“Madama Butterfly is a piece that all opera companies are sort of wrestling with,” says Timothy Nelson, noting that the debate is over “whether it’s still appropriate to perform the piece, because it has some major misogynistic and racial problems in it.”
Few opera-focused entities have altered Puccini’s tragedy to the extent that The In Series has under Nelson, whose new production is an “experiment in trying to find a way to do the piece that makes it still speak on a human level, and tries to excise race from it entirely.”
Guided by David Belasco’s one-act play that inspired Puccini’s epic opera, the resulting 80-minute production centers more than ever on the work’s titular character. The In Series further distinguishes its truncated production with two distinct versions — one in English, and another in the traditional Italian, with projected English supertitles. They will be performed on alternating dates by differing casts. Music Director Jessica Krash will accompany both casts playing Puccini’s score on piano.
Butterfly is just the first show in a remarkable season that promises to be refreshing and revolutionary. Characterizing it as the “first complete season that I planned alone” (without input from retired In Series founder Carla Hubner), Nelson focused on demonstrating “the things that are super-important to me, [such as] deconstructing the canon and finding a way to still make it speak to contemporary audiences in immersive, surprising ways.” His vision is to “change the who, what, where, and why of opera — who makes opera, what sort of pieces get to be considered opera, where the opera takes place, and why it matters.”
Another canonical work that the organization will be “tearing apart and putting together in a new way” is Carmen. Bizet’s masterwork will be staged as an intimate “immersive cabaret,” featuring a local tango quartet and a modernized version of the famous tale incorporating trans issues.
The In Series will also stage several works by living female composers presented as a festival, and will usher in its first-ever site-specific community opera in a collaboration with Foundry United Methodist Church. The season reflects Nelson’s interests in pursuing both greater community engagement and artistic recognition. Butterfly will run for 16 performances, for instance, twice the number of previous productions, and the minimum required for eligibility at the Helen Hayes Awards.
“I love doing big, big, big opera in a small space,” says Nelson. “I want people to be able to experience that amount of sound and passion up close and personal.”
Butterfly begins previews on Thursday, Sept. 5, opens on Saturday, Sept. 7, and runs through Sept. 22 at Source, 1835 14th St. NW. Tickets are $21 to $46, or $31 to $56 for Opening Night & Celebration. Call 202-204-7741 or visit www.inseries.org.