At Seattle Opera, "Madama Butterfly" features a 39-pound non-diva

May 14, 2012

"Madama Butterfly” is a story about love, heartbreak and sacrifice and it’s beloved by opera fans worldwide.

It’s the current production at Seattle Opera. The cast features superstar soprano Patricia Racette, who has played the role at least 100 times, including at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

And sharing the stage with her is a very young newcomer: Gabriella Mercado of Lynnwood. She's 6.

Mercado is what's known as a supernumerary, an extra. Think the guy escorting the donkey across the stage in "Don Quixote." These extras make operas even more of a theatrical spectacle than they already are.

Mercado's is a non-speaking role. But it's a critical one. She plays the son of a Cio-Cio San, a Japanese geisha and Pinkerton, her American Naval lieutenant husband. He doesn't know he has a child -- he deserted his wife shortly after marrying her. But three years later, Pinkerton returns to Nagasaki, bringing his American wife.  When he learns about the child, he wants to take him back to the U.S. And in what is arguably one of the most dramatic operatic endings, Cio-Cio San takes a knife and kills herself.

"The hardest part about the end is 'Don't look back,' "Gabby Mercado explains. During the finale, she's on stage but looking away. In rehearsals, the opera company made a point to show Gabby the knife is a fake and explain that everything that was happening was just pretend.

Gabby's on stage for about 20 minutes -- longer than some of the adults. (The singer who plays The Registrar, for example, sings a total of four notes).

Racette, who is world-renowned for playing Butterfly, has played opposite a child as well as a puppet.

The puppet was part of Anthony Minghella's 2006 production at the Met. But Racette said a puppet as her "son" polarized audiences.

She, for the record, loved that production. But she says there's also something charming and unexpected about working with a child.

"The little gestures that surprise you," Racette says.

Then there are other less-charming occurrences: nose picking; a fascination with one's shoe; a fascination with the brass section below.

"It's a very active role to sing Butterfly. You get sweaty. I remember going up to the child and giving him a big hug at the most crucial dramatic emotional moment towards the end. And this child was not happy at all. So she made this face and just wiped it off."


Gabriella Mercado, who likes working with grown-ups, is intent on acting like a professional.

"When you're professional, you're not horseplaying or fooling around."

She auditioned for the role after a scout for Seattle Opera saw her in a production of "The King And I" in Edmonds. In the production, her character is supposed to be 3-years-old, which would be too young a child to work with in real life. She's small enough. She was willing to chop off her long black hair to look more like a boy. She's Asian (her parents are from the Philippines) And more importantly she had no problem when it came to working under unusual situations.

"First of all, there's this woman who is not your mother holding you very tight and screaming at you," says Peter Kazaras who is directing the production.

Then there's the fact that your stage mother looks nothing like you thought she would: heavy make-up and likely make-up covered in pouring sweat.

Gabriella shares the role with Elizabeth Janes, 4. There are two casts for "Madama Butterfly." Racette sings with Stefano Secco as Pinkerton and the second cast features Ausrine Stundyte and Nathaniel Peake.

The production is the first live opera experience for the Mercado family. Dad Jaime Mercado used to think opera was "boring."

But things change, he says, when you have a personal stake in something and you go to rehearsal after rehearsal and watch all the work that's involved.

He dreams his daughter will grow up to play tennis. But this week, he's happy to see her on stage, in an opera, playing a boy.