaki nuclear explosion. There was a great celebration as she relishes the idea of seeing her American dream come true. Not all are thrilled by the union, however, as Cio-Cio-San’s uncle, The Bonze (Taewon Sohn), in what I felt marked the dark turn in the production, emphatically condemned his niece. The family abandons her and she is left with only Pinkerton, her maid, Suzuki (Kristen Choi) and a few friends to enjoy the wedding. The post-wedding performance between Cio-Cio-San and Pinkerton brought a feeling of a little hope, love, but cast a lot of doubt on the future. You could see the chemistry between Ueshima and Burton as this was one of the most beautiful operatic moments, I have seen in my brief opera experience.

Madama Butterfly Gallery 1

The relationship did not survive the intermission.

Alone, with only Suzuki by her side, Cio-Cio-San awaits the return of Pinkerton 6 years after his return to America. Her love for him combined with the anguish of silence and the unknown is tearing her apart. Choi’s portrayal of Suzuki was amazing!! In the words of my first-time opera friend I brought along for the experience, Suzuki did a wonderful job of bringing the emotional conflict as the days passed.

Sharpless does return to Cio-Cio-San with not so good news, as he somewhat kinda makes it clear that Pinkerton is not coming back. The angst in delivering the message was obvious, with the music adding to the emotion. It was a heavy moment.

As time passed, Cio-Cio-San turned down the hand of many men, including Prince Yamadori (Yinghui He). Her son, aptly named, Sorrow (Alana Kypros), was the symbol of her undying love and faith in Pinkerton. As fate would have it, a sound in the distance alerted Cio-Cio-San of the return of Pinkerton’s ship. Looking off into the distance she saw it approaching. With Suzuki and Sorrow by her side, she waited. I think one of the most beautifully done scenes was the falling of cherry blossoms as they celebrated and waited.

And waited, and waited, through the night.

The plot took an very sharp emotional turn as Pinkerton returns with his American wife, Kate (Katherine Sanford Schrock). Pinkerton, in cowardly fashion, realizes he cannot face Cio-Cio-San and departs. Suzuki’s despair is only amplified by the pain of all. The final blow comes as, because of Pinkerton’s cowardice, Kate is now forced to deliver the news that they intend on bringing Sorrow back to American with them. Gut wrenching.

Cio-Cio-San painfully agrees provided the spineless Pinkterton come and tell her himself. With sad goodbyes all around, it is obvious something tragic is about to happen. Cio-Cio-San bids farewell to Suzuki and Sorrow, asking them to leave her alone. With knife in hand, Cio-Cio-San ends her life. As I type this, envisioning Ueshima’s performance, I am again getting worked up. Phenomenal! Shortly after, Pinkerton arrives to find her body. He stares into the eyes of Sorrow. Darkness falls.

Madama Butterfly Gallery 2

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Virginia Opera, under the direction of Mo Zhou delivered a Madama Butterfly performance that stirred the emotion of everyone at the Harrison Opera House. I think the fact their first performance of each show is typically to the local student body really gives them a feel of how it will appeal the the broader audience, as the youth are likely the least exposed to the art. As we departed that evening, it was hard not to notice the red eyes, remnants of emotional outbursts that tugged at the heartstrings of the old and young alike. Once again Virginia Opera delivered a powerful performance that takes a story from the past and delivers it in a way those of the present can love.


Cio-Cio-San (alternate, was in this performance) – Sachie Ueshima
Cio-Cio-San (main cast) – Karen Chia-ling Ho
Lt. Pinkerton – Jonathan Burton
Suzuki – Kristen Choi
Sharpless – Grant Youngblood
Goro – Zhengyi Bai
The Bonze – Taewon Sohn
Prince Yamadori – Yinghui He
The Imperial Commissioner – Zizhao Wang
Kate Pinkerton – Katherine Sanford Schrock
The Official Registrar – Erik Grendahl
Sorrow – Alana Kypros

Director – Mo Zhou
Conductor – Adam Turner 
Music – Richmond Symphony

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Dave Pearson
Dave Pearson is based out of Richmond, VA by way of Hayward, WI. He has long had a passion for music. Growing up in rural Wisconsin, he rocked out to the likes of Barry Manilow, Neil Diamond, and The Lettermen. Then, one Saturday night, being the rebel he was born to be, he caught an Alice Cooper interview (it may have been on The Midnight Special) and saw him perform, “Welcome to My Nightmare”. Dave was hooked on Rock and Roll (and many other genres as well). Dave has enjoyed (amateur) photography to some degree most of his adult life. Recently Dave started to apply his event photography skills in various music settings with success. He finds that photographing a performance gives him a much greater appreciation for the artist.