[Click here for a Noozhawk photo gallery from the gala.]

Heading toward its 20th season, Opera Santa Barbara continues to provide fully staged productions and programs for families of any age. The first of three productions for the new season was Madame Butterfly staged at The Granada Theatre.

It’s been nearly 10 years since Giacomo Puccini’s emotional opera was performed in Santa Barbara. The nearly three-hour performance brought tears to the eyes of many audience members as the tragic tale was told of a vulnerable Japanese geisha who is wed and then abandoned by an American naval officer. The opera originally premiered at La Scala in 1904 as an epic failure.

Mihoko Kinoshita, as Cio-Cio-San or Madame Butterfly, has performed the title role in Phoenix, Vancouver, Detroit, Baltimore, Santa Margherita, Belgrade, Sofia, Pisa and London’s Royal Albert Hall, leading to a performance of subtlety and sophistication.

“I want to show not just a sweet girl,” Kinoshita told Noozhawk. “I want to show more drama, to be pretty and funny and everything. So that’s my butterfly.”

Opera Santa Barbara’s performance of Madame Butterfly offered other distinctive touches, too.

“To see a production of Madame Butterfly conducted by a woman and directed by a woman I really felt brought out certain components of this opera that you don’t always see and feel,” said executive director Steven Sharpe. “And the pride and the way she (Kinoshita) depicted the character was truly remarkable, in my opinion.”

Stage director Keturah Stickann most recently had worked at the San Francisco Opera on Jake Heggie’s Moby Dick, and Grammy-nominated conductor Sara Jobin is known for her work on John Musto’s Volpone. It was this music, along with the city of Santa Barbara, that formed part of the inspiration for Alexey Sayapin in his role as Lt. Pinkerton.

“The music is stunning, beautiful and this is a major inspiration,” said the 27-year-old Sayapin, who lives in Vienna, Austria. “And Santa Barbara really inspires me, too. I really like this place. It’s a very special place and it has a very special energy.”

A special pre-opera gala dinner was well attended as VIPs in optional black tie and flowing gowns received small fans that doubled as guest passes for the dinner and a private intermission reception.

The McCune Founders Room was filled for appetizers and cocktails, featuring the signature pomegranate martini with wines by Palmina. A special three-course dinner was also provided by Rincon Catering on table settings with pink tulips and red roses serving a delectable menu of hand-rolled Maki sushi rolls with Ponzu-marinated tuna, baby spinach with strawberries, steamed Barramundi on a bed of wilted Mizuna. A special post-performance dessert celebration with the cast, conductor and director included Asian sake-poached pears, crème brulee spoons, mochi ice cream and handmade cream puffs with green tea mousse.

During the dinner, Opera Santa Barbara board president Joan Rutkowski welcomed guests to the 19th season of the company, revealing that subscription sales have nearly doubled in the past two years.

“Opera is a very special thing because it includes all of the components that make art and music and drama and visual and oral,” she said. “It’s a culmination of all the arts coming together. And when Opera Santa Barbara puts on a show, it’s only for Santa Barbara, which is unusual.”

Future performances from this special community treasure include Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida the evening of March 1 with a matinee on March 3. Francesca Zambello’s groundbreaking intimate production premiered at the prestigious Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, N.Y., and the intimate take on Verdi’s masterpiece tells the story of a Pharaoh’s daughter competing with her own Ethiopian slave for the love of an Egyptian general. Also, Gaetano Donizetti’s Don Pasquale will be staged in April. Click here to purchase tickets to these wonderful, fully staged upcoming performances at The Granada. Support and participation in many of the community programs that Opera Santa Barbara offers are a unique way to spread the joy.

Some of the popular efforts by Opera Santa Barbara to embrace the community include programs for children and youth, providing critical exposure to this special art form.

“Children seem to really like opera and young people, too,” Rutkowski said. “We have a lot of young people and students who come. And we also have opera in the schools for children and we have what’s called The Opera Lab where we go into schools. We invite students to come to our final dress rehearsal and we give them rush tickets. So we’re really encouraging them to come and we find that they really like opera.”

Other programs for the community at-large include the popular Opera on the GO! series that began earlier this fall with monthly programs, such as “Opera in Film III: From Silent to HD” and the second annual holiday concert, A Winter Offering, that featured soprano Marcy Stonikas and pianist Christopher Allen. Future opportunities for insight to the art of opera include Experience “The Opera Lab” on Jan. 23; Go Further: Rediscovering Aida on Feb. 20, presented by Simon Williams and special guest Michael Rau; Go Further: Don Pasquale on March 27, presented by Desiree Mays; and a special 2013-2014 season preview with Jose Maria Condemi.

The Opera Lab is a highly interactive education outreach program designed by Condemi and made possible by the generous support of corporate and individual donations. The program teaches the building blocks of the art form with professional cast members.

Another of the important programs run by Opera Santa Barbara is the Studio Artist Program that provides valuable training to up-and-coming opera singers with top industry directors, conductors, coaches in master classes, individual coachings and public performances. The talented 2012-2013 participants include mezzo-sopranos Kate Allen and Tammy Coil; tenors Ernest Alvarez and Benjamin Robinson; baritones John David Boehr, Adam Meza, Adam Richardson and Efraín Solís; sopranos Reyna Carguill, Elena Galván and Alexandra Loutsion; and bass-baritone Christopher Remmel.

The mission of Opera Santa Barbara is to add cultural enrichment by presenting high-quality performances and community programs that showcase the beauty of opera. The evening was a wonderful tribute to the arts.

Something that brought back into the focus the goal of creating new audiences for opera was offered at Madame Butterfly in the form of a cute and informative brochure called, “Opera: A Kid’s Guide.” The guide offered clear explanations and vocabulary lists with games like word search, eye spy, fun facts, and a chance for children to write up their own critical take for submittal to the fictitious “Daily Newspaper.”

“What’s really nice for us is how opera is bringing out younger and younger audiences into the arts,” said Sharpe. “You see it in our audience. It’s getting younger and younger.

“And it’s the drama and the costumes and the sets. It’s everything combined that really engages audiences of all ages. It’s wonderful to see that happen.”

Noozhawk iSociety columnist Melissa Walker can be reached at mwalker@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkSociety, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.

Noozhawk iSociety columnist Melissa Walker can be reached at mwalker@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.