|Premiere||20 November 1984|
|Venue||U2 Universal Theatre, Fitzroy, Victoria|
The Melbourne Age 12 November,1984
CHO CHO SAN was one of Handspan’s most acclaimed productions, but, ironically, one of its least performed.
Commissioned by Handspan Theatre in 1983, it was brought to the company by Carmelina Di Guglielmo, keen to explore further the development of text-based work that featured actors with animated images and puppetry. The play was written by Daniel Keene, originally based on John Luther’s book Madame Butterfly, which had also inspired Puccini’s opera. Contemporary chamber opera was still in early development in Australia, but the notion of bringing puppets puppets on this stage took this project into a new realm of theatrical adventure.
Daniel Keene and Director, Geoff Hooke had been working together for some time to develop the play into a modern opera before they came to Handspan. The further evolution of its plot, through design and imagery with Handspan, and with a magical musical score by Boris Conley and Dalmazio Babare, proved to be both a powerful interpretation of the story and a unique theatrical experience.
For Hooke the story of Cho Cho San was about:
CHO CHO SAN was powerfully moving. The tragedy of a delicate, naive girl caught between two cultures, hopelessly trapped, hopefully yearning and with all hope destroyed, was told through resonant music and lyrics. Singer/actors and life-sized puppets manipulated by visible puppeteers played dual roles. Cho Cho San herself was represented by an actor, and by her alter-ego puppet, Butterfly; Goro, the Japanese marriage broker, by an actor and a grotesque puppet of himself; Pinkerton, Kate and Sharpless, Westerners and the Chorus were actors, and the child of two cultures was a white-faced, innocently featureless baby puppet, smothered to death at the hands of its despairing mother in this new version of the story.
Ken Evans' design, predominantly white, staged the play using the long side of the Universal 2 auditorium against a white cyclorama with catwalk and rostra silhouetting centrally placed musicians. Spot colour in costumes, puppet dressing and lighting emphasised the emotional undercurrents of the work.
Goro and his cohorts inhabited the piano bar at one end of the stage, blending the musicians into the nightclub with their instruments which stretched to Cho Cho San’s tatami room at the other end. Performers moved through the long space, with and through its music.
The white, faceless Baby (which appeared in many subsequent Handspan works), and the Puppet Butterfly’s modified bunraku technique using mouth board control, were designed for this play by Ken Evans with their maker, Michele Spooner. These images, despite, or because of their diversion from Luther's original story, created the play’s moving highlights the disintegration of the Butterfly puppet, a powerful illustration of Pinkerton’s callousness; and the baby’s death at its mother’s hand, which moved audiences to tears.
The score of the production was composed and performed by Boris Conley, from Circus Oz, and Dalmazio Babare, percussionist from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Live piano, electric keyboard and percussion were supported by pre-recorded tapes and singers were amplified.
CHO CHO SAN’s premiere season was a huge success. It sold out and all but one critic raved:
The Australian, with its national circulation, published the one negative review. Its writer comprehensively disliked both the production and its conceptual intentions:
Despite the outstanding success of its season at the Universal Theatre, Handspan was unable to keep CHO CHO SAN in its repertoire. Although touring opportunities for the work were in train, Hooke and the musician/composers were shaken by The Australian's criticism and wanted to redevelop the work with more experienced singers and to exclude most of the Handspan ensemble. They also insisted on an extended live band, further rehearsal and steep royalty agreements. These proposals were not acceptable to Handspan in the face of the company’s artistic collaboration in the production, and were not realistic given its already un-remunerated financial investment in the work.
Handspan ideology of ensemble development and shared creative ownership of work anticipated its continued refinement through touring opportunities. Company members sought constantly to develop and extend their skills and its ground-breaking and experimental works were continually re-rehearsed, further developed and refined from the first opening night till their last closing performance. New works were created based on the skills and capacities of original cast members with successful directors blending their contributions into a whole greater than its parts. Handspan did not consider further improvements to CHO CHO SAN would eventuate through recasting.
At the same time, the technical production demands of the music had been unanticipated in this new venture into the world of live amplified sound and for the only time in its history, the company had borrowed funds to cover this additional pre-production expense against the work’s hoped for success and future touring potential. No further financial investment could be contemplated.
Despite several negotiations and available touring options, Handspan's rights in the work lapsed after two years.
Playbox Theatre mounted a new production of the play for Victorian touring in 1987. The new production was again directed by Geoff Hooke and employed Peter J.Wilson as Butterfly puppeteer and Michele Spooner as puppetry director. In 2012 the play was again revived, directed by Peter J.Wilson in an Australia-China co-production toured by Arts Projects Australia, with a new musical score and adaptation of the original plot. Neither of these later productions generated the acclaim and response of the Handspan production, apparently failing to recapture the magic of the original. Both employed professional singers which gave the work musical security by lost much of its immediacy for audiences, and although both co-opted Handspan's puppetry designs for Butterfly and the Baby, neither successfully re-staged their powerful poignancy.
CHO CHO SAN's successful opening season in 1984 nevertheless confirmed Handspan’s burgeoning reputation as a dynamic creative force in the development of adventurous mainstream theatre in Australia. The company's creation of Nigel Triffitt’s Secrets had put the company in the public eye and CHO CHO SAN kept it there.
|Composers||Dalmazio Babare and Boris Conley|
|Design realisation & Manipulation direction||Ken Evans|
|Puppet maker||Michele Spooner|
|Manipulation consultants||Michele Spooner, Noriko Nishimoto|
|Lighting design||Philip Lethlean with Geoff Hooke|
|Sound design||Mark Woods|
|Costume designer||Maryanne Rennie|
|Presenters||Tim Woods and Greg Hocking|
|Chorus & Puppeteer||Carmelina Di Guglielmo|
|Sharpless (Actor) and Child Puppeteer 1||Andrew Hansen|
|B.F.Pinkerton (Actor)||Danny Nash|
|Goro (Actor and Puppeteer)||John Rogers|
|Cho Cho San (Actor)||Ruth Schoenheimer|
|Chorus, Mrs.Pinkerton (Actor) and Puppeteer||Lizz Talbot|
|Butterfly Puppeteer and Child Puppeteer 2||Peter J.Wilson|
|Musicians||Boris Conley and Dalmazio Babare|
|Technical direction||Philip Lethlean|
|Sound recording||Choo Packer|
|Lighting operator||Philip Lethlean|
|Sound operator||Paul Judd|
|Stage managers||Ken Evans, David Hope|
|Set construction||Brian Holmes, Paul Judd, Paul Scacchi|
|Production crew||Paul Scacchi, Kelvin Geddes, David Hope, Trish Simmons, Simon Fisher, Gail Davidson|
|Production assistants||Vanessa Hollow, Avril McQueen, Rick Ireland, Alison Donne, Christine Houston|
|Graphic artist||John Dickson|
|20 November – 22 December 1984||U2 Universal Theatre, presented by Hocking & Woods|