April 23, 2019

If opera companies drafted singers like the NFL

(The following is the transcript from an ESPN TV special: "Opera Draft Day Preview". Hosted by Mike "Greenie" Greenberg, with draft experts Anthony Tommassini of the New York Times and Anne Midgette of the Washington Post, the telecast brings you bold predictions about which collegiate voice students are likely to be drafted by American opera companies.)

Hello, everyone! Welcome to our very first Opera Draft Day Preview! Thanks to our special guests Tony and Anne. I tell you, this is my favorite time of year: we've got the Stanley Cup playoffs in hockey, the NBA playoffs, baseball in full swing and, of course, the suspense and excitement of seeing which outstanding collegiate opera singers will be drafted into the pros to launch their careers.
Tony Tommassini, let me start with you: who do you see as the Number One pick overall?

Greenie, as you know, the San Diego Opera won the lottery for the top pick in this year's draft, and my sources are telling me they're going with the talented young Nathan Jones as their number one.

Jones, the senior bass-baritone out of Kentucky. That's somewhat of a surprise, as many had predicted the flashy tenor Samuel Reilly of Indiana.

Jones may not be as electric a performer as Reilly, but San Diego is looking for a reliable singer to sing the buffo roles; that was a weak area for them last season and they're looking to Nathan to plug that hole, if you will.

I agree with Tony. Reilly has a fabulous voice and is a strong actor as well, but his stock has fallen a bit lately due to rumors that his ego causes off-stage problems. He also tends to drag behind the beat in ensembles. Still, someone will snap him up just on sheer potential - most likely Sarasota Opera with the sixth overall pick. I mean, good tenors don't come around that often, and Sam Reilly is a future franchise tenor.

Which soprano is drawing the most interest?

Most of us expected Sophie Daniels, the lyric coloratura from New England Conservatory to declare early for the draft, and now that she has, I see her going as early as Number two or three.

Daniels is only a freshman! Isn't that cause for concern? So many young singers go to the pros too early and end up with nodules or ruptured vocal cords.

There have certainly been examples of that, but sopranos like Sophie tend to mature pretty quickly and her phenomenal performance in the New England production of Norma made scouts like me sit up and take notice.

And she's versatile. She can take the stage in Mozart, in Strauss, in bel canto... Chicago Lyric had her come up for a workout. They even tried her out in Wagner, and she blew them away.

Tony, Seattle Opera just traded a rehearsal pianist to Des Moines to move up in the draft to the fourth spot. What's the strategy there?

They're in a bit of a bind. They've committed to Rossini's Cenerentola for next season, but the mezzo under contract has just gone on the disabled list and is looking at surgery. So look for Seattle to choose the junior mezzo Clarice Jenkins from Florida State.

Jenkins is a future star. Very intelligent, understands music theory and performance practices, and has broken the school speed records in scales and trills.

Isn't it a bit risky to cast a rookie vocalist in a big-time pressure-packed role like Cenerentola?

Times have changed, Greenie. These days, young singers go to opera camp, they work out in the off-season with specialists, and they're more equipped to handle pressure than young singers in the '60's and '70's.

Besides, Florida State runs a pro-style opera program, so the transition shouldn't be too difficult.

We're almost out of time, but can anyone explain to me how the Wild West Opera of Buffalo Tracks Montana keeps making such horrible draft picks? Their last seven draft picks are no longer in music, with most of them ending up in the food service industry.

Bad scouting and a bad General Manager makes for disasters at draft time. I mean, musical diversity is admirable as a goal, but selecting a reggae artist in last year's draft to play Wotan shows that they simply don't know what they're doing in Montana.

My thanks to our guests. Don't forget to join us this Friday night on ESPN as opera companies across the country go on the clock!

March 27, 2019

How Madama Butterfly changed a 7th-grader's life

Spoiler alert: the 7th-grader to whom I refer? That was me. In 1964. Here's the story.

I was a piano whiz-kid growing up in the Chicago suburbs. Practiced three hours a day minimum (sometimes as much as six or seven); participating in Chicagoland piano competitions (winning some of them) and spending an undue amount of leisure time listening to Horowitz, Serkin, Cliburn, Gilels and other keyboard giants of that era.
Nichols Middle School, Evanston IL

I'd had a fascination with Menotti's TV opera Amahl and the Night Visitors, but I don't think I associated it with "grand opera". My parents had opera recordings and the music of The Marriage of Figaro was familiar to me. But I was all in on piano, piano, piano. This was my turf; my forte; my identity. I didn't have a lot else going for me: bad at sports, poor health (serious asthma) shy and introverted with few friends. But I could play the piano, my friend!

