Minghella's Eastern Inspiration; the Oscar-Winning Filmmaker Is Directing His First Opera and, He Says, His Deep Interest in the Orient Makes Madam Butterfly the Perfect Choice

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Byline: FIONA MADDOCKS

MUSIC has always been my big obsess ion," Anthony Minghella observes.

"You only have to look at my films.

They're all hostage to the shapes and rhythms of music in one way or other." Yet only now is this Oscar and Bafta-winning British director, with films such as Truly, Madly, Deeply, The English Patient and The Talented Mr Ripley to his name, taking the risk and attempting his first opera, Puccini's Madam Butterfly, at English National Opera.

Given the number of film directors who have confidently gone this route and fallen flat on the their faces, risk is hardly too strong a word. There is no mystery as to why they might find it difficult: the preordained shape of a musical score, the fixed space of a theatre, the fact - no minor diversion this - that the actors have to sing.

"All those challenges are part of the attraction. Some of the creative team, who are new to opera, are simply gobsmacked when a singer like Mary Plazas, who is as tiny and delicate as the geisha Butterfly she's playing, opens her mouth and this huge, incredible sound comes out."

Minghella, 51, has long been a serious opera fan but he's having to negotiate a new way of thinking and working: "I'm used to the authorship of film, whether as writer, director or both. You don't get that with opera.

Instead the task is finally interpretative, to get out of the way and make the experience transparent, emotional, newly minted. A filmmaker can cut according to circumstances. I can't chop Puccini around. Not that I want to.

I adore his music."

He agreed to direct Butterfly five years ago but the idea to work with conductor David Parry was hatched more than two decades ago, when the pair shared a house in London.

"David was a repetiteur [singers' rehearsal coach] at the time," Minghella says. "So for more than a year I lived with the sound of singers, which was a wonderful introduction to opera."

This is only half the story.

Minghella, an accomplished playwright and adapter as well as director, is also a musician. He plays the piano and has written bits of soundtrack for his own films. "All rubbish," he mutters apologetically.

"Being a director means being not very good at an awful lot of things.

But yes, I can read the score and to that extent I'm not frightened of the music."

Puccini's 1904 opera, in which orientalism and imperialism clash tragically, tells of a Japanese girl who waits loyally but hopelessly for the return of the American naval officer, Pinkerton, after a brief, sham marriage.

Minghella, born of Italian parents in the Isle of Wight, is married to Carolyn Choa, a Hong Kong Chinese choreographer who is associate director on the ENO Butterfly.

They met as students at Hull University and have worked together on most of his films. He generously credits her with setting the distinctive visual tone and character of all he does, especially this Butterfly.

"In a banal way, this was the obvious choice of opera for us. We're both steeped in the culture of the far East - Noh, Kabuki, Banruki.

Historically, our families reflect the two parts of this story, though there the comparison ends, I hasten to add ... " Some recent interpretations of Butterfly have been heavy-handed in drawing comparisons with contemporary Bush-style US imperialism.

Puccini, after all, uses a snatch of the Stars and Stripes in his score, and Pinkerton sings the immortal words "America for ever".

Minghella, whose staging will be traditional in appearance with the promise of Japanese puppet-work, dislikes steering his audience. …