Although it was only unveiled in November 2005, Anthony Minghella's English National Opera production of Puccini's Madam Butterfly is already approaching classic status, not least because it has travelled twice to the Met in New York. On 31 January 2008, it returns to the London Coliseum for its second revival. Stepping into the role of Cio-Cio-San this time around is soprano Judith Howarth, a popular figure in the world of British opera thanks to her nine-year stint as a Company Principal at Covent Garden and numerous appearances at ENO, including Gilda in Rigoletto and Mrs Mao in Nixon in China. I caught up with her at ENO's regular rehearsal studios with more than two weeks still to go before opening night, to ask her about the production and her career.
Madam Butterfly is one of the most popular operas in the repertoire, but Howarth is quick to point out that it can often be misunderstood. 'I was talking about this to Carolyn Choa the director this morning - she doesn't want to portray Pinkerton as too much of a rogue, even though it can come off that way. He and Sharpless have a duet in which he can be a real rogue but I think Carolyn has softened that nicely. But it is romantic, there's no two ways about it. The music's phenomenal, so it's a great one to see if you don't know many operas.
'But there's certainly a dark side to it. Men did go over there and have relationships with women - it's savage but it was the done thing. I'm sure that babies were born but most of the women got over it eventually; Butterfly, however, believes everything that Pinkerton tells her and really thinks he's coming back. That's why there's so much pathos in this role. I know it's pathetic on one level, but you can't help your own feelings. If you fall in love, you fall in love, and if someone says he loves you, you're going to believe him aren't you? I think that Pinkerton does mean what he says in the moment - the love duet is genuine.'
The soprano explains her approach to the complex character development of Cio-Cio-San. 'She goes on quite a journey. At the beginning she gets married to Pinkerton and you get the love duet, but that's quite a quick part of the opera and the story really gets going in Act II. Butterfly has been without Pinkerton for three years and she becomes very strong during this period - strong enough so that she can commit suicide at the end. That's the journey for her. There are lots of emotions; you see her vulnerability, but ultimately her strength comes through. She gives up her child, after all.'
I ask her how she makes this aspect of Butterfly's character convincing. 'I put myself in her position. I have two children and if I had to give either or both of them up, I don't think I'd want to live, quite frankly. So actually, it's quite easy for me to imagine that. I'm not sure about the killing side of it! But on the other hand, that was their culture - it's the way they were, and the knife she uses to kill herself is there from the opening scene. She's a very strong woman, despite her tender years.'
Howarth also explains how important it is to consider the vocal challenges of the role. 'It's quite different from something like Gilda in Rigoletto. I just have to sing it into my voice. I do a balance of both: I still do coloratura roles, and I've got things booked in after this which require coloratura. But this is a big lyric sing, and it's actually quite low. The top notes that I have are mainly B flats and they're big beefy B flats, not floaty ones like the 'Caro nome' in Rigoletto. So I can't just sing Butterfly after Gilda - I have to sing it into my voice, because it wouldn't sound right. Similarly, if someone asked me to do a Rigoletto tomorrow, yes I could do it, but it wouldn't be in a Rigoletto voice. It would take me two or three days to get it back into the muscles.
'But you build up stamina during rehearsals, and I'm not one to mark the part too much in rehearsals unless I'm ill or have performances coming up. For a show like this I've not taken anything around it anyway, because it is demanding.' I ask her what's particularly demanding about it, and she replies: 'It's stamina apart from anything else. The role is funny, because I like to do the floated D flat at Butterfly's first entrance but the voice has to be warmed up to sing that. Yet you can't warm it up too much because you have a long way to go! You just have to pace it.'
It's with genuine enthusiasm that Howarth discusses Minghella's staging, though she explains that it's almost like taking part in a new production because she didn't have a chance to catch the earlier runs it had at the Coliseum. 'I've been working abroad a lot so I've never seen the production before and I'm completely fresh to it. It's great - it's both traditional and different. There are a lot of dancers in it, for example. They start performing even before the music starts. There are three men working the puppet which represents Butterfly's son, so there are six people onstage instead of three, but they're so good that I hardly notice them. It's a bit like one of the old fashioned musicals: always something going on, always something to look at. Yet the director has also ensured that everything is psychologically worked out as well.'
She elaborates on how different it is for her to work with a puppet instead of a child actor as Sorrow, Butterfly's son. 'It's totally different from anything I've done before. I have to say that I've always been lucky with the children I've worked with: they've been fantastic and I have never had any problems with them. But I know there can sometimes be problems getting very young children to act in the right way for the part. When I agreed to do the production, I'd never seen the puppet before, of course, so I had no idea what to expect, but I'm so impressed with it. I can't believe how realistic it is! I feel I can totally engage with the puppet just as easily as I could with a real person.'
