By Barb Van Atta

In 1999, rising Tri-Cities Opera soprano Jill Bowen was slated to sing her first Cio-Cio-San in Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. Her future husband, longtime TCO favorite Jake Gardner, hoped to reprise the role of Sharpless while making his directorial debut. Suffice it to say, life does not always go according to plan. Although Jill sang all five performances, Jake wasn’t involved in the production.
In the intervening years, the couple (they wed in 2002) have performed literally coast-to-coast, from Cooperstown’s Glimmerglass Festival (formerly Glimmerglass Opera) to Hawaii Opera Theatre. This weekend, the Gardners return to Tri-Cities Opera, and the word that pops immediately into Jill’s mind is “karma.” She again has the title role in Butterfly; Jake will be singing Sharpless and, yes, stage-directing his first full opera.
“It completes the circle,” Jill said.
Over the past 16 months, TCO has been reinventing itself for the 21st century: changing leadership, streamlining its resident artist program, emphasizing its association with Binghamton University and impressively updating its use of electronic and social media. The Gardners see themselves as part of this move forward, this “turning the page” as Jake puts it, but also as a link to the past, when the company was dominated by the personalities of its co-founders, Peyton Hibbitt and the late Carmen Savoca.
For Jake, this hit home when he and Jill held their first rehearsal with the cast. “I hadn’t set foot in Clinton Street (the Opera Center at 315 Clinton St., Binghamton) in 10 years,” the bass-baritone said recently. “Carmen’s ghost is all over the place.”
“It’s surreal in a way,” added Jill. “This is the room where Jake’s career started.” (Jake, raised in Johnson City, was one of TCO’s first resident artists. Studying with Hibbitt and Savoca, he debuted as Sharpless, La Traviata’s Germont, The Barber of Seville’s Figaro and other characters that have become his signature roles.)
Jake, who has staged operatic scenes and one-act operas both with A Singing Actor’s Studio, which he and Jill founded in 2003, and the Young Artists Studio at Hawaii Opera Theater, says his directorial work is “totally dedicated to Carmen and Peyton.” In fact, he finds himself doing the same “improv” work with the Butterfly cast that he was asked to do at TCO 40 years ago.
Because Butterfly is his first full opera as a director, it is also his first time working with a full chorus, staging crowd scenes. But at least he’s not alone. “It’s nice to have a crew,” he said with a smile. “I’ve never had a stage manager before.”
When Jake started with TCO, nearly everyone connected with the company resided locally or within easy commute. Performance was a direct outgrowth of study, and the rehearsal period for a production could be up to two months. But not anymore. Although the volunteer chorus and resident artists began rehearsing in September, the Gardners only began staging on Oct. 3.  “It’s a shorter time period than in the old days, but that’s happening everywhere with rehearsal times,” Jake said.
The debuting director has one advantage, of course: He’s married to his leading lady. “In our relationship, we’ve been able to talk about (the production) ahead of time,” Jill said. Thus, the hands-on work of developing characters was able to begin immediately upon their arrival. That, Jill added, “harkens back to the old days” when, as Jake explained, the emphasis at TCO always was on teaching.
Although neither Gardner has worked before with TCO Musical Director John Mario Di Costanzo, they both commended him for his similar dedication to teaching and coaching, citing his work with the resident artists on their language and vocal musical development.
But enough about directing
The Gardners are, first and foremost, singing actors praised for their portrayals as well as their vocal performances. Obviously, Cio-Cio-San is not sung by someone the same age as the Puccini’s tragic heroine. The ill-fated geisha is 15 when she pledges her love and life to U.S. Naval Lieut. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton. Sharpless, however, although sometimes staged as a contemporary of Pinkerton, is usually portrayed as a middle-aged man. For four decades, Jake has grown into the role of the American consul – no more need to add white to his hair or beard.
“It’s nice to have the gravitas [for the part],” he said, adding that his approach now is to show a man who “senses the ending at the beginning” when warning Pinkerton that Cio-Cio-San is taking the marriage much more seriously than her groom is. “He is conflicted at the end for his inaction. It’s not ‘I should have seen it coming’ but ‘I DID see it coming and didn’t stop it’.”
The opera originally was staged in two acts, with an orchestral interlude dividing the second act into two segments. Puccini later created a three-act version. The second act ends as night falls while Cio-Cio-San waits for Pinkerton; the interlude representing her
all-night vigil and the coming dawn is played before the third-act curtain rises. This is the more popular version these days and, indeed, will be the format at Arizona Opera when the Gardners reprise their roles early in 2012. The TCO production, however, will return to the original concept to emphasize the rollercoaster that Cio-Cio-San is on during the final 24 hours of her life. “The audience will go on the emotional ride to the bottom, then to the top and back to the bottom as she is pushed to the wall,” Jill said.
Looking ahead
Many opera companies have begun adding classical American musicals to their repertoire to expand their audiences, and this dovetails with Jake’s vision of his vocal future. “I’m still singing opera, but I’m looking at more Broadway [-style] roles,” he said. (Southern Tier audiences who enjoyed Jake’s turn as Buffalo Bill last summer in Glimmerglass’ Annie Get Your Gun will be happy to hear he is returning as Mayor Shinn in the 2012 production of The Music Man.) Jill, on the other hand, although she has done some musical theater and could be enticed by a “special project,” said that “the main thrust of [her] career is verismo spinto soprano roles.” A student of famed verismo soprano Diana Soviero, Jill is working her way through the Puccini canon of heroines.
Through all of their touring, the Gardners have retained a residence in Binghamton, but their next big project after Butterfly will be changing their home base. The couple is moving to North Carolina, not far from Jill’s parents (and, as Jake pointed out, year-round golf.) They are hoping for professional returns to this area, however. “We’re excited that TCO is moving in such a positive direction,” Jill said.
About the production
Performances of Madame Butterfly will be 8 p.m. Friday (Oct. 21) and 3 p.m. Sunday (Oct. 23) at The Forum, 236 Washington St., Binghamton. Also featured will be TCO regulars Kirk Dougherty (Pinkerton), Cabiria Jacobsen (Suzuki), Richard G. Leonberge (Goro) and William Roberts (The Bonze). The Gardners praised the work of all the resident artists who will be performing; Jake also expressed appreciation for the work of Charlie Hyland, a new baritone in the company, who prepared the role of Sharpless and has served as Jake’s “stand-in” during staging rehearsals.
For tickets and information about special pre- and post-performance events, call the TCO box office at 607-772-0400 or visit
EDITOR’S NOTE: Lee Shepherd’s review of the opening night performance will be published Saturday at BAMirror.