"Ah, here's where I do the 'forehead pluck,' " Patricia Racette says, laughing as she raises an arm and thrusts her fist from her face. Moments later, she performs another ungainly gesture -- a perpendicular chop, as if to slice some imaginary object. She calls that "the karate Noh."
Though she is wearing a black tunic, albeit strapless, and following step-by-step instructions, Racette is not in a martial arts studio. She's on the second floor of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, rehearsing for the Los Angeles Opera revival of "Madame Butterfly" opening tonight. For nine performances, this New Hampshire-born soprano, 40, will be making her company debut in Puccini's beloved melodrama as a young Japanese geisha seduced and abandoned by a callous American naval officer.
But this is no ordinary "Butterfly." Instead, director Robert Wilson has rethought the story in austerely abstract terms, entirely removing its emblems of a culture clash between 1900s Americana and still-feudal Japan: the dashing Lt. Pinkerton in dress whites and Cio-Cio-San in geisha garb, shyly hiding behind her fan.
In Wilson's costumes, the cast resembles a Greek chorus clad in Kabuki-esque uniforms and moving in very, very slow motion. The production, which was created for the Paris Opera in 1992 and ran for 14 performances here in 2004, has become something of a calling card for the director. The Parisians are also reviving it this month.
Exactly how hard it is to balance the emotionally wrenching vocalism of Puccini's score with the severe movements of Wilson's precise vision becomes clear during the rehearsal. Under Wilson associate Christiane Leveque's guidance, Racette must meticulously work her way through the aria "Che tua madre," in which the forsaken Cio-Cio-San foresees herself and her child begging for pity in the streets, then rejects that prospect.
"But all the labor is worth it, so long as there's an expressive value picked up along the way," the down-to-earth singer says afterward in her dressing room, where she has changed into elegant street wear.
"That moment where my fingers scratch the air? And another where the hands cross like knives and then soften? What a huge amount of drama I can pack into that. The onus is on me to convey it."
Detailed choreography is not routine turf for opera divas, but since she made her professional debut as Alice Ford in San Francisco Opera's 1989 "Falstaff," Racette has acquired a reputation for naturalism and a flair for personalizing characters to their deepest dramatic advantage. (Her other notable roles have included Janacek's Jenufa, Violetta in "La Traviata," Desdemona in "Otello" and Leonora in "Il Trovatore" at such major international houses as Covent Garden, the Vienna Opera and La Scala.)
At the moment, she is fresh from the premiere performances of Tobias Picker's "An American Tragedy" at New York's Metropolitan Opera in December. The Theodore Dreiser novel that Picker adapted was previously the basis for the movie "A Place in the Sun," and onstage, Racette sang the role of a hapless factory girl that the late Shelley Winters played memorably in that 1951 film.
It was in New York, during exhausting, full-day rehearsals for the ballyhooed "Tragedy," that a Wilson emissary, Zoe Mackler, met with Racette on three consecutive evenings to see if she wanted to tackle the "Butterfly" being revived by L.A. Opera.
"Wilson himself attended on the third night," she says, "to explain his idea of theater. I was completely taken by it" -- unlike some singers she later phoned "who had performed [in his 'Butterfly'] and said they didn't like the experience."
The company also sent her a video of the production, and "it would've been shortsighted of me not to explore this new point of view," she says.
Although some might feel that Wilson's stylization cancels out the drama of Puccini's verismo, Racette disagrees.
"The Japanese culture is steeped in austerity," she says, "and I find this approach to 'Butterfly' uniquely expressive. It's as pristine in its emotional quality as in its visual quality, even though you might think, 'Hey, how can you do this sort of thing in an Italian spaghetti-and-meatballs opera about a tragic young Japanese woman?'
"Well, it works. It laser-beams those emotions with a stillness that can lend even greater power."
After all, she says, Cio-Cio-San is trying to escape her geisha world and, in fact, the whole culture -- "her family, her religion, everything, and adopt the life that Pinkerton is going to give her." Her feelings of estrangement and loneliness, while living as an outcast from Nagasaki society in the small house her American lover has established for her, are reflected in the uncomfortable movements devised by Wilson.
"Emotionally, she's in a foreign land, where she's attached her hopes and dreams to this man. But she becomes a powerful person, someone who can withstand the ridicule of those she's turned away from and even believe, not in a Pollyanna way, it will all happen for her. Patricia Racette could not do this."
Indeed, becoming part of Wilson's vision has given her an epiphany or two.
"Some moments have turned on lightbulbs for me," she says, throwing her head back in amazement. "I need to eat them up. They need to be in my body, my soul, my mind. I'll take them along with me to other, more traditional 'Butterflys' " (including one in San Francisco slated for May).
There's a Wilson strategy, she says, "not unlike the way people speak in a whisper to make others lean forward to hear them" -- although she is alert to the risks. "I don't want the audience to ask, 'Who are these singing robots?' "
Her bottom line, though, has little to do with production values.
"It's the voice that carries expression and color," she says, "in a way the spoken word may not. That's where the theatricality is for me and how I find the highest level of artistry in myself. In the end, of course, Puccini's music tells it all."
Where: Los Angeles Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: 7:30 p.m. today, Wednesday and Feb. 1, 4, 8 and 16; 2 p.m. Jan. 29 and Feb. 12 and 19
Price: $30 to $205
Contact: (213) 972-8001 or www.laopera.com