Taking wing in ‘Butterfly’: my son’s operatic debut, at 3

julianLast Friday night, I was sipping a beer amongst a packed crowd of people at the Badlander for Montana Lyric Opera’s performance of Opera on Draft when Creighton James, the opera company’s artistic director, approached me with a rather frazzled look in his eye.

“Could you come outside and talk for a minute?” he whispered in my ear. I followed him out into the foyer of the bar, where he turned to me.

“We’re in a real jam,” he said. “We don’t have anyone for the kid’s role in ‘Madama Butterfly,’ and I feel like I’ve exhausted all the other possibilities I have. What would you think of Julian doing it?”

I stood for a moment, so surprised that my ears were ringing. No, strike that; someone on the stage inside the bar was singing a high note. The music stopped, and the crowd began cheering and clapping.

My son? My three-year-old? In an opera?

“Uh,” I stammered, “well, I guess I’ll have to talk to him.”

But how does one talk with a toddler about performing in front of hundreds of people, much less in an opera? Though I’d made it a point to occasionally play operatic music at home, I hadn’t really ever bothered to explain to him what it was.

Do I tell him that he will play the silent yet central source of dramatic conflict in one of the most important stage works of the 20th century? Do I ask him if he wants to be in a concert where the people move around and act like other people, and he gets to act like he’s the son of a Japanese girl and an American Naval officer?

My wife offered to take the first stab. So the next day, while I was mowing the lawn, she talked with him about it. When I returned inside, Julian was standing in his chair at the dinner table.

“Daddy,” he said excitedly, “I want to be on the stage with the loud people.”

I laughed. In a way, it is as simple as that: loud people on a stage. Good enough, for starters.

Later that afternoon, we were driving to Hamilton, and I tuned the radio to Montana Public Radio. As it happened, it was time for the Saturday opera broadcast, of Wagner’s “Die Walkure.”

“Is that opera?” Julian asked. “Make it louder, daddy. I like opera.”

I could only laugh again. Even I don’t like Wagner. Maybe this was going to work out after all.

Over the next few days, we slowly fleshed out the idea to him. I showed him a video clip of the final scene from a production of “Madama Butterfly” on YouTube, in which his “mother,” Cio-Cio-San, gives him a toy boat to distract him, and then sneaks away (to kill herself).

Julian, of course, had only one question.

“Daddy,” he said, “do I get a boat for me to play with?”

On Tuesday night, we had dinner with Daria Somers and Kimberly Gratland James, the two singers who play, respectively, the title character and her maid, Suzuki, in the opera. Due to one of my patented Bad Dad Decisions, Julian was a bit out of his mind on chocolate when they arrived; and for the first hour or so of the visit, he resorted to making faces and talking in gibberish. But he soon warmed up to Daria in particular – a good thing, since she plays his mom in the opera.

“I want to watch a movie with Daria,” he announced at the end of dinner.

And thus it came to pass that Madama Butterfly bonded with her son via an online video about a singing purple dinosaur – and, later, a rousing round of “Simpson’s Road Rage” on the Xbox.

The following day was Julian’s first rehearsal. As we drove to the Montana Theatre, I once again tried to simplify.

“Julian,” I said, “the only thing you really need to do is listen really well to what people say, and do what they ask.”

On arriving in the theatre, Jules was initially a little over-stimulated. We ran around on the set for awhile as the musicians prepared, and he was fascinated by the fly rigging. Then, Creighton James approached him.

“Okay Jules, so basically you just have to hang out over there in what we’re calling your bedroom,” he said pointing backstage, “and then sometimes Daria will come over and bring you out here into what we’re calling your living room. Does that sound good?”

Julian nodded, and Daria led him backstage to a chair, where he sat down quietly. She returned to the stage, sang a few lines, and then walked back and grabbed him by the hand. Silently, with more attentiveness than I’ve maybe ever seen from him, Julian walked onto the stage, the son of Butterfly.

julian2

I’ll admit it. I teared up.

It’s a small thing, sure. But you know, ever since he was born, I’ve vowed to myself that I want my son to not only appreciate the arts, but experience them. I figured that, at least during his first few years, this would likely mean attending family-friendly concerts, visiting the art museum, and hopefully watching me perform in bands occasionally.

So much for that. Next Wednesday, presuming all continues to go well, Julian will take the stage at the Montana Theatre for the opening performance of “Madama Butterfly.” At 3, Jules will step into the footlights in a way I frankly never dreamed of doing myself. And out there in the darkened auditorium amongst the hundreds of opera-goers will be the proudest dad in town.

Montana Lyric Opera’s production of “Madama Butterfly” runs for three performances, Aug. 11, 13, and 15, at the Montana Theatre in the PAR/TV Building on the UM Campus. Tickets are $19/29/39, available at www.mtopera.org.

4 comments to Taking wing in ‘Butterfly’: my son’s operatic debut, at 3

  • Pat Nickell

    Joe, my mother and your “Nana” used to listen faithfully to the Saturday afternoon opera on radio. Thus, I came to love that art form as well because I loved her. You spent many a Saturday afternoon with your Nana, so you had to listen, too. “Madama Butterfly” was her favorite! What goes around, comes around. And yes, Julian’s Nana is also in tears reading this article!

  • What a touching (and funny) story! I’d love to interview you and your son after the performance for my opera blog. Just let me know if you are interested!

  • Judy Stuckey

    How Exciting!!! Congratulations! A Star is Born!!!

  • Margaret E. Jones

    What a beautiful story! This Nana has moist eyes, too.

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