I was reminded of this exchange in one of my favorite TV series:
MORSE: You should really persevere with Wagner, Lewis. It’s about important
things – life and death – regret.
LEWIS: Cheer up, sir. It’s a lovely
evening. Look at that sunset.
— Inspector Morse: The Remorseful Day
Anyone who is interested in cross-cultural experiences really should try the opera. I mean, where else can you experience a Romanian woman, dressed up as a Japanese geisha, singing in Italian about her unfaithful American sailor lover. That of course is the gist of Giacomo Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, a perennial favorite among opera goers, and thus, one of the most performed. It was the final production of the Dallas Opera’s first season in its brand new Winspear Opera House. An apt choice.
Admittedly, the length of Richard Wagner’s compositions require perseverance, or at least adequately cushioned seats, but Wagner he could paint a scene with music as vividly as any painter with paint. Puccini, on the other hand, had the rare ability to compose an aria that could bring tears to the eye of a marble statue. Not being able to understand the Italian words does not detract in the slightest from understanding the theme. It still is a beautiful day, as it goes. And Puccini’s compositions tend to be opera boiled down to its essence – love and death, and as Morse observed, life and regret.
I credit my wife Martha, for stimulating my interest in the opera genre. I’ve always had a love for all kinds of music, especially classical, but traditional opera, except for some of the orchestral overtures and a few arias, never really flipped my switch. Until fairly recently, that is. I appreciate contemporary popular music, though a lot of it leaves me cold. The adaptation of popular pieces to the symphonic style has always interested me. The Symphonic Rolling Stones is a CD worth listening to, and, of course, there is the Moody Blues and their semi-orchestral rock music. I confess considerable disappointment that the “rock opera” genre of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s never really took off. The Who’s, Tommy, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar, and precious few others of that time seemed to be harbingers of some great things to come. Alas, this has not yet occurred. I guess there is still some pretension among so-called serious musicians. Too bad, because the great musicians of the past worked out of what was popular, or “folk” in the days of yore.
That is not to say new operas in traditional – “serious” – form have been lacking. There have been some contemporary compositions such as Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, and now, his newest work, Moby Dick is really, really good. Moby Dick’s world premiere was at the Winspear only two weeks ago, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants who wants to see a stunning audio and visual performance, traditional opera fan or not. This is where high tech set design and visuals meet traditional opera.
Last Saturday, in between attendance at the performances of Moby Dick and Madame Butterfly, we had an opportunity to attend a lecture by the Dallas Opera’s music director, British born Graeme Jenkins. One of the things that Jenkins emphasized was the necessity of an opera conductor to understand the background history of the opera stories in order to play the music as expressively as possible. He is quite correct of course, but he got a little carried away when he was describing the juxtaposition of and conflict between early 20th Century American and Japanese cultures in Madame Butterfly. He seemed to see some sort of connection between Pinkerton’s abandonment of Cio Cio San and the attack on Pearl Harbor 35 or so years after the story time. I appreciate attempts to show historical parallels, but this was rather a stretch. Nevertheless, there is a value in looking at cultural juxtapositions, and for that opera is particularly useful.
For those who are unfamiliar with the Butterfly storyline, a United States Navy lieutenant, Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, is stationed with the U. S. Consulate in Nagasaki in 1904. For the duration of his tour of duty there he sets up housekeeping by renting a house which comes complete with a geisha, Cio Cio San, known as Madame Butterfly. She is a member of an impoverished noble family, whose pride, if not their wealth, is in abundance. Butterfly falls in love with the American and forsakes her family and religion to marry him. Pinkerton, however, regards the marriage ceremony a mere formality to humor the local culture, and regards her only as his squeeze in this particular port. After he leaves to go on another tour, Butterfly pines for him, longing for the day that he will return, as she expresses in the famous and stunningly beautiful Un bel di, vedremo. Pinkerton does return after about three years, but this time he is accompanied by his American wife. During his absence however Cio Cio San has given birth to Pinkerton’s son. Faced with losing both her child and her lover, and because she cannot live with honor, Butterfly falls on a ceremonial dagger and dies.
There nothing new about this storyline. Unrequited love and jilted lovers are themes of art and literature from the Greek tragedies up to daytime television. That is so because most of us can identify with the experience of having been a jiltor and jiltee at one time or another. The sailor having a girl in every port has been an adolescent male fantasy for at least two millennia, and a family disgraced by a daughter enamored with a non-PLU once launched a thousand ships. What Puccini brought to the story was his fantastically expressive music. I am neither expert nor pretentious enough to be a music critic, but in my lay commoner’s view, this year’s Dallas Opera production of Butterfly was one of the best. The set, the visuals, the vocalists and the orchestra under Jenkins’ leadership did a competent job.
As for the cross-cultural enlightenment, it was minimal, except possibly that had Cio-Cio San been a present-day American woman, it would’ve been Pinkerton who bit the dagger. Would that prospect enlighten a few Pinkertons? Perhaps not, there will always be those who allow organs other than their brain think for them. But here we will have only until October to wait for a philanderer’s comeuppance. Don Giovanni opens here then. Actually, it is not necessary to wait that long. The Fort Worth Opera is staging Mozart’s popular playboy later this month, if you like. Either way, take it from me, the Don will turn all but the most confirmed operaphobes into fans.