Distinguished director helps IU Opera Theater give voice to ‘Madama Butterfly’


The IU Opera Theater production of “Madama Butterfly” will be performed Nov. 4, 5 and 6 at the Musical Arts Center in Bloomington and Nov. 11 and 12 at Clowes Memorial Hall in Indianapolis.

Post by IU Newsroom intern Amanda N. Marino: 

When Lesley Koenig was invited to direct “Madama Butterfly” for the Indiana University Opera Theater, she could not turn it down.

“It’s my go-to cry opera,” she said.

Koenig has built an impressive resume with more than 30 years in management at the Metropolitan Opera, San Diego Opera and Opera Boston. After directing around the world, she is now nestled in New England as managing director at the Weston Playhouse in Vermont.

This fall, however, she’s been at the Jacobs School of Music in Bloomington, shaping “Madama Butterfly.”

The drama about love, loyalty and loss is set in Japan in the early 1900s. It revolves around a U.S. naval officer and the title character, a geisha also known as Cio-Cio.

The IU production opens Nov. 4 to 6 at the Musical Arts Center in Bloomington before taking wing in Indianapolis Nov. 11 and 12. The shows at Clowes Memorial Hall will give Indianapolis audiences the chance to experience the internationally acclaimed IU Opera Theater in their own backyard.

Top-notch talent

Lesley Koenig

Visiting director Lesley Koenig is a veteran of the Metropolitan Opera, among other major companies.

Arthur Fagen, chair of the Department of Orchestral Conducting in the Jacobs School, said working with Koenig on “Madama Butterfly” is an amazing opportunity for IU students, because of the breadth of her professional experience and her willingness to teach.

Fagen has known Koenig since 1986, when they both worked at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. “She really is a top-notch director,” he said.

Koenig “communicates the essence of the opera” and is very aware of how various roles interact, he said.

Fagen also praised her talent for bringing her own viewpoint to an opera without changing anything intrinsically related to the show.

Koenig said each director has to choose operas that fit his or her personality.

In addition to the drama of “Madama Butterfly,” she loves its complex staging opportunities and the beautiful score by Giacomo Puccini.

“It’s a big sing and a lot of acting,” Koenig said.

Character study

To prepare for “Madama Butterfly,” Koenig said she did what she always does before directing. First, she memorizes the opera, which can take her an average of 30 to 35 hours.

Even though she is not formally trained in reading musical scores, she can sing all the parts of all the characters, though she doesn’t claim to sing them well.

“I’ve seen [Madama] ‘Butterfly’ a bunch of times,” she said. “I’ve never seen it the way I’m staging it.”

A scene from Madama Butterfly

Kaitlyn McMonigle, Jonathan Bryan and Marlen Nahhas appear in “Madama Butterfly.” The opera is double cast, to provide experience for more IU students.

Koenig aims to bring a level of authenticity to her version by drawing on her own experience in places such as Hong Kong. The Americans there, she said, are often sweaty and disheveled, not prim and cool.

Ask Koenig about the show, and she knows the characters inside and out — their back stories and where they are from — based solely on what they say and how they say it.

Koenig said she discovers these things during and after the memorization period, when she plays everybody’s parts by herself.

Before staging anything with performers, Koenig said she is deeply involved with the design of the set. “I have a solution for every single moment for every single character,” she said.

An early start

Koenig grew up around opera.

When she was young, her mother volunteered at the San Francisco Opera. One day, Koenig was helping sort letters to patrons when she was invited to watch a rehearsal.

That moment of seeing its chaos inspired her life’s goal. “I decided to be an opera director when I was 8,” Koenig said.

At 23 years of age and after just four interviews, Koenig became an opera director at the Met. Unsure how to prepare, she memorized the opera. “I came to memorize operas because I didn’t know what else to do,” she said.

Koenig said memorization gives her the advantage of being able to work quickly.

And her system stuck.

Laughter and tears

One of Koenig’s goals is to create a collaborative and safe and environment where she can openly critique and encourage performers.

The environment at IU has been especially supportive and friendly, Koenig said. People come early to rehearsal and spend entire dinner breaks together, sharing experiences and helping each other improve.

Though she is working with everyone from juniors to doctoral students, Koenig said she tries to treat them the same, pushing students when they need it and how they need it, because they all are still in the learning phase.

She loves to see what performers bring to the show, too. And more than anything, Koenig said she wants the performers and crew to spend some time laughing in the rehearsals.

And yet with the intensity of the working sessions and the opera’s storyline, other emotions can emerge.

During one rehearsal, two different sopranos stepped onto the stage and cried over the same scene. They had the same role in the double-cast show and had the same emotional reaction 15 minutes apart.

Koenig said she would never forget that moment or how powerful the scene was that surrounded it.

The interesting thing, Koenig said, is that both sopranos were crying over a duffle bag they were holding, pretending it was a baby.

At home at IU

Koenig said IU already has a familiar feel to it. “I feel very much at home because I turn around and there are people I’ve known for years and years,” she said.

Arthur Fagen

Arthur Fagen is chair of the Department of Orchestral Conducting at the Jacob School.

Fagen is one of those people. He remembers first seeing Koenig work with a famous soprano in a production of “Julius Caesar” many years ago. He said she did half the staging for the character, breathing life into her in a way the director had not.

Now, working as conductor with Koenig as the director, Fagen said he recognizes an easy flow of communication between them. He said he finds it extremely gratifying to work with a director as talented and tuned in as she is.

He said Koenig brings out the psychological states of characters at any particular moment in the opera — a talent that helps her stay loyal to the intentions of the show.

“Lesley brings it to life in a way that is absolutely true to what the essence of the piece is,” he said.

 To see the show

WHAT: “Madama Butterfly” by Giacomo Puccini
BLOOMINGTON: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 4 and 5, 2 p.m. Nov. 6; Musical Arts Center
INDIANAPOLIS: 8 p.m. Nov. 11 and 12; Clowes Memorial Hall of Butler University
TICKETS: Purchase tickets for Bloomington performances at the Musical Arts Center box office from 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, by phone at 812-855-7433 or online at music.indiana.edu/opera. A discounted price is available for all students. Purchase tickets for Indianapolis performances at butlerartscenter.org, the Clowes Memorial Hall Box office, through Ticketmaster outlets or charge by phone at 800-982-2787. Group Sales available for parties of 10 or more. For information only, call 317-940-6444 or 800-732-0804.
VIDEO STREAMING: Nov. 4, 5 and 6 only, via IUMusic Live.

Lesley Koenig and Kevin Murphy

Lesley Koenig is stage director for “Madama Butterfly,” while Kevin Murphy is professor of practice and director of coaching and music administration for IU Opera Theater.

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