So I took a fairly cavalier attitude toward my music appreciation class at Nichols Junior High School in Evanston Illinois. Music? Hey - I own it. Maybe these other kids need to know all this stuff, but I'm cool, thanks very much.

Then came a unit on opera.

In preparing to write this post, I called the school office to see if they could help me find out who taught music in 1964. None of the names sounded instantly familiar, though it may have been Carol Webster. That name stirs a vague memory. Let's proceed on that assumption.

Ms. Webster chose Puccini's Madama Butterfly. I can't tell you much about what she said about it, because (oh, the shame) I paid no attention. Looked out the window. Day-dreamed.

Opera?! Chopin didn't write any stinkin' operas. YAWN.

I regret to inform you Dear Readers that <COUGH COUGH> I received a shockingly low grade on the Madama Butterfly unit quiz.

My mom was not pleased. She wasn't paying money to the best piano teacher in the area for me to bomb any music test! She marched me straight into Ms. Webster's office and said "What can we do?" Then this teacher said something remarkable.

Something that changed the course of my life.

She said "If you will go purchase a recording of Madama Butterfly and if Glenn will study it on his own, we'll work something out", or words to that effect. We went straight out to the local record shop (AH -MEMORIES OF RECORD SHOPS!!!) and bought the London recording with Renata Tebaldi, Carlo Bergonzi and Tulio Serafin conducting.

Once I actually listened to the music, I was a goner. I especially swooned over the fresh, smoothly lyrical sound of Bergonzi's tenor. I sang "Addio fiorito asil" in my adolescent's tenor over and over, doubtless driving even my opera-loving parents a little nuts.

And then! Some months later, my dad had a business trip to New York. To indulge his son, he got the two of us tickets to see Butterfly at the Met. The old Met, mind you - no Lincoln Center yet. The cast included Renata Scotto, Mario Sereni as Sharpless, and a house tenor named Barry Morell as Pinkerton.

Three distinct memories of that performance:

  • In the moment of Act 1 in which Butterfly shows Pinkerton her personal items including a vial of makeup, he expresses disapproval, causing her to throw it away with the word Via!  Scotto tossed the round make-up case onto an ornamental pond. However, it wasn't a real pond, but simply blue paint on the stage surrounded by a garden. So the case spun like a top for what seemed an eternity before it finally came to rest on the "water". The scene proceeded: the wedding, the Bonze, the love duet, -- and my eyes stayed transfixed on that damn make-up case as it sat there, unheeding of all the drama.
  • Speaking of the love duet, there was an old-fashioned moment of true diva-ness. Just as the music was turning very passionate, Butterfly left her groom at the rear of the stage and slowly made her way downstage as far as she could go. Once there, she opened her arms wide as if to embrace us all and sang to her adoring public. Pinkerton could have been checking his email, if they'd had email back then...
  • And then there were the curtain calls. I've never seen anything like it before or since. Scotto came out for solo bows five times... ten times... fifteen times... twenty times... twenty-five times... seemingly forever. The whole ritual became surreal, like something in a Fellini film. To me, it lost all meaning. Did she really enjoy it after the first half-dozen? What drove these people to such a display? What forces were at work here?
In short, my introduction to Puccini, both in the classroom and in the theater, are the reason I'm now an opera educator, opera composer and, bless me, an opera blogger.

Obviously, Madama Butterfly was my favorite opera for a period of time. Gradually I added the other Puccini titles, then my desert island list to include many others. Butterfly is no longer my favorite opera. I find the lack of balance in the cast to be a flaw that weakens the overall effect of the drama. Certainly, the title character is one of the great achievements in creating a compelling role for a lyric spinto soprano. But the rest of the principals suffer: Pinkerton's solos are undistinguished, and not stand-alone arias in any case; they're really duets with Sharpless. And speaking of Sharpless and Suzuki, they're relegated to dialogue and ensembles only. So the work as a whole strikes me as a bit top-heavy. For many years, my two favorites have been Falstaff  and Le Nozze di Figaro.

But I retain nostalgic affection for Puccini's tale of love and betrayal in Nagasaki, as well as respect for its astonishing craftsmanship. 

Thanks, Ms. Webster. Like most good teachers, you changed a child's life for the better.

