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TRADITION FLITS AWAY IN ROCK ‘BUTTERFLY’

Transforming Puccini’s beloved “Madama Butterfly” into a rock opera may strike opera buffs as only the latest sacrilege perpetrated by the MTV generation. Replacing the magical humming chorus with a synthesizer’s cold, electronic harmonies? Exchanging Butterfly’s entourage of kimono-clad maidens for the wasted denizens of a futuristic, post-World War III Nagasaki?

None of this tampering has phased Arthur Salazar, a UC San Diego theater major who is directing and producing “Electric Butterfly,” as the transmogrified Puccini work is titled, in the university’s Undergraduate Arts Festival.

“The people who usually go to opera--they’re going to freak out when they see this show,” said Salazar. But the 20-year-old maverick has his eyes on an audience composed more of his peers than of the traditional society folk who frequent grand opera.

Although Salazar did not conceive the idea of a rock “Butterfly,” he ordered two of his colleagues, musician Nicholas DeHerrera and writer William Gregory, to come up with a new work for him to produce. They devised “Electric Butterfly,” retaining the outlines of the melodramatic David Belasco plot, but only a smattering of Puccini.

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“We’ve kept a few themes from the opera,” DeHerrera said. “Otherwise, the music is all new.”

In addition to his compositional responsibility, DeHerrera will play his score from the synthesizer keyboard in performance. The new work opens Thursday and will run through Saturday.

Unlike the rest of UCSD’s undergraduate theater majors who complacently wait for acting and directing experience as meted out by the drama department, Salazar formed the Undergraduate Theatre Makers, of which he is president, to suit his own theatrical needs and aspirations.

“Undergraduate Theatre Makers was done to spite the drama department, in a way, even though they helped with our first production. Little did they know I would do more productions,” Salazar said with characteristic enthusiasm. After producing Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” in February, Salazar’s group performed on campus Woody Allen’s “God and Death” last month, which they also took downtown for a sold-out performance at Sushi.

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Working without the direct blessing of the drama department has meant that Salazar and his crew must rehearse their rock opera off campus in the sanctuary of a church in Otay Mesa. And they will be performing “Electric Butterfly” in the bowels of Mandeville Center in the music department’s ancillary recital hall, Room B-210. Such challenges have inspired rather than daunted Salazar, whose motto is, “No conflict, no drama.”

Salazar has no qualms about putting his own money into these dramatic projects, another oddity on a campus that usually runs on the high-octane power of seemingly endless grants.

“I’ve put $1,500 of my own funds into this production, and the group has raised some $300 in raffles,” he said proudly. “But I know we’ll make it all back.” A promoter by nature, Salazar’s slick publicity includes selling tickets through one of the professional computerized ticket agencies. “Pre-sales are very good,” he said.

Most of the performers in “Electric Butterfly” are not UCSD students, and only half of the production’s support members come from the campus. For this rock opera, Salazar looked for actors with strong voices. “Gregory and DeHerrera made an opera requiring the voices of Patti LaBelle and Barbra Streisand,” he said. “We have very capable students to fill those roles, but in their minds, those gentlemen wanted something like the Vienna Boys’ Choir in the background.”

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Salazar cast singer Danielle Forsgren in the lead role of Michiko, the Butterfly in “Electric Butterfly.” Local audiences will remember Forsgren for her smash performance of the title role in Southwestern College’s “Evita” earlier this season. Brian Sullivan will play opposite Forsgren.

“The male lead needs to be a traditional rock singer,” added Salazar, showing not the slightest compunction in modifying the category “rock” with such an adjective.

Born in the Bronx, Salazar grew up in San Diego’s South Bay, where he graduated from the School for Performing Arts at Chula Vista High School. He retains more than a hint of a Bronx accent, and his staccato delivery sets his speech apart from the laconic cadences of South Bay natives. He lives at home with his family in Otay Mesa.


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