Harbour stars reflect on Butterfly's beautiful tragedy

Soprano Eva Kong makes singing opera sound like an extreme sport, with extra challenges performing on Sydney Harbour.

The world-class singer describes hitting high notes while wearing wings measuring three metres across, not to mention 13-centimetre high heels.

In a production of Aida, Kong had to sustain one of the highest notes in the repertoire, a high E flat, by exhaling a small and very controlled amount of air.

So far, so professional - except the wind started blowing in the opposite direction.

"As I was singing, the wind blew into my mouth... I nearly wet myself at that moment," Kong told AAP.

Feeling her voice begin to shake, she raised her hand to shield her mouth, pretending it was a dance move so the audience was none the wiser.

"You never know what's going to happen on the harbour," she laughed.

Kong is sharing the role of Cio-Cio-San with fellow soprano Karah Son in Opera Australia's latest outdoor production of Madama Butterfly.

It's one of the most demanding roles in opera - with a book that runs to about 400 pages, Cio-Cio-San is singing in all but a few dozen of them.

Son has sung in more than 20 productions of the Puccini staple, and told AAP the role is the most difficult she has ever performed.

"Especially when performing Cio-Cio-San's death, I have to use all my emotional energy," she said.

The very opposite of the stereotypical opera diva, Kong is pleased to be sharing the load.

"Life's too short, I don't want to whinge in front of the company because I've seen tons of divas, and I'm sick of it," she said.

As for Madama Butterfly, Puccini's classic opera from the early 1900s is mired in the politics of race, imperialism and gender.

The plot goes like this: a US naval officer, Pinkerton, weds a 15-year-old Japanese girl Cio-Cio-San, intending to divorce her once he finds an American wife.

Then, Pinkerton leaves and Cio-Cio-San gives birth to his son, waiting faithfully for three years for his return.

When he finally arrives with his new wife, Cio-Cio-San agrees to give up her child, placing a US flag in the young boy's hands and killing herself.

Like any art, Madama Butterfly is a product of its time, and Kong agrees the politics make for a difficult discussion.

Ironically, in Korea, the homeland of both stars, Madama Butterfly wasn't performed until recently due to years under Japanese occupation.

"Because of that hate, we weren't able to do anything related to Japan," Kong said.

Karah Son believes Madama Butterfly is still performed today because it gives audiences a chance to think deeply about the mistakes of the past.

Kong also believes audiences should respect the history that has altered our perception of the opera over the years.

"When it's an art form, look at it. Feel it. Don't do it again. That's my point of view - everyone's different, but I think it's quite delicate matter," she said.

The burden of all this, as well as Cio-Cio-San's personal tragedy, falls to Kong and Son each time they step on stage.

"It really really breaks my heart every night, every night I feel like I really kill myself," Kong said.

But she feels Cio-Cio-San's tragedy is ultimately intensely beautiful - especially when sung under the moon, against the backdrop of Sydney Harbour.

The Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour production of Madama Butterfly is at Fleet Steps on Mrs Macquaries Point in Sydney, March 24 to April 23.

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