A bandage wrapping around a hand, a butterfly winging away from a shattered red sun, an eerie eye peering through a keyhole: these are three of the images with which Boston Lyric Opera teased its eclectic 2020-2021 season on social media this week, letting fans guess what might be on the menu before officially announcing the lineup Thursday evening. Next season will strike the balance between classics and contemporary works, with four brand-new productions of operas from the late 19th to the early 21st centuries.
In a phone interview, BLO general and artistic director Esther Nelson described the season as well-rounded, in line with the company’s mission. “Because they’re new productions, we’re looking at each one of those works through the lens of today, for audiences today and challenges of today,” she said.
The season opens with its most broadly recognized title, Puccini’s tragic “Madama Butterfly.” Soprano Yulan Piao makes her company and role debut as Cio-Cio San, with Zach Borichevsky opposite her as Pinkerton. The cast also includes Nina Yoshida Nelsen, Levi Hernandez, and Omar Najmi.
Sarna Lapine, who helmed BLO’s well-regarded production of “The Rape of Lucretia” last spring, will return to the company to direct the new “Butterfly” at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre (Oct. 16-25). “Lucretia” scenic designer Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams and costume designer Robert Perdziola are also on board.
Lapine and the “Lucretia” team handled the opera’s complex themes of sexual violence and power with “immense creativity and sensitivity,” said Nelson. This inspired her to tap them again for “Butterfly,” an opera that has perpetuated stereotypes in the West of Asian women as meek and childlike since its 1904 premiere.
“We need to look at the piece and say, ‘Part of that is good theater. In what way do we need to have a different and better way of telling the story?'” Nelson said. “I’m very grateful that this is a great team that has a proven record of doing that.”
The season continues with two locally inspired productions. First up is the company debut of Philip Glass’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” based off the Edgar Allan Poe short story of the same name, which in turn may have taken inspiration from a macabre legend surrounding a house near Boston Common. “Usher,” which premiered in 1988 at Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater, will be staged in Boston at a to-be-determined venue. Chelsea Basler, Jesse Darden, and Daniel Belcher star in this James Darrah-directed production (Nov. 18-22).
Next, Humperdinck’s 1893 confection “Hansel and Gretel” gets transplanted out of the forests of central Germany and into the Public Garden of 19th-century Boston, with a cast including Emily Fons, Dana Beth Miller, David McFerrin, and BLO newcomer Nicole Haslett. Shura Baryshnikov, movement director for 2019’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and this spring’s “Norma,” directs the production in English at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre (March 12-21, 2021).
Finally, Academy Award-nominated composer Terence Blanchard’s “Champion: An Opera in Jazz” marks its Northeast premiere with an installation production at a to-be-announced location in May. The opera, a piece of contemporary verismo with libretto by playwright Michael Cristofer, is based on the story of Emile Griffith, considered one of the greatest prizefighters of all time. Griffith, who immigrated from the Virgin Islands in the late 1950s, was a closeted gay or bisexual man whose life took a sharp turn after he accidentally killed an opponent who taunted him with homophobic slurs.
The jazz-inflected score and the subject matter might not be familiar territory for most opera fans, Nelson said, but when people come to an installation, she finds that they’re “stripped of their expectations,” leaving them with a more open mind. “In our culture ... we finally have reached a point where we recognize the serious steps we have to do to be more representative of the communities in which we live," she said.
“Champion,” which calls for a mostly black cast, will feature a slew of company newcomers. They include Gordon Hawkins as Emile, Tichina Vaughn as his mother, Ariana Wehr in the dual roles of his cousin and his wife, and Todd Thomas as Howie Albert, his handler. The director is yet to be announced. Boston Conservatory at Berklee professor Vimbayi Kaziboni will conduct.
Season tickets are on sale immediately via www.blo.org.
Zoë Madonna can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.