This past Saturday evening I attended my first opera – Madame Butterfly. My house-mate, Sascha, is a bass player in the opera so he was able to get me a $5 house ticket. It was definitely in the nosebleed section – the very last row in the upper balcony – but the acoustics were great and I had a bird’s eye view of the performance.
Madame Butterfly is the story of Pinkerton, a dashing officer in the United States Navy, and Cio Cio San (not a complete innocent – she has been a geisha, after all), a nonetheless fragile, unworldly girl in love with the handsome sailor. It is clear that Pinkerton, although infatuated with the fifteen year old Butterfly, is a philandering heel, who upon the occasion of his marriage toasts to the day he will celebrate a true wedding to an American woman. Pinkerton deserts Butterfly and she pines for three years, always believing he will return to her and to the son he has unknowingly fathered. He does return, with his new American wife, and when he learns about his son he declares that Butterfly must give him up for “the good of the child.”
The set was exquisite in its detail: trees laden with cherry blossoms overhanging a traditional Japanese house with its sliding paper panels, all perched atop a hill overlooking the distant azure harbor. Even more breathtaking were the exotic costumes – multi-hued silk kimonos with matching paper parasols. And then the singing! It’s hard to know whether to describe the performance as singing or acting. Certainly the performers were acting, but the story was primarily conveyed through song, even though it was being sung in Italian with subtitles shown overhead. From now on, whenever I hear the song from Madame Butterfly that most of us recognize, I’ll be magically transported back to the opera. I’ll see Butterfly in all her splendor and know what her words mean. I’ll feel her anguish and eternal hope that her beloved Pinkerton will return to her. It gives me chills just thinking about it.
But my strongest impression of the opera was that it is so similar to the Bhagavad Gita. For those of you who are not familiar with the Gita, it is an ancient Sanskrit text that is revered as sacred by followers of the Hindu faith. It is the text is a conversation between Lord Krishna and Arjuna, which takes place on a battlefield just prior to the start of a climactic war. The two sides are about to engage in battle when Arjuna, who leads one of the armies, prays to Lord Krishna to resolve his moral dilemma with regard to killing. All action on the battlefield is instantly suspended while Krishna explains why Arjuna must do his duty.
In many ways, Madame Butterfly was like that – one moment the entire cast was engaged in the performance; the next moment the cast was suspended as “conversations” occurred between two or three of the main characters. The cast was still on the stage, but they were frozen for long periods of time as the story unfolded. This technique did not distract me, in fact I was only vaguely aware of it during the performance. But upon reflection, I think it greatly enhanced the performance. Hard to believe that Puccini was booed so badly during his first ever performance of this opera in 1904 that he was unable to finish the presentation.
All in all, quite remarkable. I plan to see the other two operas they are performing – Halka and Attila – as well.