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Opera in the Heights Brings ‘Madama Butterfly’ to Houston This Weekend

Out singer Hisato Masuyama plays Bonze in the rare production.

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Hisato Masuyama

Out operatic countertenor Hisato Masuyama plays Bonze in a rare production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly that will feature all Japanese-American singers cast in the Asian roles, April 26–May 4 at Opera in the Heights (OH).

The Italian-language classic has been translated into English and Japanese by the show’s conductor, OH artistic director Eiki Isomura, and its director, Josh Shaw.

“It is fascinating that the director wanted it authentic,” says Masuyama, a Tokyo-born performer who now lives in Los Angeles. He is delighted to play the dignified role of a Japanese aristocrat who balks at his teenage niece marrying a U.S. naval officer. “He destroys her wedding ceremony,” setting into motion the tragic romance, says Masuyama.

In contrast to his Houston debut, the veteran entertainer is also preparing to play the type of role that Asian thespians are often offered—that of Itu, the Japanese houseboy, in a California production of the musical Mame.

“I won’t be using a Japanese accent in Mame,” says Masuyama, although he’s rendered stereotypical Asian characters before—including his “first break” in a production of Anything Goes that starred Helen Reddy.  Masuyama was cast as Ling (or was it Luke?), one of the two Chinese gamblers who are practically joined at the hip.

Keiko Clark as Cio-Cio San and Kimberly Sogioka as Suzuki (photo by Martha Benedict).

Masuyama speaks without a trace of a Japanese accent because, he says, “I attended an international school, St. Mary’s International, in ‘the Beverly Hills of Toyko.’ My grandmother is American. She came to Japan from San Francisco in the 1930s.”

In 1978, he came to America to study vocal arts and music education at the University of Southern California.

He has toured in Mame with Juliet Prowse, 42nd Street with Mariette Hartley, and Pacific Overtures with Mako, who was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1966 for his performance as Po-han in The Sand Pebbles.

Masuyama made his operatic debut as Ping in Puccini’s Turandot.

On local stages in Los Angeles, Masuyama “tapped his heart out” in Bye Bye Birdie, The Wizard of Oz, and My Fair Lady. In North Hollywood, he played the feisty “Casey” (originally Cassie) as the other half of a gay couple in a version of Neil Simon’s Rumors. He’s also appeared in network TV shows, and he’s translated and recorded for Tokyo Sesame Place, Tokyo Disney, and ABC Mouse.

As for being gay, “I didn’t really think anything about it,” says Masuyama. When he met a fellow connoisseur of “Old Hollywood,” the man invited him to his home to copy some movies of film star Deanna Durbin. “He asked me, ‘Are you gay?’ and I said, ‘I guess I am.’”

Todd Andrew Ball and Masuyama.

For the past 14 years, Masuyama has enjoyed a “domestic partnership” with actor Todd Andrew Ball, who has a brother who lives in Texas.

“I am so excited to come somewhere new,” says Masuyama.

Madama Butterfly is a co-production with Pacific Opera Project, which premiered the new translation in April in the Little Tokyo historic district of downtown Los Angeles.

Reviewing the show for Opera Wire, Australian librettist Gordon Kalton Williams wrote, “For me, it was a revelation. I was touched. But so too, often, I was enlightened.”

Isomura and Shaw said the production’s gorgeous kimonos were designed by Sueko Oshimoto and Kentaro Terra of Kimono SK in North Hollywood.

In addition to Masuyama, the cast of Madama Butterfly includes soprano Keiko Clark as Cio-Cio san, tenor Peter Lake as Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, baritone Kenneth Stavert as Sharpless, mezzo-soprano Kimberly Sogioka as Suzuki, tenor Eiji Miura as Goro, and soprano Amanda Levy as Kate Pinkerton.

For tickets, priced from $40.50 to $94.50, visit www.operaintheheights.org/butterfly.

Friday, April 26, at 7:30 pm
Sunday, April 28, at 2:00 pm (followed by a Talk Back with the cast)
Thursday, May 2, at 7:30 pm (followed by a YOLO Cocktail Hour)
Saturday, May 4, at 7:30 pm

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Don Maines

Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.
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