March 20, 2019

Cio-Cio-san: native-born Gaijin

To arrive at a deeper understanding of Madama Butterfly, there are two questions arising from the story that should be addressed. These are:
  1. Why does Butterfly stubbornly deny that her marriage to Pinkerton is over, even after three years have passed and it's obvious she has been abandoned? (Remember: as noted in an earlier post, there were tens of thousands of Japanese women who entered into temporary marriages with Western men with no expectations of lifelong committment.) And
  2. Why does she kill herself? 
Do not jump to the romantic conclusion that Butterfly takes her life because Pinkerton doesn't love her any more. That is not the case. In my opinion, an understanding of Japanese culture and attitudes of  Japanese people are required to arrive at a satisfactory explanation.

And what would I know about that? A fair question. As it happens, my sister Juliet Winters Carpenter has lived in Japan for virtually all of her adult life. A long-time professor at Doshisha Women's College in Kyoto, she and her American husband have raised three sons there. Julie is a highly-regarded translator of Japanese literature by acclaimed novelists such as Kobo Abe, Shion Miura, Minae Mizumura and many others. (Here's a review of Miura's The Great Passage.) So I have picked up a few insights along the way; they inform my theories about the title character.

Of course, the short answer to the question of her suicide is simple: Butterfly kills herself because John Luther Long thought it would make a more sensational story. Long, of course, is the author of Madame Butterfly, the 1898 novella that served as basis for David Belasco's 1900 play and, in turn, Puccini's masterpiece. 

The genesis of Long's fictional work was his sister's anecdotes about her observations of Japan during the five years she was stationed there as a Christian missionary.  (The character of Pinkerton is said to be based on a Scottish merchant named Thomas Glover and his Japanese wife and child.) Naturally, the more lurid the climax, the greater the best-seller potential.

But that explanation alone is unsatisfactory. If the opera deserves it's high reputation, the rationale for Butterfly's actions must be in sync with reality. I think I can make the case that they are, despite the historical fact that thousands of Japanese women took part in temporary marriages with no rancor and no suicides.

One clue comes in the disclosure by Goro that Butterfly's father, in disfavor with the Emperor, was ordered to commit hara-kiri. With this act, her family fell into disgrace and poverty. It's only natural that she might attach more importance to her wedding than women not suffering similar adversity. Lt. Pinkerton must have seemed like a life-line back to status and ease for the entire family. But this circumstance alone isn't enough to account for the story's end.

Clearly the interruption of the wedding by the Bonze is a key turning point in the opera. From one moment to the next, Butterfly goes from blissful bride to humiliated outcast. There is nothing exclusively Japanese about her distress - no one would want their wedding ruined in such a manner. You wouldn't. I wouldn't.

But I believe her family's rejection takes on added layers of meaning in light of the meaning of the word gaijin. This is the Japanese word for foreigner; outsider; "other";non-Japanese.

As I mentioned above, my sister Julie has lived and worked in Japan for some 45 years. She is beloved by generations of her students and well-liked by her neighbors.

But after all this time, she and her family remain gaijin.

To grasp this concept, you must compare Japanese attitudes towards foreigners to those of America. In the U.S, (current political situations aside), ours is a melting-pot concept. Come to our country and you become one of us. Thus we have African-Americans, German-Americans, Italian-Americans, Irish-Americans and so on.

But in Japan (and yes, in other corners of the world as well), the opposite is the case. Non-Japanese never become part of the culture. They may be beloved; they may be honored; they may be respected.

But they remain "other" - gaijin.

The Bonze and the rest weren't angry because Cio-Cio-san married an American; that was common. It was rejecting her Buddhist faith and becoming Christian that crossed the line. When they all shout "Ti rinneghiamo!" at her, they're not just saying "we renounce you"; they're telling her she is no longer part of them; she no longer belongs; in a sense, she is no longer Japanese. She is denied her former self.

This native of Nagasaki has made herself a gaijin.

Now consider her desperation to believe that Pinkerton will return to her. It's even more a lifeline! And when he does return, it's with his American wife. He doesn't want her; he wants her child. Now she is gaijin to America as well!

She belongs to nothing. She is part of nothing. She has no identity, no future. Ritual suicide at least allows her to reclaim the dignity in death she had lost in life. That's why the final music heard as the curtain descends is the Japanese song "Suriyo Bushi", or "Song of Foreboding". She dies Japanese once again.

