Craig Fields says he wanted to bring to Duluth an opera that people would recognize - the kind of performance that might draw people who otherwise wouldn't attend.
Fields is the founder and artistic director of Duluth Festival Opera - a company with big plans for the port city. He thinks he's found the right choice.
"On the surveys, Madame Butterfly comes out as the most beloved opera of all," says Fields. "It also comes out as the most hated opera of all time."
Madame Butterfly, the exotic story of love and loss, set in Nagasaki, Japan, around the turn of the last century. It's Giacomo Puccini's best known work, and his personal favorite.
Fields says, for better or worse, Puccini really milks emotions in Madame Butterfly. Some say he panders to the audience. Fields has produced or performed in more than 30 productions of Madame Butterfly, but he says he still finds it compelling.
"When I get back into the piece, after taking a break from it ... I'm consistently amazed and my opinion of the piece continues to go up, in terms of how well it was constructed," Fields says.
There's nothing particularly operatic about the warm and stuffy high school cafeteria, where an international cast gathered recently for practice.
Eunjoo Lee is a Korean born mezzo-soprano now from New Jersey. She'll sing the role of Suzuki, the maid servant to lead character Cio Cio San.
Lee says Madame Butterfly has it all - great characters, wonderful music, and an unhappy ending.
"So everybody loves (a) tragic story," Lee says. "But personally I don't. But I think because of that, because there's a unique story, a unique set, because it combines American culture and then Asian culture. The music is gorgeous."
For the practice, a lone piano serves as accompaniment. In the performance, the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra will provide the music with help from the Arrowhead Chorale.
One Duluth voice will be heard in a lead. Tenor Marcus McConico sings the role of American Naval Officer Lieutenant Pinkerton.
McConico is a board member of Duluth Festival Opera. He predicts it will grow into an annual festival eventually on par with similar events in places like Charleston, South Carolina and Santa Fe, New Mexico.
"People can come to Duluth for four or five days and see a couple of different shows," McConico says. "And so that's where I think the Duluth Festival Opera is really going to help the cultural aspect."
And still, it's easy to wonder if Duluth - a town born for ready access to lumber and iron ore - is really the place where opera can thrive. Founder Craig Fields thinks it's just the place.
"Over time I think Duluth is an ideal spot to develop a festival," says Fields. "And I realize it's going to take a lot of patience, a lot of help, and commitment. But I think If people are willing to buy into the concept I think it can grow here and become something really special."
And key to that growth, he says, is the quality of the performances.
"My hope is that when people see our events they will immediately recognize the quality and they will respond to them because of the quality; not because of Madame Butterfly but because they see a Madame Butterfly they really thought was done well," Fields says.
Madame Butterfly takes to the stage twice, July 20th and 22nd in the Duluth DECC. Next summer, the festival expands again, with a major production expected along with a couple of smaller musical performances, spread over several days.