Howarth also finds that this is a particularly happy working team - something I can attest to, having seen one of the rehearsals in progress just before the interview. 'Sometimes opera rehearsals can be noisy and raucous, and I can remember being shouted at by conductors and producers, but it's always calm in here. Carolyn Choa has endless patience and there's never a dull moment when David Parry's around! I know him very well and he understands everything about singers and voices. He's so much a singer's conductor. It's nice having Gwyn Hughes Jones as Pinkerton because apart from the fact that he sings it brilliantly, he was in the production when it was new and he knows it inside out. It's a nice cast, which is not always the case.'
The press continues to debate about whether it's a good idea to perform Italian opera in English, but Howarth has no problem with it. 'I've done quite a lot of operas at the Coliseum, including Violetta in La traviata, one of the roles I've sung the most in my career. The first time I sang that here, I thought I was never going to be able to learn it, but actually it's amazing how it becomes second nature once you've sung things in during rehearsals. I have to say that David [Parry]'s translation for this Butterfly is so well written that he knows where the vocal difficulties lie and has found a word that works whilst staying true to the libretto. So it doesn't bother me now at all. I still prefer doing something like this in Italian because you have to work harder at the diction in English. The Coliseum's a big opera house and it's easy for the words to get lost; David was picking me up on that a few days ago, to make sure that I really emphasise the 'd' and 'n' sounds for instance. People should be able to understand what you're singing, even though there are surtitles.'
The other debate in the press, of course, is whether ENO justifies its Arts Council grant. But Howarth explains why ENO matters: 'I haven't been around much, and I live out in the wilds in the North of Scotland, so I've missed all the debate in the press. But I do think that there is an important place for ENO and I hope that things will work out. It would be an absolute tragedy if ENO did not exist. There's a real need for it. For one thing, why should we only have one big opera house in London? And for another, not everyone wants to hear opera sung in a foreign language. There are people who like the music but aren't great opera buffs yet. If it's sung in English, they'll often go and hear it. They might get bitten by the bug and think 'Actually, I do like opera, and I understand it!'. It's totally different from Covent Garden, which is not to say that one is better than the other - it's just that there's a different atmosphere. There are so many foreign singers at Covent Garden now who come and go all the time - as far as I know, it's not like it was when I was a principal there and there was a real 'company' feel. That's another great thing about ENO: they still use lots of British singers.' But she doesn't necessary agree that ENO focuses more on the idea of 'music theatre' than Covent Garden. 'I was in some very controversial productions at the Royal Opera - did you ever see Les Hugenots? There was booing when they did that! It's perhaps a bit more adventurous at ENO; for instance, it's easy to forget that this production of Butterfly was quite a daring idea because Minghella wasn't an opera director, but it's now back for the third time in two years. I saw their wonderful Orfeo, too, which caused controversy in advance but scored a great success.'
Can she remember first hearing music? 'No I can't, because both my parents were ministers in the Salvation Army, which is very music-oriented, so I had always sung and been exposed to music. I was in a children's choir and an adult choir. I've always been a show-off, so whenever my dad was stuck for an item and the meeting seemed a bit short, I would stand up and sing! So my Christian upbringing in the Salvation Army brought me to music.
'Then I started singing lessons when I was sixteen. We lived in Glasgow and there was a lady there who was attached to the Salvation Army and was a member of the Scottish Opera Chorus. She taught me for a year, then I auditioned for the Academy and went straight there from school.'
Opera didn't play a part in Howarth's upbringing, however. 'The only opera I saw as a child was Gilbert and Sullivan. The first grand opera I saw was Peter Grimes while I was in Glasgow, because my teacher was in the chorus. It had quite an impact on me. I never knew what I wanted to do when I was a child, and I had no burning ambitions until I started singing and knew I wanted to be a singer. But I didn't know it was going to lead into opera initially. Then when I went to the Royal Academy in Glasgow and you had to do Lieder, oratorio and opera, which made me love opera. But I love the concert platform too. I love doing oratorios, though recitals seem to have gone a bit out of fashion. If big stars like Bryn or Simon Keenlyside do a recital at the Wigmore Hall, then it sells, but on the whole there isn't the same demand for it; when I was a principal at Covent Garden, I used to give recitals all over the world. The Three Tenors and so on have made opera so popular that other kinds of music that are equally wonderful are a bit neglected.'
The soprano is full of praise for the training she was given. 'I've been extremely lucky with my teacher. I studied with Patricia McMahon and I still see her. I had some coaching with her on Butterfly before coming down, and she's coming to some orchestral rehearsals for me. Once you're onstage acting, it's very different from standing in a rehearsal room. Patricia gave me the most wonderful grounding I could have ever had. I trust her absolutely in everything.