I ask you not to misunderstand me; the people of Japan are the loveliest people on earth. Here's a quick story on that point.

I visited my sister in 2007, spending two weeks traveling to Nara, Kyoto, Tokyo, Osaka, Hiroshima and Mt. Koya (a mountain-top Buddhist monastery). One morning I went for a walk by myself. Juliet's neighborhood was typical: a crowded cluster of houses that all looked alike to a stranger. After a few blocks, I turned around and realized I was lost - couldn't find my way back.

No cell phone. Bummer. My total Japanese vocabulary consisted of three phrases. I knew how to say "I'm hungry", "I love you" and "How cute" plus assorted words. For instance, I'd learned that the way to make any sentence a question is to append the syllable "wa" at the end. Kind of a linguistic question-mark.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. I marched up to a random house and knocked on the door. A middle-aged housewife came to the door and smiled expectantly.

Extending my arms in what I hoped was the universal gesture of hopeless confusion, I said: "Carpenter wa?" (I pronounced it the way my sister had taught me, as her neighbos did: "Kaah-pen-tah".

Instantly she understood me. Her face breaking into even wider wreathes of smiles, she took my arm and with a certain maternal care guided me a few yards down the road until my sister's house came into view. She pointed, nodded and grinned.

I bowed and smiled and bowed and smiled.

That's so typical! They are helpful, kind, unfailingly civil and polite to a degree that would shame many Americans.

So my observation of Japan as a closed society is not an accusation; there is no value judgement to be made. It's simply a different way of regarding society, perhaps born of eons of existence as a small island nation at perpetual risk of invasion.

When Butterfly lost her identity, there was no going back. When her new identity proved false, it was the end of everything.

March 14, 2019

"Un bel di" and the six notes that blow my mind

Nagasaki Japan (photo by Chris 73)
(reproduced via Wikimedia's Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License)
Years ago, George R. Marek, once the head of RCA Records' classical division, produced an album of opera excerpts with the title "Opera for people who hate opera". I don't think it included "Un bel di" from Puccini's Madama Butterfly, but Cio-Cio-san's iconic aria from early in Act 2 would have been a logical choice. It's one of those numbers that has made the transition from high culture to pop culture, both in its original form and this Motown update by The Chiffons. (Montserrat Caballé's reading of the aria is at this link.)

While "one fine day you're going to want me for your girl" doesn'exactly mirror Butterfly's affect, it's close enough: a woman is confident she'll end up with her chosen guy.

The aria is a prime example of Giacomo Puccini's meticulous craftsmanship. There's a lot to say about it, but here's a spoiler alert:y

"Un bel di" contains the six most extraodinary notes in the entire opera. They blow my mind.

Curious? Keep reading.

This is an aria that, unlike many others, lacks a song-like structure. No verse-and-refrain like Escamillo's "Toreador Song", for example. In fact, if not for the reappearance of the opening melody near the end, Butterfly's soliloquy would be through-composed, with no other repetition of musical materials. The musical setting follows the roller-coaster of the character's changing affects, from serene confidence to anxiousness to ultimate imagined triumph as she fantasizes about a joyous reunion with Pinkerton.

An interesting feature of that opening melody is its directional flow. In my previous post I pointed out the use of ascending melodic sequences both in Butterfly's entrance aria and the conclusion of the love duet. It was noted that these depicted both her climb up the hill to her new home and her rising excitement and desire as well.

But the "Un bel di" opening theme features a descending sequence:
Going up meant something; is the same true of going down in this case? The overall affect here is that of Butterfly's utter belief in her husband. As for the descending sequence, I've struggled to make sense of it for many years now - I've known the opera really well since 1964. For whatever it's worth,I've arrived at the following theory.

There is something self-contained about these eight bars; the cadence on G flat sounds final, like the period at the end of a sentence; like stepping on home plate. There's a sense of arrival. That's exactly what Cio-Cio-san is expecting Lt. Pinkerton to do: to return to this little house. It's his home; it's where he belongs. When he returns to Nagasaki, he'll have arrived home.

Here's a visual image for you. Think of Mary Poppins, parachuting gently down from the sky on her umbrella, touching down - arriving - at the home of the Banks children. Butterfly's melody is sort of like that; gently descending until it alights on the "home key" of G flat. It's as if Pinkerton is adrift somewhere out there in the ether, slowly making his way back to her.

