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Utah Opera begins 1993 with one of the most pathetic, also one of the most popular of operas - "Madama Butterfly" by Giacomo Puccini, a hit with audiences everywhere for close to 100 years.

In actual fact, the opera was almost hissed off the stage at its 1904 premiere at La Scala; but after some shortening and reworking, it made a hit only three months later in Brescia and has never stopped playing since.Frequently requested by Utah Opera audiences, the production will play in the Capitol Theatre on Jan. 16, 18, 20 and 22 at 7:30 p.m., and on Jan. 24 at 2 p.m. It will be sung in Italian with English supertitles. Tickets ranging from $10-$40 may be purchased at ArtTix in the Capitol Theater, weekdays 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Saturdays 10-2, call 355-2787; or at ArtTix in certain Albertson stores.

Singing the role of Cio-Cio-San (Madama Butterfly), the geisha who falls in love with an American naval lieutenant, bears his child and keeps a three-years' vigil awaiting his return, is the French-Canadian soprano Christiane Riel. Her credits include numerous Butterflys, including Virginia and Saskatchewan operas; and still to come this year, with Minnesota Opera and Canadian Opera Company. A winner of prestigious Canadian music competitions, she sung with the major opera companies of Canada and at New York City Opera, where she debuted as Liu in "Turandot" in 1991-92. Concert dates include the orchestras of Nova Scotia, Victoria, and Montreal.

One of a sizable number of baritones whose voices have moved up, Robert Galbraith will sing Pinkerton, his first tenor role. Galbraith has glowing notices for his former work in the lyric baritone repertory with such companies as Vienna Staatsoper, La Scala and Washington Opera; also Spoleto, Santiago (Chile), New Orleans, Hamburg, Miami, Chicago Lyric and New York City operas, among many others. Galbraith has been active with Houston Opera, both in the Grand Opera Theatre and Texas Opera Theatre.

Eric Allen Hanson returns as Sharpless. The popular baritone will be remembered here for his Figaro in "The Barber of Seville," Papageno, and Enrico in "Lucia." He has sung widely in American regional opera, with such companies as Central City, Atlanta, Austin, Portland, Virginia, Dallas, Connecticut and Pennsylvania.

Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Lane, U.O.'s Suzuki, has appeared with Santa Fe, New York City, Omaha and Milwaukee operas, also with San Francisco, Brooklyn and National symphonies, the Oregon Bach Festival and Atlanta, St. Louis and Philharmonia Baroque orchestras. Recent recordings include Smithsonian, Nonesuch, Harmonia Mundi USA and Newport releases, often as soloist in choral works.

As Goro the marriage broker, tenor Brian Scott returns after U.O.'s "Falstaff." The Bonze, Butterfly's uncle, will be Donald Sherrill. Both singers are widely experienced in American regional opera. Completing the cast are Utah singers Paula Fowler as Kate Pinkerton, James Miller as the wealthy suitor Yamadori, Houston Hill and Eric Glissmeyer.

Conducting the singers and Utah Symphony is Joseph Rescigno, for 10 seasons artistic adviser and principal conductor of the Florentine Opera of Milwaukee. His many credits, ranging from the standard repertory to new pieces and neglected contemporary works, include Chicago Lyric Opera, Dallas, Washington, Montreal, New Orleans, New York City, Marseilles, St. Louis, Wolf Trap, Arizona, Pittsburgh, Seattle, Portland, Edmonton and Tulsa operas.

Costumes are by Susan Memmott Allred, lighting by Nicholas Cavallaro, wigs and makeup Kevin Philips, chorus master Lynn Jemison-Keisker, and sets from Virginia Opera.

Pam Berlin, stage director for "Madama Butterfly," brings with her a credit that breaks common ground: she directed "Steel Magnolias" for Broadway, another story that deals with women and heartbreak.

Berlin has worked mostly in theater, directing such other outstanding plays as "Crossing Delancey," "The Cemetery Club" and "To Gillian on her 37th Birthday." She's also done some Gilbert and Sullivan and short operas such as "Hansel and Gretel" and "Riders to the Sea," but this is her first full-length, main-stage opera.

As a girl growing up in Virginia, Berlin did not visualize herself going into music - or theater, for that matter. "My father was a doctor with a passion for music, and I played the violin, but never with real dedication or talent," she said.

At Radcliffe Berlin shifted to drama, but after graduation she worked in a clinic for disturbed children. "Then I thought, what do I really enjoy? It was drama, and I made the leap," she said. "When I found I was most comfortable directing, I had found my niche."

After earning a master of fine arts degree at Southern Methodist University, she worked in regional theater in St. Louis and Kansas City before moving to New York in 1979. Early credits include out-of-town theater departments, with occasional small operas. She fell in with the Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York, a breeding ground for new plays, and joined their staff for a time as literary manager.

Since 1983 she has free-lanced, dividing her time between new plays in New York and tried-and-true standards and classics in regional theater.

As for "Butterfly," she sees it as a psychological study of a very young girl in pain. "Before the opera opens her family has fallen from high position to disgrace, her father has been forced to commit hara kiri, and Cio-Cio-San must work as a geisha," she said. "She is psychologically ready to turn her back on Japan's conventional ways, and Pinkerton appears to her like a knight on a white horse - he can do all things for her.

"Anne Ewers hired me because she wanted to concentrate on the human aspects, keep the characters real and subtle. The music speaks, and the singers know far more than I do. I haven't had their dozen or so performances. But in some ways that works to my advantage, because I don't have pre-conceptions. It's been the same with the Gilbert and Sullivan I've done, I didn't know the affections that were customary.

"Butterfly is young, innocent, vulerable, passionate, with a sense of humor. She is 15 when the opera opens, and only 18 when she dies. The relationship between Suzuki and Butterfy is very important, very sustaining."

Berlin is excited about Utah's Cio-Cio-San. "Christiane has all the right stuff - she is charming, childlike, coquettish, yet she conveys the sense of a deep wound. She has been in six productions already, with two more to come this season, but she is open to trying new things.

"Pinkerton must be charming too, not an ugly American, or we wouldn't like him. He is also young, spoiled, comes from money, hasn't been in Japan long, and he considers a geisha marriage as just a lark."

Berlin hopes for more opera and musical theater, and "there is no one better to learn from in this area than Joseph Rescigno, our conductor," she said. "We sat on the plane together coming out, and had such a good talk. He knows every word of this opera."

She sees a complementary place for herself and other stage directors in opera, because "you need fresh blood pumping away if opera is not to become a museum art," she said. "We must be allowed our failures, take risks to discover new exciting things, find our visions. But this time I expect to mostly learn, and break the rules later!"

Tonight at 6:30 in the Eccles Art Center, the Ogden Opera Guild will hold a symposium featuring Joseph Rescigno and Pam Berlin, moderated by Anne Ewers. Costumes on display and music by Utah Opera's young artists will complete the program, with a light supper to follow. Non-guild members $3.

Thursday's free OperaBites symposium will be at 12:15 p.m. in the Capitol Theatre, sponsored by the Utah Opera Guild. The same personnel will comment, without musical numbers.