Business and Life Lessons from Madame Butterfly*

This summer I had the opportunity to participate in the Delaware Valley Opera Company Summer Festival as I have done since 2004. But the real test for me happened behind the scenes. All of which was never seen by an audience, but it changed me significantly.

My schedule allowed me to be in the chorus of The Marriage of Figaro , but I was going to be away for one of the Madame Butterfly performances, so I had written off being in that chorus. However, once I experienced Figaro, I wanted to be in Butterfly. I decided to speak with the stage director and ask what might be possible. We spoke and she agreed to let me start, but it had to be immediately. That was doable, but what she said next took my breath away. She said, “I need a cover for Goro, would you consider it?”

That meant I would have to learn two parts, and didn’t know the chorus part yet. I would be adding learning a principal’s role as well. I didn’t want to bite off more than I could chew. I replied saying I’d think about it and get back to her.

Now, at this point I had never heard a note of Butterfly and didn’t know Goro or any other character. (He is the marriage broker who puts together the arrangements for the house and the wedding for the ill-fated lovers Butterfly and Pinkerton.) I bought a score, attended the first few rehearsals and talked to some of the cast about the director’s offer. They all encouraged me to do it. They said it would be good for me. Decision made, I told the director I would do it.

During week one, what was I thinking? Notes, rhythm, music, Italian – no, fast Italian, never mind blocking and acting! I was overwhelmed and terrified. The next week, I spent over an hour and a half with a very talented and patient music director. I could hardly get through saying one line correctly.

I recorded the practice session, wrote out the words, picked out notes on the piano, worked with my voice teacher and bought a CD of the performance. I watched and listened to the principal playing Goro like a hawk. I did what everyone else does – do nothing else in your spare time but immerse yourself in the performance. By week four, I felt like a virtual train wreck: I could sing it in the car along with the CD, but try and walk and sing at the same time – all I could draw was a blank!

As the performance date neared, I nervously stuck to the task and prayed everyone stayed healthy. Covers or understudies are expected to know their respective parts, attend all principal rehearsals, learn blocking (stage directions) and be able to step in at rehearsal or performance if needed.

During tech week, the week before opening, the director called an understudy rehearsal. This was where the rubber was going to meet the road – survive or be road kill! At this point I knew I had to let go, get out of the way and try and just be Goro. For two hours we worked at our scenes. To my astonishment, I was off book, generally knew the blocking, was fairly comfortable and almost having fun! I now knew if something unexpected happened, I would be able to step in and play the part.

Relief and redemption! All the work, encouragement and effort had paid off. From not being able to speak the part six weeks earlier, I had become the Goro cover. A transformation had occurred and I was in a different place.

The takeaways I observed apply not just to learning an opera part, but apply to business and life as well.

  • A good teacher, coach or mentor will often see in you things you may not see in yourself and may provide opportunities for stretching and growing. Seize those opportunities and give them to others.
  • Risk taking is necessary. Put yourself out there.
  • Seasoned professionals are there. Surround yourself with those whose mere presence will push you to be better.
  • New roles are not learned overnight. It takes time and patience. Cramming will not work. Taking short cuts never leads to real sustainable success.
  • A difficult task or formidable goal that seems insurmountable and overwhelming at first shrinks and becomes manageable over time. Trust the process, believe and build on knowledge and effort.

Confidence and competence are the rewards of hard work and dedication preparing you for greater things in business, life and oh yes, opera. What challenges do you face right now at work, home or play that if accepted will help you to stretch and grow? Now is your opportunity. Go for it!

*Dedicated with great admiration and respect to all the directors, principals, chorus and members of Delaware Valley Opera Company.

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