Journalist Kate Kellaway interviewed the late Anthony Minghella for the Observer in 2005. Here, she recalls meeting the Oscar-winning director before the opening of his production of Madam Butterfly with ENO.
I met Anthony Minghella and his wife, Carolyn Choa, when Madam Butterfly was in rehearsal (he was directing; she was in charge of choregoraphy), just before its first run on ENO’s stage in 2005. I was interviewing the couple for the Observer’s Review section. It is a meeting I still cherish and not at all hard to explain why. Minghella had exceptional warmth. It was tempting to feel he was a firm friend after only five minutes. I remember that he was a tremendous backer of everyone and everything that mattered to him: the designer, the singers, Puccini and, most of all, his wife. If Choa was tending to be self-effacing, he would do something about it. If she was not prepared to swank about her choreography, he would for her. There was something confidence-inspiring about his enthusiastic zest combined with an absence of complacency.
I remember him talking about listening to Madam Butterfly on long haul flights – a detail I have often thought about since. I picture him comparing, as he said he did, six or more recordings of the opera as he flew across the world, the better to refine his ideas about his own production. How Puccini’s music would have made the time vanish. Transatlantic Butterfly. But I also remember him casually observing in that interview: ‘There is so little time and lots to do.’ The words have such a poignant impact now.
In person he had a shaggy-bear quality, an untidiness and a ramshackle energy. Watching him was like seeing imagination on the move. It made one feel all the more awed – frankly amazed – that he could be masterminding a production as ruthlessly elegant as this Butterfly.
I was hoping to like it on the strength of talking to Minghella and Choa but had no notion of the extent to which I would be bowled over. Minghella understood, as his production shows, that less is more. He talked about how important it was for an opera singer – or for any actor – not to move unless there was a reason for moving. His production opted for doing away with anything namby pamby. He talked about it in cinematic terms, like the film director he was: ‘We are creating wide, epic shots so that the appearance of a geisha may take up the whole stage.’ There was to be no fussy detail. And Minghella understood that the music itself was not about pastel shades. If anything it is written in blood, its lyricism visceral.
In collaboration with designer Michael Levine and New York fashion designer Han Feng, Minghella transformed the opera into a scarlet spectacle. Black wood gave it the look of a lacquered Japanese jewel box, the mirrors gave it further reach. I felt that the excitement of the production was unparalleled and it was because Minghella knew where Butterfly’s heart was, understood the music’s swooning, masochistic extremity. When I saw it, I was also fascinated by the pathos of Butterfly’s puppet son and the attendant implication that his mother was a puppet too.
Minghella died in 2008. It is moving to think that his production is living on with such assurance. It is wonderful that this flamboyant butterfly is about to realight on ENO’s stage. I can’t wait to see it again.
Madam Butterfly opens on 14 October and runs until 1 December. Find out more about Anthony Minghella's Oliver Award-winning production, including a video of scenes from the show at www.eno.org/butterfly