Flying high in ‘Butterfly’

Gabriella Mercado is Trouble.

The 6-year-old Lynnwood girl hasn’t done anything wrong, she plays the role in Seattle Opera’s “Madama Butterfly,” which opens Saturday.

“It’s just a name,” Gabriella said. “It doesn’t mean I’m getting in trouble.”

Gabriella’s opera debut will be seen by fans in McCaw Hall, and for the first time in Seattle Opera history, on a big-screen simulcast in KeyArena. A few of the 8,000 free KeyArena tickets remain available for walk-ups only.

In Puccini’s great tragic opera, the kindergartner is the son of Butterfly, a Japanese geisha, and Pinkerton, an American lieutenant. The story portrays the couple’s passion, and then the American’s betrayal, ultimately leading to Butterfly’s heart- breaking suicide.

“I’m supposed to act sad,” Gabriella said.

While she may not fully understand the plot, she certainly appreciates the emotions.

“It feels like (Butterfly) really loves me, like I’m her own daughter playing a son,” Gabriella said.

Casting young children in the opera dates back to its early 20th century debut. The name Trouble is even older. It comes from the story by American John Luther Long on which the opera is based. In the opera, the child is called Sorrow and Joy. Backstage, she’s still Trouble.

“Having a real child play Sorrow, it adds a much deeper pathos to the situation,” local opera expert Jim Schindler said. “To have the boy run out and interrupt his mother’s suicide is very moving.”

Although this is Gabriella’s first opera performance, it’s not her stage debut. She had a role in Driftwood Player’s recent production of “The King and I.” That’s where a Seattle Opera producer spotted Gabriella and invited her to try out for Trouble.

Dressed in a boy’s football shirt and jeans, her long hair tied back, Gabriella won over the cast and directors at her early April audition. In preparation for the role, Gabriella had 10-inches of her fine black hair trimmed. She donated the cuttings to Locks of Love, an group that makes hairpieces for needy children.

Other preparations have included helping Gabriella understand a bit, but not too much, of the opera’s story. Her acting job requires her to move, sleep and stare, sometimes keeping still for several minutes.

It can be disorienting for kids to be on stage. Opera singers belt out arias, bright lights illuminate the set, a booming orchestra in the pit and cheering crowds in the house can upset children, stage director Peter Kazarus said. Opera history is full of disastrous stories of Troubles running off stage in tears.

“With Gabriella I have no such concerns,” Kazarus said. “She is a rock of Gibraltar. She just does her job and is absolutely great to work with.”

Mezzo-soprano Sarah Larsen, who sings Suzuki in “Madama Butterfly,” said some child actors are fussy from day-to-day, adding one more worry — babysitting — to the intense job of an opera performer. Not Gabriella.

“She has just been so focused and so consistent throughout this whole process,” Larsen said. “Working with her has been an absolute joy.”

Gabriella’s parents let the young girl decide if she wanted to pursue the stage. Prior to “Butterfly” the most they knew about opera came from a contestant who sang an operatic aria on “America’s Got Talent.” They’ve since watched a DVD version of “Madame Butterfly,” borrowed from the local library, and immersed themselves in Gabriella’s rehearsals alongside Patricia Racette, the world-famous soprano singing Butterfly.

Gabriella’s father, Jaime, a Boeing engineer, will stand in the wings for moral support.

After the final curtain falls, “I can breathe again,” Gabriella’s mom, Melanie, said.

Playing for an audience of thousands is one thing. Staying up way past her usual bedtime another. Best of all, “At home I always have to have another meal,” Gabriella said.

Usually it’s noodles, but Saturday’s snack is more fitting for a young diva: pizza and bread sticks.

Jackson Holtz: 425-339-3447;

‘Madama Butterfly’

“Madama Butterfly” is scheduled for eight performances: 7:30 p.m. May 5, 9, 11, 12, 16 and 19; and 2 p.m. May 13 and 20 at McCaw Hall. Gabriella is cast for performances on Saturdays and Wednesdays.

Tickets start at $25 at or 800-426-1619.

Reserved tickets for the 7:30 p.m. May 5 simulcast at KeyArena are sold out. Additional free seats available for walk-up patrons.

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