Far-fetched, you say? Unlikely? Yes, perhaps - but this is a good way to listen to opera music: listening analytically, searching for meaning. I like my theory.

Now for those six notes.

With one subtle momentary exception, there are no native Japanese melodies in "Un bel di". Butterfly is fixating on her American husband's return, so Puccini eschews the ten authentic songs he employed elsewhere in the opera. It's lushly lyrical Western-style Italian opera music.

But about that momentary exception...

Throughout the opera, whenever Puccini employs a Japanese melody, he quotes it verbatim at some length. Symphonic accompaniment and post-Romantic harmonies alter the effect, but the notes of the themes used foreshadow the "cut-and-paste" trick we all use on our laptops these days.

Not so in "Un bel di"

In the middle of the solo, Puccini subtly inserts six notes are from the song "Jizuki Uta", a workmen's song about the cultivation of rice. Later in Act 2, "Jizuki Uta" will receive the cut-and-paste treatment, when an extended quotation will form the first section of Butterfly's aria "Che tua madre". (Note: we can deduce that Puccini learned of the song from Rudolf Dittrich's piano arrangement of 1894 because the aria uses the same harmonic treatment as Dittrich's.)

In "Un bel di", however, only this fragment is used:
In context, the phrase (it actually begins with an eighth-note pickup) is completely anonymous. Not until Japanese musicians began identifying and cataloging instances of native melodies in the 1930's did anyone understand where these notes originated. In context, there is nothing "exotic" about them; no suggestion of "Orientalism". They're indistinguishable from the rest of the vocal line.

What's important about this mini-quotation are Butterfly's words. She's imagining looking at Pinkerton as he climbs the hill on his way up to their house. That's important to note.

The six pitches come and go, unnoticed by Western ears, and likely many Japanese ears as well; after all, they can't all be experts on historical songs. The action of the opera unfolds until the tragic climax. Chanting an ancient quote about dying with honor, Cio-Cio-san, who has agreed to give up her son only on the condition that Pinkerton return for him, commits her ritual suicide. As her life drains away, Pinkerton's voice is heard offstage, calling her name in desperation.

His calls of "Butterfly!" are not what takes my breath away; it's the material with which the orchestra punctuates those calls:

There they are, sounding forth grimly in the brass: the six-note fragment from "Jizuki Uta".  And if we realize where we've heard them before, we're overwhelmed with a ghastly irony:

What Butterfly imagined is really happening. Pinkerton is indeed climbing that hill on his way to see her, not for a romantic reunion, but to find her dead body.

Here's something to think about. What are the chances that anyone - anyone - who has ever listened to Madama Butterfly on a recording or live in performance has EVER figured out about this detail of the "Jizuki Uta" fragment?

I would say zero, or close to it, especially if no acquaintance with Japanese songs has been made.

So what's the point? One may ask the same question here that I've asked about the intricacies of music of the total serialism compositional school: If the human mind can't perceive what's happening in real time, of what value is the music? What's the use?

My answer: just because you aren't aware of details of craftsmanship doesn't mean they aren't there. It doesn't mean that such details lack meaning, or cannot be perceived. They exist whether or not you are aware of them.

And now you are aware of this one! Those six notes now hold new meaning for you, and in performance you'll understand what Puccini is saying about tragic irony.

I, your Humble Blogger, was completely unaware of this small but powerful detail until a few months ago. It's just not easy to hear.

Final note: like "Ancora un passo or via", "Un bel di" has a lengthy orchestral postlude. The difference: in the former (the entrance aria parsed in my last post), the postlude introduced a new theme, one to be used for dramatic purposes later.

In "Un bel di", however, the postlude restates the opening theme. Did Puccini hope to discourage the drama from being interrupted by applause? He had been studying Wagner lately; this might have been his borrowing of a Wagnerian antipathy for applause in mid-scene. His previous operas were more accommodating in this regard: "Che gelida manina", "Mi chiamono Mimi" and "Vissi d'arte" all invite spontaneous clapping with convenient stopping places.

March 9, 2019

Madama Butterfly: Parsing Butterfly's entrance aria

Cio-Cio-san dominates Puccini's Madama Butterfly as few other characters dominate their operas. Pinkerton has no stand-alone arias (Sharpless always chimes in). All other characters are limited to ensembles or dialogue.
Photo by Rod Millington.
Florida Grand Opera [CC BY 2.0

My next three posts will examine three of Butterfly's big solo moments in some detail for musical - and extra-musical - features of interest. First up: her entrance music, "Ancora un passo or via" (heard here with Leontyne Price).

