Interview with Yunah Lee and Nina Nelsen of Utah Opera

Yunah Lee as Cio Cio San for Utah Opera's production for Madame Butterfly.
Yunah Lee in costume as Butterfly at the media day at Capitol Theater.

Life has a funny way of spinning in circles, creating Aha! moments years after something happened that are so serendipitous that they are hard to believe.  When you catch yourself in those moments, all you can do is laugh about how you never dreamed that one day you would be where you are now.

I recently experienced one of these moments when I got to interview two singers of Utah Opera’s upcoming production of Madame Butterfly, Yunah Lee and Nina Nelsen, for Fibonacci Arts Digest.  The arts magazine asked me to write about opera and I jumped at the chance to gush about one of my favorite passions.

While researching Nina Nelsen I discovered that she sang the part of Cherubino in Utah Opera’s 2009 production of the Marriage of Figaro—the second opera I ever saw.  My first opera didn’t exactly cause me to fall in love, but Le Nozze di Figaro had me smitten.  I specifically remember Nina’s portrayal of Cherubino making me laugh so hard—something I never expected from opera.

It was that opera that truly marked the beginning of my opera obsession.  At the time I didn’t even have a blog, just a dream of being a writer.   And here I was five years later, interviewing her for a magazine.

Yunah Lee as Cio Cio San for Utah Opera's production for Madame Butterfly.
Yunah Lee in costume as Butterfly at the media day at Capitol Theater.

Here’s an edited transcript of my interviews with Yunah Lee, who plays Cio-Cio San (Butterfly), Nina who plays Suzuki, and her son Rhys, who plays Butterfly’s son.  For the full story on the timeless art of opera, check out the upcoming issue of Fibonacci Fine Arts Digest (I’ll be sure to share a link here too).

Kelli Nakagama: What was your first experience with opera?
Nina Nelsen: I started out as a violinist, majoring in violin and psychology. I started taking voice lessons while I was in college and it just kind of all clicked all of a sudden. And I was like, This is really cool. I love singing. I feel like I can really express myself in a way that I wasn’t able to with the violin. After that it all fell into place, with a lot of hard work.

Yunah Lee: I was a member of church where we sang in choir and I played piano so music was always there but I was about to turn 16 and I just heart a calling. And I accepted and the next day I went out to look for a voice teacher and that is it.

KN: I always tell people that nothing moves me like opera.  I always wonder how it is to be singing it and to be on stage with that power.
NN: It’s so amazing. I’ve sung Suzuki in Butterfly somewhere around 50 times now and it never gets old. I just love it. It’s so wonderful to see the way it touches people in the audience and it’s a really neat gift that we are able to give audience members.

YL: When it goes well, it goes great! It feels the best. I mean, it’s an expression. People scream when they’re happy or when they’re sad. We are able to do that in a refined way. It’s the same release. And it’s unbelievably fulfilling.

A handmade kimono made by Utah Opera for Madame Butterfly.
The costumes for Madame Butterfly were handmade by Utah Opera’s costume department.

KN: Do you get stage fright in terms of opening night?
NN: I don’t so much anymore, I have things I do and there’s always a little bit of jitters, of course, but we’ve rehearsed this so many times that it’s just another performance. There’s definitely more energy but, well, I’m more nervous about this production than I’ve ever been about anything. [Motions towards son, Rhys.]

KN: Are you nervous how he’s going to react?
NN: He turns four on Monday and four-year olds are… you just never know. We’ll see what happens! He loves to play dress up and he loves to act so it’s the right thing for him.

KN: What drew you to this role in Madame Butterfly?
NN: I think why I was first cast as Suzuki is because I’m half Asian, so in one way it’s type-casting, but it’s really perfect for my voice.

YL: Oh it called me. Because I am a lyric soprano and because I am Asian… it is a good package.

Yunah Lee has performed the role of Butterfly 136 times while this will be Nina’s nearly 50th time as Suzuki. KN: Are there still challenges in this role for you?
NN: It changes from production to production. I think the biggest challenge is always finding new things and finding ways to make it different and interesting and make it true to whomever I’m working with and it changes with the chemistry of the cast.

YL: Oh every night. Because it’s a live show and you’re using your body–you feel different every morning and like my voice teacher always says, “you never recreate things, you always create.” So your voice feels different every time.

The view of Capitol Theater from the stage.
The view of Capitol Theater from the stage.

KN: What is your advice for people who have never been to the opera? 
NN: A lot of people think of the fat lady singing in opera, but it’s not that. It’s theater, it’s drama, it’s music. You’ve got an orchestra, you’ve got costumes, you’ve got sets and props, and it’s really accessible to anybody. Especially in Madame Butterfly, you’ve got themes that you will recognize. You’ve got the national anthem, you’ve got the Japanese national anthem, you’ve got all this stuff where you hear little bits and pieces and you go, “Hey I know that from somewhere,” even though you may have never seen the opera.

The other thing I think people are often time scared of is that it’s in Italian and they think, “I won’t understand what’s going on.” And the best thing about opera is there’s subtitles and you will understand, there will be words in English going across and you will know what’s going on. It’s not something that’s not accessible to anybody.  And there are tickets that are available at any price.

YL: For the first time, you don’t have to worry about it or be intimidated by this opera because the story is so simple and tragically beautiful. It is coming with this gorgeous tune. And it is the best tragic love story that it cannot go much better than this. I don’t think it’s complicated to anybody, it’s just simply sad tragedy that will break everyone’s heart.

It was so much fun talking with the singers!  See them in action at Utah Opera’s production of Madame Butterfly opening October 11, 2014, at Capitol Theater and continuing October 13, 15, 17 and 19.  Tickets are available online here.

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