The star of New Zealand Opera’s Madame Butterfly dishes on her plum role, and more.
“This is like a blind date,” Madame Butterfly’s erudite star is winningly humorous from the moment Lumière asks, “Are you Antoinette?” The girl from Wagga Wagga talks to Alexander Bisley about the Japanese aesthetic, playing a role, and what makes her version of Puccini’s magnum opus special. “I don’t remember hearing a better soprano in this country than Antoinette Halloran in the title role,” Metro said. Photography by Daniel Rose.
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ALEXANDER BISLEY: How was it being Carlotta in The Phantom of the Opera in Japan?
ANTOINETTE HALLORAN: It was all fun/no responsibility. Doing musicals, it’s a different ball game. So it was so much about seeing Japan and having a great time with my cast members. The show was great, but it was kind of secondary to us having a ball in Japan.
AB: Did you make it to Nagasaki (where Madame Butterfly is set)?
AH: Beautiful. It was good to go, so when I’m looking over the harbour [on stage in Buttterfly] I can visualise where I was. It does help to have spent some time there. Also to have spent some time around the women there, because they’re an extraordinary race of women who have that incredible mixture of seeming gentile and subservient. They seem to be not the masters of their domain, but yet they’re incredibly strong and are actually ruling the roost in most households. They’re not subservient.
AB: Indeed. Pico Iyer told me, “Having been with Hiroko, my Japanese wife for 25 years now, living in Japan, I can see that the way surface plays off depth, the importance of a role (which may have nothing to do with who you are), the relation of compliance to conquest are all much different from the way they are in the West.”
AH: Wow. Exactly right. If anyone says anything negative about me in Auckland, it was that I was a little bit simpering in the first act, but she’s a geisha, you don’t see geishas walking around ruling the roost. She’s just stepped out of being a geisha to marry this American and he’s seen her as a geisha so that’s what she’s portraying. So it’s very important in the first act to play the geisha and to play the subservient wife because that’s what Pinkerton wants. It’s when he marries her that she becomes a lover and a mother and a real woman.
AB: Did you talk to any geishas for research purposes?
AH: Look, I’m so lucky because when I went to do Phantom [in Japan], I had no idea one day I’d sing Butterfly, which is the pinnacle operatic role. I’d hoped that I would, but I didn’t actually dream that I would. Luckily enough I spent some time with geishas. I went to a tea ceremony and chatted and spent an hour with a geisha and she made me take the tea and she spoke to me about my life. She was extraordinary. She was beautiful and intelligent and not simple, at all. She had a lot of depth.
AB: Where else did you go in Japan?
AH: We went all over. We travelled the whole length of it, did 17 cities. We were there three months. The theatres are five-star the whole way. Even if you’re in a remote village the theatres are completely five-star and amazing.
AB: Did you have a favourite place?
AH: Tokyo is amazing. In Shinjuku, I felt like I was on the set of Blade Runner. It just blew my mind.
AB: The contrast between that futuristic Blade Runner stuff and ancient, peaceful temples and parks is fascinating.
AH: Those gardens and the temples are amazing. I loved it all, couldn’t say a bad word about it.
AB: It’s perhaps the world’s most often performed opera, so what makes this version of Madame Butterfly special?
AH: A woman has directed it and I don’t think many operas have been directed by women. It’s a pretty male dominated industry and I think she’s just gotten really into the psyche of who this girl is, we’ve really unravelled her emotional journey from a female perspective. I think it’s more of an insight and more of an interesting look at who this woman is. She’s not a perfect flower, she’s flawed herself, and that’s what makes it a more interesting performance.
AB: Could you expand on that idea of getting into the psyche of her not being a “perfect flower”?
AH: Well, at some point in the rehearsal process I drew Kate [Cherry], the director, aside and I was slightly concerned that there’s some violence in this: a butterfly loses/lashes out a lot and is very impetuous, and I was slightly concerned that it might lose some of the audience: they might alienate her. But Kate assured me that a woman in this situation who has been abandoned and is fighting for survival in a country that believes that she has done such wrong, would at times, lose it. And losing it is not at all times beautiful; it is actually what makes the character more real. And I understood that. It’s a risk because you’ve got your purists sitting there who’ve seen twelve performances all around the world of Butterfly and this is different. Hopefully they’ll go with her—she’s more real than I think I’ve played her before and hopefully that makes the end more real for everyone in the audience.
AB: Kate is into making opera more accessible?