Her entrance is announced by the marriage broker Goro, whose lines are set to the first appearance of an authentic Japanese song, one of ten such native melodies Puccini incorporated into his score. It's a humorous patter song called "Echigo Jishi". The reason for introducing a Japanese song at this point is clear: til now, the two Americans have had the stage largely to themselves. Their music had no Japanese character - the only musical quotation was a phrase from "The Star-Spangled Banner". The sudden introduction of Echigo Jishi puts the clash of cultures into relief.

Butterfly's entrance follows a pattern used several times by Puccini in that
  • her appearance is delayed until midway into Act 1; and
  • we hear her before we see her.
Mimi asks for a light for her candle from behind a closed door; Tosca calls for Mario from offstage; and Cio-Cio-san sings of her happiness offstage while climbing the steep hill to the rental house where she and Pinkerton will reside. Sometimes the pattern is flipped; in Manon Lescaut and Turandot, we see the title characters before we hear them. Either way, the effect is to heighten anticipation in the audience to "meet" the soprano lead.

I've spent the past several weeks teaching lecture classes on Butterfly for college non-credit programs. When I ask the students what kind of musical materials they expect to hear in "Ancora un passo or via", they always assume it'll be another real Japanese melody. I can't really blame them - after all, we're about to meet an entire community of citizens of Nagasaki.

However, Puccini is less concerned here with Butterfly's nationality than with her state of mind. She's marrying an American! She's all in on things Western. Thus, her solo, while it may not be specifically American in theme, is notably NOT Japanese.

Another interesting device is the use of sequence to depict both her physical activity and her emotional state. "Sequence" is a music term used when a musical motive is repeated in either ascending or descending motion. Think of "Do-re-mi" from The Sound of Music", which uses rising sequences of various motives throughout.

The subject of Butterfly's solo is short and simple:
The significance of the sequential motion is two-fold:
  1. She and her wedding party are climbing a steep hill! The contour of the music graphically describes their ascent. (For Virginia locals, quite a lot of Japan's geography resembles that of Charlottesville. The hills, not quite mountains, are of comparable size.) This idea is repeated five times in a rising sequence from A flat to E flat before finally introducing a new theme in the key of G flat, generally considered Butterfly's "love theme".

  2. Also rising in Cio-Cio-san, of course, are her hopes and dreams. With every passo (step), her joyful anticipation increases. She claims to be the happiest girl not just in Japan, but in the whole world.
And now another note on how to process this aria, this time drawing on Puccini's personal life. His marriage to Elvira, a woman he impregnated while she was married to another man, was not a happy one. She wasn't musical; she resented other women's attraction to her husband; eventually this resulted in a messy and sensational scandal.

Although the composer had real-life dalliances with various females, it was in the Pygmalion-like feelings he had for Mimi, Tosca, and especially Cio-Cio-san that he found the best escape from the reality of his domestic situation. He truly fell in love with his female characters, creating variations of "the perfect woman" over and over.

It seems clear that "Ancora un passo or via" is intended to make us fall in love with Butterfly just as Puccini did. The music is impossibly feminine, delicate and exotic. The chorus of female voices supporting the solo vocal line creates an angelic cloud of sound. It's .... heavenly. Here was a woman who would never be jealous, always desirable, always eager to please; the perfect fantasy "escape valve" for Puccini's troubled love life.

The aria ends with an orchestral postlude that doesn't restate the main theme (as happens in "Un bel di"), but introduces a new theme:
Plunk it out on the piano or whistle it. Sounds Japanese, right? Which would you guess: from the Edo period, or after the Meiji Restoration?

Surprise! Puccini made it up. It's no authentic native melody; it's original. Yet it's clearly meant to suggest musical Orientalism: a mostly pentatonic tune avoiding smooth Italian step-wise motion. I call this theme "Butterfly's faith". In other words, it's the symbol of her child-like faith in Pinkerton. It will recur at key points when that faith is made manifest:
  • just prior to the wedding ceremony when she shyly tells Pinkerton that she is adopting his Christian religion; and
  • in the Intermezzo, the musical chronicle of her all-night vigil once Pinkerton's ship has returned to Nagasaki. Here it's heard in the "dawn" section in a high-spirited rapid version, replete with the notorious bird-calls that contributed to the opera's catastrophic world premiere.
Final bit of trivia: at the end of "Ancora un passo or via", Butterfly announces her groom's name to her bridal party. His full name, of course, is Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton. Yet generations of sopranos have placidly sung "F. B. Pinkerton" at that moment. Want to know why?

