Editor's note: The original version of this article incorrectly identified the homeland of soprano Sujin Lee. Lee is a native of South Korea.
There are endless stories in the burgeoning world of opera and many do not have happy endings.
One heroine and her true love perish in Alpine avalanches. Another dies of grief watching her beloved sail away. Gilda, in Rigoletto, sacrifices her life to save the honor of her father.
Then there’s CioCio San, of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. She takes her own life — but we’ll get back to that.
Still, because hope springs eternal and love is always just around the corner — and, really, thanks to the irresistible music composers conjure to tell these sad stories — opera continues to enthrall audiences.
In Toledo Opera’s Gala performances Friday and Sunday, a bounty of operas will be sampled in a program titled Celebrate the Architects of Love. Show times are 8 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Sunday in the Valentine Theatre.
Among the musical “architects” to be represented will be Wagner, Gounod, Dvorak, Verdi, Catalani, and Rossini. Jobin and Kevin Bylsma, opera chorus master, will provide narration.
Special performers for this annual benefit will be tenor Shawn Mathey, the world’s reigning Mozartean tenor, plus sopranos Jennifer Goode-Cooper and Diane McEwen-Martin. They will join two sopranos from this region, Jennifer Cresswell and Sujin Lee, and the Toledo Opera Chorus and Toledo Symphony.
‘Following the voice’
Leading from the Valentine pit will be Sara Jobin, the first woman ever to conduct for the Toledo Opera.
A staff conductor for the San Francisco Opera, last month she conducted the world premiere of The Secret Garden based on the Frances Burnett children’s classic. She has led opera companies in the Bay Area at Wolf Trap in Washington, and companies as far away as Anchorage, Tacoma, and Arizona.
And although she hasn’t done an eight-minute Judo routine called ju-no-kata for five years, thanks to her rising musical star Jobin still draws strength, discipline, and inspiration from the ancient Asian discipline in which she has reached black belt status.
“There is something in the movement of energy that is similar, in both judo and music,” she said in a phone interview from her home in the Berkshires. “In opera everyone is following the voice, and sometimes the leadership passes back and forth, as it should be.”
Energy exchange is a key element in what Jobin calls her favorite number on the Toledo program, the “Love Duet” from Butterfly.
“I love Butterfly. I just did it in Santa Barbara,” Jobin said. “It was my sensei’s favorite opera.” Her Judo sensei (teacher) Keiko Fukuda, was ranked at the highest black belt level in the United States when she died recently at age 99.
“She always came to see Butterfly. It was broadcast on the radio the day of her funeral,” said Jobin.
But love it as she does, Jobin is wary of the Puccini classic in which Cio-Cio San (Butterfly) emerges as the victim of cultural differences and gender roles.
“I’m tired of conducting operas where the woman goes ‘help me, help me,’ and then she dies. I’m tired of repeating the same story of women being victimized by society.”
Jobin has launched a joint initiative with author Carol Gilligan called the Different Voice Opera Project — after Gilligan’s critically acclaimed book about women’s roles. The goal is to create new repertoire which avoids using women as scapegoats and victims. “It’s true, if we repeat the same story over and over, it becomes reality,” said Jobin.
And from two in the Gala cast comes an example of a happy ending for Butterfly.
Mathey and Lee, who offstage are married, actually met during a student production of the Puccini opera at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia.
“She was CioCio San,” said Mathey. He was Pinkerton.
In the story, Pinkerton, stationed in Japan with the navy, “marries” the 15-year-old Japanese girl, knowing it is not legal outside her homeland. The extended duet expresses their mutual love.
“Usually, when doing a scene like that with colleagues, there’s no residue, once the scene ends,” Mathey explained. “You sing, have a 15-minute coffee break, sing again, pack your bags, and leave.”
Not that time, he said during a phone interview.
“With Sujin, there was a spark there. It is an actual true romance story.”
Mathey had grown up in Wood County and studied finance at Bowling Green State University, where his father, Richard, was a beloved professor of voice and conductor.
Sujin was from South Korea, half a world away geographically, much further culturally.
They realized they were in love, yet knew making it work wouldn’t be simple.
“Culturally, there was a lot on the line for her,” Mathey explained. Lee was expected to study and train in the U.S., then return to Korea to share what she had learned.
In Butterfly’s tragic ending, Pinkerton abandons Cio-Cio San, who commits hara-kiri.
Happily, however, Sujin’s family embraced her Western fiance. “They have been wonderful to me, warm and embracing,” said Mathey.
Their early marriage years were on the road while Mathey built an international reputation — today he’s considered the preeminent Mozart tenor — and they began a family. “Our first daughter was born in Frankfurt, our second in Zurich,” Mathey said.
Today, the Mathey-Lee household is established in Bowling Green, where Lee is on the BGSU vocal faculty. She appeared as Mimi in the Toledo Opera’s production of another Puccini work, La Boheme, last fall. During the gala, she will sing another famed solo from Butterfly, “Un bel di.”
Mathey, who maintains a busy international operatic performance schedule, knows that now there’s a little more Korea in Wood County. “I’m very proud of our girls, who are 5 and 8. They are very much aware of Mommy’s culture,” he said.
During the gala, the new 2013-2014 season will be announced.
Tickets are $30-$75 at 419-255-7464 or www.toledoopera.org. Prior to the performances, two events benefiting the local company are planned in the Grand Lobby: a jazz dinner ($100 per guest) at 6 p.m on April 12th and a champagne brunch at noon April 14. For tickets, information, and reservations call 419-255-7464.
Contact Sally Vallongo at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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