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On velvet wings: Elizabeth Caballero as Cio-Cio San leads ‘Madame Butterfly’ at the Fox

Giacomo Puccini’s opera “Madame Butterfly” is the story of Cio-Cio San, a geisha known as Madame Butterfly, and Lt. Pinkerton, a U.S. Naval officer with whom Butterfly has a contracted marriage (“Cio-Cio San” is from the Japanese word for butterfly). Inland Northwest Opera is presenting “Madame Butterfly” on Friday and Sunday at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox.

Cuban American soprano Elizabeth Caballero leads the cast as Cio-Cio San, and her stage director, Fenlon Lamb, and The Spokesman-Review critic Larry Lapidus have nothing but high praise for Caballero, who chatted about the iconic and tragic role last month. Here are highlights of the conversation:

The role of Cio-Cio San is difficult music, and you have performed the role three times, the first in 2012 for Kansas City Lyric Opera. What makes Cio-Cio San such a standout among roles, and what have you learned?

It’s a role that requires a lot of stamina. You’re onstage the entire time. From Act 1, you don’t leave the stage until intermission, and from Act 2, you’re there the entire time. In this production, there is no break between Acts 2 and 3. I don’t mind it, though, because it’s for dramatic effect. This role teaches you stamina. It taught me when and where to be a smart singer and where to save my voice.

Puccini wrote it very well for the voice, for sopranos, and was very kind to this role. When you listen to her, the orchestra is very quite light, while with Pinkerton, it is a lot of brass. It’s light in trying to imitate delicate Asian flair. This is an Italian’s take on Japanese culture, so it’s not very accurate, but it is very beautiful.

How do you mentally prepare for your role in “Madame Butterfly” and get that personal connection?

I don’t know … I honestly just enjoy the challenge of acting the role, of waiting for too long for someone. It’s not five minutes at a coffee shop – it’s waiting months for someone to come home. It’s what it feels like for the longing and waiting.

What can audiences expect with you performing in “Madame Butterfly” on Sept. 20 and 22 at Fox Theater in Spokane?

I hope that audiences will realize that this is my interpretation of the role, an iconic role that has been performed by some amazing women over the years. This is my instrument, my voice and my interpretation in the most respectful way possible, and I hope that they will enjoy it.

Having immigrated to the U.S. as part of the Mariel Boatlift, how do your family roots as an immigrant enter into the role?

That’s an interesting question, and I don’t really have an answer. What I will say is that I am very grateful that I grew up in the United States. I am a citizen by choice, and I love the United States. I am who I am because of my upbringing here in the USA.

What was your first operatic role?

It was Micaela in “Carmen.” I remember that I had to go down a lot of steps carefully singing my aria. I was young and naïve and thought to myself the entire time, “Please don’t fall down the stairs!”

You made your Met debut in 2009 as Frasquita in Bizet’s “Carmen.” Fast forwarding one decade to about a year ago, you stepped in for another Met performer on March 2, 2018, for the leading role in “La Boheme.” What was it like to jump in on such a major role for the Met?

It was awesome! It didn’t hit me while singing, “I’m in one of the greatest theaters in the world!” But until my curtain call, I was doing my job as the understudy. And after performing, I looked out at the audience in the theater and thought, “Oh, my God! I just sang at the Met!” A friend in the audience recorded it, so I have that forever memory.

How do you prepare the day before or day of a performance?

I go about my normal, everyday routine. I have my coffee in the morning, but I do keep quiet and keep to myself. People text me. Thank God for text messages! I vocalize a little to make certain that my voice is in working order. For “Butterfly,” I try not to sing too much. I’ll practice a D flat in the opening, and if it’s there, I’m good to go. It’s a long night, and I don’t want to use it all in the dressing room.

This is your 20th year in opera. What do you find most rewarding about opera – and most challenging?

I am so lucky that I get to play make believe for a living. I love the spontaneity. I’m very lucky. It never really feels like work. Travel is the most challenging because I’m a homebody. I miss my knives and pots and pans when we’re staying in hotels. I miss the little things – I miss my towels and bed.

What roles still await you in opera – what is your dream role?

I don’t really have a dream role because I’m so happy with the girls who have come into my life. I keep being asked about “Tosca,” another Puccini girl. I’ve said no a couple times because it’s a challenge I don’t want to take on now. I have been wise in the roles that I’ve taken. When the time comes for Tosca and I have no apprehension, maybe it will become time to say yes.

What do you do for fun when you’re not performing?

I love entertaining. I love having people over and feeding them. When I retire, I want to buy a bed-and-breakfast. I am always the entertainer. I like to cook anything – Cuban food, Argentinean food, Italian food. I enjoy making people happy. My happiness is everyone’s happiness.

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