AH: She’s amazing. This is the third opera of hers that I’ve seen and the first I’ve done. She just tells the story; it’s not rocket science. She’s really clear and simple and calm. I’ve done Tosca, where Cavardadossi dies and then comes back to life and the directors play around with it so much trying to make it interesting, at the end of the day you lose the story and your understanding of it, whereas Kate’s really clear and honest in her interpretations.
AB: She says you are a “great fun to have around in the rehearsal room.” Any funny stories?
AH: Oh god, I lost it on stage the other night. We have a little boy in the opera, we have two to choose from and one was very still and cerebral and the other was really inventive and amazing and bubbly. And so stupid me, pushed for the other one to do opening night, but what I didn’t realise was that he was six years old and after 6pm at night he was this complete nutcase. I’ve never been on stage with anything like it he was out of control he was screaming in my ear “shut up you’re too loud I can’t hear,” and on the last night I lost it at one point. I was trying to sing something really delicate and he was just looking up at me doing all of these horrible faces. That was a bit hilarious and I just lost it. The girl who was playing my maid came and took him away from me and said, “I’ll take it from here,” and took him to the other side of the stage.
AB: Aidan Lang says “the resulting set is unmistakingly Oriental, restrained and beautifully crafted, complemented by exquisite period costumes which are themselves works of art.” You second that?
AH: Absolutely. When I first put on the entrance costume, besides the fact that it was 30 degrees in the room we were rehearsing (because the tenor doesn’t like air conditioning), it was basically a duvet, and I would just be pouring with sweat. I thought, I can’t wear this costume, but now we’re in the theatre and there’s a bit more air, it’s actually amazing. You’ve got two kimonos on and you’re wrapped up in an obi, which is about three metres long, and overtop of that goes this incredibly ornate, embroidered duvet in the shape of a kimono. I had to have a serious talk to myself and say “okay you’re not going to have a thin waist if you’ve got three metres of material wrapped around your waist,” and my breasts were squashed down so there was no boob action. It’s confronting the western ideas of what is beautiful. Then when I saw images of them that the paper had taken, that aesthetic is also very beautiful.
AB: Your partner’s a singer as well?
AH: Yes. Stupid me [laughter]. He’s a tenor. So he’s actually just done the role, Pinkerton at the Opera House. It’s very difficult to sit in the audience of a show you’ve just been in.
AB: So he was Pinkerton at the Opera House with you as—
AH: No, he was Pinkerton at the Opera House and then the cast changed and I was Butterfly. They don’t put us together; they’re not crazy enough to do that because we’d be arguing about who would do the washing up, on stage.
AB: Is there a womanising connection from Puccini and Mozart through to Nick Cave?
AH: I don’t know, is he a womaniser? My sister just played with him, she’s in the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and he came and did a concert and she’s never been more excited in her life. She’s played with everybody. They had to wear black, so she came over and borrowed these great black clothes.
AB: His music for Australian Western The Proposition was great.
AH: He’s a great artist. There’s another Australian artist called Tex Perkins who’s in a similar vein. I met him last year and that was exciting, I was pretty tongue-tied. He’s extraordinary as well.
AB: Is there a film you’ve particularly enjoyed this year?
AH: I just saw I’ll Give it a Year on the plane, and I got in trouble with my kids for laughing so loudly. It’s a really funny film.
AB: Yeah, it’s very entertaining. It’s Dan Mazer, Sasha Baron-Cohen’s creative partner, Ali-G, Borat, all that. What have you been writing about for ABC’s Limelight?
AH: I’ve written two articles recently. One was about opera companies who are sticking microphones on pop singers and sticking them in operas—it gives me the shivers. The other one was about how my career in Australia has been largely understudying the great divas of the world, who come over as guest artists, and then doing the second run, so I haven’t been the prima donna. I’ve been the understudy and then when they go home, I step into the role. So it was about what it’s like to have that journey instead of always being the prima donna. And having the journey of sometimes sitting in the dark and watching someone else do it before you have a chance to show what you can do, and how that’s been enriching in some ways, and also very frustrating in others.
AB: In another life, what might you have done?
AH: I was enrolled in law when I got late entry into the College of the Arts. The only part of law that interested me was being a barrister, the performance side of things.
© Daniel Rose 2013. All Rights Reserved. More images at danielrose.co.nz.
New Zealand Opera’s ‘Madame Butterfly’ season is at the St James Theatre, Wellington from May 11-18. Performance dates and ticketing info at nzopera.com.
Thanks to Alice May Connolly for transcription assistance on this article.