Hitoko Hagiwara, who teaches the Japanese tea ceremony at the San Francisco Cherry Blossom Festival, instructed them on the ritual as a lesson on the Japanese society they are to portray in the upcoming opera. Hagiwara also coached them in physical movement.
"She conducted the complex ceremony gracefully, clad in a Japanese kimono," said Sara Nealy, executive director of Livermore Valley Opera. "The choristers enjoyed the experience and were seen leaving the rehearsal hall holding their hands and giggling in the demure fashion of a geisha."
"The director, Brian Luedloff, feels strongly about being realistic," Nealy explained.
"We consider all visual elements, from the scenic design to authenticity of costumes," Luedloff said. "Our performers will wear kimonos as they should be worn, one side folding over the other to create smooth line in movement. Color and patterns become very important, particularly for the geisha, whose kimonos represent status and hierarchy, and our kimonos will reflect that authenticity."
Luedloff is just as particular about everyone's movement.
"The clothing and footwear of that time period necessitates a specific kind of movement, with limitations in the size of a step a woman might be able to take, and a sense of balance depending on the thickness and weight of a slipper," he said.
The tragic story of a geisha girl who gives her love to an American lieutenant who abandons her, "Madama Butterfly" takes place in the early 1900s, a time of tradition and honor, innocence and devotion.
"We want to understand Japanese culture in the early 20th century. We want to understand American culture in the early 20th century," said Luedloff in a video interview at www.livermorevalleyopera.com.
Sopranos Carrie Hennessey and Melody Tachibana King alternate in the demanding lead role of the young Cio-Cio San (Butterfly). She is a young Japanese girl but her singing is very mature, explained Luedloff, plus she is on stage for almost the entire performance.
"While she's onstage she's singing, often over very large orchestrations, and singing music of great emotional depth," Luedloff said, "saying goodbye to her child, explaining to her child how they have to go begging and they're homeless now that his father has abandoned them."
"In opera, it's what we call a 'big sing,'" he added.
Luedloff has worked on several other performances of "Madama Butterfly," he said, and he has learned something from each production. He noted that Puccini's orchestration in the opera, which premiered in 1904, was forward-thinking.
"'Madama Butterfly' comes along about midway in Puccini's compositional career," said Luedloff. "It's marvelous music. It's very theatrical music. The depth of emotion that's written into the harmonic structure, the soaring melodies, the wonderful music that Puccini writes, evocative of the drama and the emotional quality, is exactly what's needed."
Music director is Alexander Katzman.
"This will be my first production with the Livermore Valley Opera, and I'm delighted to work with Maestro Katzman and the wonderful creative team that's been assembled," Luedloff said. "Our creative team is putting together a very exciting and compelling production for you."
A Japanese tragedy
What: Puccini's "Madama Butterfly"
Pre-opera talks take place one hour prior to curtain. Artists' reception in lobby immediately following each performance.
Who: Livermore Valley Opera
When: March 12-13, 19-20
Where: Bankhead Theater, 2400 First St., Livermore
Cost: Adults $29-$64. Students 18 and younger, $10.
Tickets: www.livermorevalleyopera.com; call 373-6800.
Other: $75 Opening Night Gala, March 12, includes dinner at Uncle Yu's at the Vineyard, dessert reception in the Bankhead Theater.
Ice Cream and Opera -- Children's Opera Learning Adventure, March 13 and 20