- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 27, 2001

Washington Opera costume director Marsha eBoeuf describes the conceptual design for "Madama "Butterfly," which opens tonight at the Kennedy Center Opera House, as "a cross between Issey Miyake and 'Star Trek.'"

This production of the famous Giacomo Puccini opera "is not your average 'Madame Butterfly.' It's avant-garde," says Ms. LeBoeuf, after making her comparison to a renowned Japanese-born fashion designer's creations and the space fantasies in a popular TV and film series. "We have done the opera so many times in the traditional way. This version sets you off center and, with very broad strokes, takes images down to the bare essentials."

The concept stems entirely from the imagination of Polish film, theater and opera director Mariusz Trelinski. The work first was produced more than one year ago by the Teatr Wielki-National Opera Warsaw in Poland. Edward C. Purrington, the Washington Opera's retiring artistic administrator, and Noel Uzemack, the company's technical director, saw it and, in Ms. LeBoeuf's words, "came back raving about it."

Having a Polish production on the Washington stage is something of a groundbreaking event, she notes, since few if any of the Washington company's productions have come from Eastern Europe.

Her own role has been mainly administrative making sure the costumes for the original production fit the Washington cast. Some members of the original cast also are appearing here. Three of them play mimes, whom Ms. LeBoeuf compares to "a Japanese version of a Greek chorus. They don't speak, but they advance the story with their movements."

Costumes for the mimes, like the fashions created for the principal artists and supporting characters, are strikingly different from any found in a more traditional "Butterfly." The mimes, which are the inventions of Mr. Trelinski, are seen in white face and and split skirts trousers with wide legs, sheer form-fitting tops and little caps.

Mr. Trelinski explains in the Washington Opera magazine that the mimes are meant to represent priests who both know and follow Butterfly's fate, preparing her for death. "My production owes quite a lot to Japanese tradition," he says, "but I wanted to show it in a contemporary perspective."

His approach is breathtakingly theatrical and minimalist in form. Ms. LeBoeuf says the central character, Butterfly, is dressed in the basic outline of Japanese clothing, the familiar kimono shape, but without the restraints of an obi. This symbolizes her act of breaking from her family by her embrace of Christianity and her love for the American Navy lieutenant, B.F. Pinkerton.

Butterfly's relatives are shown in more restrictive, traditional designs. "Their clothing does not have sleeves, but the bottom circumference of the hem is small, 36 to 40 inches," Ms. LeBoeuf says. "They wear platform shoes and do that Japanese walk. The director has them in tortured poses and all dressed alike. Butterfly is shown in vivid red wearing on her head a gossamer veil suspended a foot in the air by millinery wire."

Pinkerton, too, is not seen in a familiar Navy officer's uniform but instead wears a knee-length jacket in a dark silver color with a side stripe. "It gets rid of identifying his background," Ms. LeBoeuf says.

Costumes for "Butterfly" could not be more different from those worn in the company's production of "Mice and Men."

"Most of that cast is in overalls and plaid shirts, things we could do in our sleep. The most difficult part was making everyone look dusty. We put a great deal of bleach in the overalls and shirts and then went back and painted in some light brown dye to look like dirt so they would seem like real ranch hands," she says.

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