'Then of course I went straight to the Royal Opera House from college, and it was a wonderful experience to be part of the company. I was having three hours a day just with a language coach on the libretto, then another three hours on the music. I don't think it's quite the same as that now. So you can imagine that getting that when I was twenty-one was absolutely invaluable.'
She explains the circumstances in which she was hired by Covent Garden. 'It was very odd!' she exclaims. 'I have a great faith and I'm a committed Christian. But I've never thought about what to do to enhance my career or anything like that. I won a competition run by Scottish Opera and I was in the Scottish Opera extra chorus for Turandot as a student to make some extra money to go on holiday. It was directed by Tony Palmer, who was a friend of John Coast, a big agent at the time. Tony rang John Coast and said 'You have to hear this girl!'. John put me in for the International Pavarotti Competition and I got through to the second round, but the important point is that he offered to represent me and then got me an audition at Covent Garden. I was accepted, and the next thing I knew, I was reading in the newspaper that I'd been awarded the Heinz bursary! So that was that, and I was there for nine years.'
What did she get out of it? 'The main thing was working with some of the greatest singers of all time - and some not so good singers, too, of course. You learn so much just by standing and watching them. Mirella Freni is my favourite singer of all time and I've worked with her. Joan Sutherland, Margaret Price, Agnes Baltsa, Stuart Burrows, Carerras, Pavarotti. I've worked a lot with Domingo. The conductors, too: Pappano, Sinopoli, Solti, Abbado. It was just amazing! I've just been a sponge, soaking up all I could from these fantastic people.
'I immediately started singing small roles - for instance, I made my debut in The Birthday of the Infanta by Zemlinsky. I did Giannetta in L'elisir d'amore quite a lot. And at the same time, I was understudying lots of main roles. But the funny thing is, I never went on!' she laughs. 'I went on once as Liu, when I happened to be watching Turandot, but I wasn't the understudy for that run of it. So that was the only time I got to go on. But it was absolutely the right thing for me. I needed to build up the stamina and the experience gradually, rather than do too much too soon and be exposed. Eventually, the time came to move on; I'd done big roles like Marguerite de Valois, Musetta and Gilda, but I couldn't have gone much further if I'd stayed there in that post. I went there as a baby and just grew up a bit!'
The range of activities which Howarth has taken part in is astonishing. 'One of the first things I did was Susanna in Aix-en-Provence. I did The Rake's Progress at La Monnaie. The real highlights were things like Fedora at Covent Garden with Freni, because she's my favourite singer. Her voice was still phenomenal, the last time I heard her sing. Looking back on it now, doing L'elisir d'amore with Pavarotti was a highlight. It was wonderful doing Der Schauspieldirecktor at Buckingham Palace. I got flown on a private jet from Luton to Vienna to sing in the Mozart Requiem with Solti for the two hundredth anniversary of Mozart's death when Arleen Auger was ill; I didn't go on in the end, but they flew me out there! Apparently it's in Solti's autobiography but they wrote that I'm from Newcastle - where did they get that from?!
'Another great night was Joan Sutherland's farewell, when she sang during the party scene of Die Fledermaus; I was Adele [the performance is available on DVD]. It's quite a sweet story. She was meant to actually sing Rosalinde, but she just felt that she couldn't do it justice. A friend of mine, who's a big fan of hers, was at her last performance in Australia, when she sang Les Hugenots. He got her to sign an album that he'd bought for me to say how sorry she was to disappoint me, because he'd told her how sad I was not to be able to sing with her! It was great to be part of that night.
'But to be honest, it's always an honour for me to sing anything onstage. I've been wanting to do Butterfly since I was a student when I sang Act II in a workshop - that's how long I've waited to do it. It's a privilege to do this job; not many people can say that their hobby is their job, but I can. My other highlights, of course, were having my two children.'
She has hopes of singing several new roles in the coming years, including Lucia di Lammermoor, Konstanze and Elvira in I puritani. She also fancies some more Verdi: 'I did a concert performance of Otello in Denmark, and I'd love to return to it, and maybe the two Amelias and Alice Ford. Someone said that Gloriana would suit me, so I'd love to have a shot at that.' Howarth also reports that her recent recording for Opera Rara of Mercadante's Maria Stuarda, regina di Scozia has been so popular that they have had to print off more copies, and she has further possible recording projects in the pipeline.
'I'd like to be remembered first of all for being a committed artist', she says as our conversation concludes. 'When I do something, I try and do it to the best of my ability and become the character I'm playing. It's not The Judith Howarth Show. I'd hate for people to think that this is just me coming on to sing my big aria. But as well as a good singer and actress, I'd like to be remembered as a good colleague. I try to be a giving colleague onstage - it's very much a part of me and the way I was brought up. And of course, the greatest compliment would be if people still wanted to listen to my recordings when I've finished my singing career.'
Madam Butterfly opens at ENO on 31 January 2008. More details at www.eno.org.