The lieutenant's name was originally Francis Blummy Pinkerton, which is wrong! All wrong! "Francis Blummy" sounds not only British, but bloodlessly effete British. Pinkerton is all-American, my friend. So the decision was made to find a name more fitting for a "yankee vagabondo".

However, in the first printed edition by Ricordi and Sons, the change didn't make it into the text. So Freni, Tebaldi, and many others have sung the wrong initials  for the mind-boggling reason that "F. B. Pinkerton" is what it says in their vocal scores. I'm not making this up.

Next post: the iconic aria "Un bel di".

February 28, 2019

On Butterfly's Geisha status and Pinkerton's bargain

The plot outline of Puccini's Madama Butterfly seems clear, especially regarding these two points:
  • Cio-Cio-san is a young geisha
  • Lt. Pinkerton is a callous, uncaring rat-fink who misleads a naïve teen-ager, entering into a marriage she thinks is real and which he plans to dishonor by abandoning her.
Both of these assumptions are open to question. To explore them, a bit of Japanese history must be reviewed. (Don't worry - I'll make it short!)
Geisha dress for tea ceremony
photo by Andrew, reproduced via
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic 

After the Emperor Meiji ascended the throne and defeated the Shogunate government in the civil war of 1867-1868, Japan was inundated with an influx of Westerners for the first time in centuries. The change in government meant that Japan was transitioning from a feudal society to a modern market economy. 

The fact is that Japanese women, who previously had few if any opportunities to improve their quality of life, were eager and willing to make themselves available to the merchants, sailors, educators and others from Europe and America; men who, by Japanese standards, were very wealthy.

There were thousands of Madame Butterflys.

And not one of them killed themselves when their temporary husbands left.

The explanation for Butterfly's reasons for suicide are complex and will require more than one blog post. This post will deal with Butterfly's claim that she is a geisha.

From the time of the Meiji Restoration through the turn of the century when Butterfly's story was told via Long's novella, Belasco's play and Puccini's opera, there were three classes in society for women like Cio-Cio-san:
  1. Geisha. Geisha was a professional status dating back to 1703. To be a geisha was to occupy an honored place in society; geishas were highly trained in traditional music and dance, as well as social graces. The geisha provided refined, gracious entertainment. She could execute a flawless tea ceremony with perfect etiquette. There was no sexual component of the job.
  2.  Rashamen. The rashamen were, in effect, "rental wives" who entered into contractual, totally legal temporary marriages with Western men looking for a woman to fulfill their physical and domestic needs. The rashamen cooked, kept house and slept with their partners. These marriages were overseen by the government. Both parties had obligations; for the man, it was largely financial. When the contract was up, the man would leave the woman a substantial sum of money and provide for any children that resulted. An early description of such an arrangement is in Pierre Loti's 1887 autobiographical novel Madame Chrysanthème.
  3.  Yuio. These were common prostitutes, operating in the underbelly of society as in all cultures at all periods of history.
This sheds light on the first scene of dialogue between Pinkerton and his American friend Sharpless. It seems apparent that Pinkerton believes Cio-Cio-san is a rashamen wife. The marriage has been brokered by Goro; Pinkerton boasts that his contract calls for a term of 999 years with an option to leave at the end of any month - all for just 100 yen.

Doesn't it sound like Pinkerton believes he's doing what thousands of other Westerners had been doing for decades - and would continue to do so well into the 20th century? From his point of view, is he doing anything wrong? History would suggest we've judged him a bit harshly on this score. In fact, it becomes clear that he's shocked and remorseful when he learns that Butterfly thought their relationship was a genuine, permanent marriage.

Don't get me wrong: he's still a cad and a coward, running away rather than facing her, not to mention having promised to return "when the robins nest". Yeah, right....

So the remaining question: if she was entering into a rashamen marriage, why does Butterfly believe it's not and, importantly, why does she call herself a geisha?

In her powerful Act 2 aria "Che tua madre", she imagines her worst-case scenario: going back to the life of a geisha, singing and dancing to feed her child. But the way she describes such a future is problematic. She says she would be on the street, dancing "in the wind and the rain".

Hold it right there. She is NOT describing the life of a geisha; she's describing what musicians call "busking", like those sax players who blow their horns on street corners, hoping passers-by will toss some coins into the instrument case, or those fiddle players who play in subway stations. This is NOT how geishas entertained.

Is she dissembling? Is she not a geisha at all? Her back story, as supplied by Goro, likely gives us an explanation.

Goro whispers to Sharpless and the groom that Butterfly's family used to be wealthy until her father fell into disfavor with the Emperor and was ordered to commit hara-kiri. After that disgrace, we learn, the family fell upon hard times, living in poverty.

Butterfly likely reall was raised and trained to be a geisha. My theory, though it must be inferred from the libretto, never stated out-right, is that in calling herself a geisha, Butterfly is clinging to past status as a woman of honor, unwilling to embrace the fall from grace. Indeed, she does not divulge the truth about her father's fate when asked; she simply responds with one word: "morto".

So my theory is that this young lady, only 15 years old with a teen-ager's universal ability to deny reality, is living in a fantasy: "I'm a geisha and now I'm marrying this god-like American and we will grow old together."

That leaves us with another question we must answer: why does she kill herself? Also, why does she take her (clearly) rashamen marriage seriously, unlike the real-life Cio-Cio-sans of history? My theories will be forthcoming, but first I'll post three essays parsing her three big arias. Next week: "Ancora un passo or via".

February 7, 2019

Sgt. Belcore: from Plautus to Sondheim to... Joey??

We've seen how Dr. Dulcamara, the bogus traveling salesman of Donizetti's The Elixir of Love, is a stock character of comedy serving as a template for several similar 20th-century characters.

So much for "Dr. Bittersweet"; now consider "Sgt. Prettyheart", a.k.a Belcore. This is a character who becomes much more interesting the more you know about him.

His entrance cavatina "Come Paride vezzoso" is yet another example of the dangers of listening to opera on CD or radio with no idea of the dramatic situation or the words being sung. It's introduced by a snappy military march as the sergeant takes the stage with a few soldiers following in formation. The solo itself, on a first hearing, appears to be a bel canto  melody from central casting, as it were; nice enough without being particularly memorable. Apparently, just a vehicle for smoothly sonorous streams of baritonal splendor. A little stuffy.


Many listeners, then, are surprised to learn that Prettyheart's solo is, in fact, a ludicrously comic moment. Moments before he begins crooning, he plants himself in the "personal space" of Adina (the prettiest female in town), shoves some flowers in her face and begins comparing himself to Paris, the figure of Greek mythology who, he reminds Adina, gave the golden apple to the most beautiful woman.

"However", he continues, "I am more glorious than that guy, and my reward is your heart."

Oh, is it, now? Adina is not impressed with baritonal splendor or the flowers, quickly recognizing him for the vain, self-loving jerk he is. The thought-balloon over her head clearly bears the words "As if!"

Those with a knowledge of theater, ancient and modern alike, will recognize Belcore in a larger context: he is, to be precise, an example of Miles Gloriosus. That's the title of a comedy that Plautus adapted from a now-lost Greek original; in translation from the Latin it means "Braggart Soldier" or "Vain Soldier". This is the military officer who thinks he looks spiffy in his uniform; tends to exaggerate his prowess in battle, and assumes that all women will throw themselves at him. (By the way, the character in Plautus is named Pyrgopolynices, which is definitely what I'm naming the next dog I adopt.)

Belcore not only hearkens back to ancient Rome; he also prophesies some characters you may already know. The best example is the braggart soldier in Stephen Sondheim's first great hit, A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum (1962). This makes every kind of sense, since the premise of Forum is a modern-day version of Plautus. This time, however, the vain officer is actually named Miles Gloriosus!

My theory is that Sondheim was well-acquainted with Donizetti's comedy. My evidence is that Miles's entrance is a near-clone of Belcore's: a snappy military march followed by a solo ("Bring me my bride") in which, like Prettyheart, he asserts his irresistible charm to the opposite sex. Here's the scene in the original cast recording.

Now that you get the character, it's kind of fun to look through modern film and TV characters to spot reincarnations of Belcore/Miles. For example: remember the 90's sitcom Friends? I give you Joey Tribiani, played memorably by Matt Le Blanc. He had a particular catch-phrase when approaching attractive women: "How YOU doin'?", delivered with a smug smile and leering wink. This, I submit, is variation on the Plautus theme.

Suddenly, "Come Paride" doesn't seem quite so ordinary.