Not that we aren’t fond of kitsch and useless, frivolous sentimentality. After all, that’s what opera is all about.
But you know, it’s 2017, and it’s about time we took deconstruction seriously, lest it grows old.
So, to hell with New Years, warm holiday wishes in the wintertime, and other things that are irrelevant to our lives.
Instead, let’s be pious (in an operatic way, though) and focus on our sins. Our societal sins, I mean. Let’s make a dialogue with our conscience. Let’s reconsider why we keep on expecting that one day of a year to make it all better.
Listen what Brecht and Weill had to say about this back then, in the gloomy days of fascism’s blossoming.
(…) The opera world has been managed by tough personal politics. Family relationships have been established by iron relations, as in primal tribes. A soprano is bound to be the daughter of a bass, the wife of a baritone and the lover of a tenor. A tenor is prohibited from fathering an alto or having a sexual intercourse with a contralto. A baritone paramour is a true rarity and he’d better look for a mezzosoprano. For that matter, mezzosopranos should be careful with tenors, as their fate usually leads them into the role of “someone else” or an even more miserable position of a soprano’s friend. The only bearded lady (see Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress) in the history of opera is a mezzo and, naturally, she is unhappy. Basses are almost universally fathers, cardinals, infernal forces, prison officials, and there is one manager of a mental hospital. However, the above notes shouldn’t lead to any conclusion. I respect opera which is not real life and life which is sometimes a real opera.
Opera has endured many feminist attacks for depicting victimised women and usually murdering them or having them commit suicide – because of men. I have no intention of disputing the motives of these attacks. I’ve been a raging feminist for most of my adulthood. Almost as long as an opera fan.
I’ve seen at least six different stagings of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly”. (Admittedly, only one of them in full flesh and blood of a live performance – and not a very good one. The rest were top class.) So, in my humble opinion, there can be only one true answer to the question from the title.
Is it not a masterpiece?
That’s not what I meant. Hey, go somewhere else for the dirty talk. Of course it is a masterpiece. It is just not misogynistic. Not that the feminist in me is being shushed by the opera’s beautiful loudness, as Catherine Clement would have me believe. The feminist in me goes bonkers many times while watching the opera. But her rage isn’t directed at the composer or his librettists. She realises they have sided with her.
For those who haven’t seen the opera, let’s quickly summarise it. A smug American naval lieutenant Pinkerton, screwing around Nagasaki, decides to marry a sweet and exotic Japanese geisha Cio Cio San for 999 years and lease a house because he’s bored (or was it the other way around?). All this for a very affordable price. She is a poor descendant of a noble family and, being only 15, a naive girl who takes this marriage very seriously and even renounces her faith to accept her husband’s. Naturally, she is publicly condemned and disowned by members of her family and the community. Having consummated the marriage, Pinkerton sails away, but not before promising he would return when the robins make their nest.
Three years later, the impoverished Butterfly is patiently waiting for the robins to nest. She stares at the horizon all the time, expecting the star-spangled banner to appear. This operatic Penelope even rejects a wealthy suitor of her own race, clinging to a hope that her husband would return. She has a little son, of whose existence Pinkerton has no knowledge because the boy was born after his father had left for America. Lo and behold, a ship with the American flag finally appears on the horizon. Alas, it brings not only Pinkerton, but also his “real”, American wife. They came to take the child to America and prevent him from having a shitty future with his mother. Butterfly has no choice but to give up the child. However, she can make a choice for herself and decides to commit suicide rather than live what she deems life without honour. She does that by carrying out a traditional Japanese seppuku ritual.
There you have it. A wealthy, powerful white man goes abroad and buys himself a wife. He impregnates her and leaves, and then returns a couple of years later to claim the child. She has to condescend. The child is father’s property, after all. This is a scenario that simply calls for a feminist reading, don’t you agree?
Yet another opera soaked in female blood
“Madama Butterfly” definitely fits into the genre which often treats women’s death as a kind of redemption. But let us look more closely at what becomes of this blood as it splatters on the audience.
During the first act, Cio Cio San is presented as an exotic Other who has been exposed and undressed before Pinkerton’s as well as our curious gaze. I want to argue that Pinkerton, repulsive as he is, actually represents me and you and Puccini and that obnoxious boy in the audience who texted someone all through the performance, as well as that bored woman who yawned at the beginning of the second act, with Butterfly singing her longings out loud on stage.
If we want to attack or defend Puccini, let’s put on the shoes of someone who was watching the opera at the beginning of the 20th century. The easy-going captain, lo Yankee vagabondo, is enchanted by cultural differences, but also by fragile, childlike ways of this stranger, and readily takes advantage of her youthful trust. His impressions about everything that is happening throughout the first act are similar to ours. He is an estranged sceptic who represents our own views, undermining the plot’s probability. Surrounded by a bunch of Japanese women and men wearing weird outfits and big wigs, he feels as if in a colourful dream of origami-like people made of paper. Nothing is real in that world, except for his lust for the girl. The rest is just ridiculous. Somewhere under those fans is my mother-in-law. That intoxicated fellow is her uncle, ponders Pinkerton with a sneer, waiting for the nuptials.
Indeed, for us spectators, the world of “Madama Butterfly” is not an authentic Japanese world, nor was it intended to be. It is colourful, that’s true. It has some recognisable traits of Japanese culture. With so many costumes and heavy make-up, it is far too theatrical. We like it, although we don’t believe it for a moment.
But it doesn’t even aim for the true-to-life kind of authenticity. After all, this opera enacts a bond between an American man and a Japanese woman, both of whom sing in Italian all the time (AmeRRica FoRRevahRR). There’s even an uncle Bonzo, a Shinto priest, who calls upon Kami Sarundasico, a god whose name Puccini’s librettists mispronounced. How’s that for authenticity. (Anyway, if we wanted authenticity, we would go to a museum or to Japan.)
Also, the role of a 15-years old virgin bride was written for a dramatic soprano who is able to cut through the huge orchestra and is therefore usually sung by middle-aged singers. How’s that for credibility.
As if anybody asked for it.
Puccini takes some of the exotic features of Japanese culture and embeds them into an entirely European art form. He does with the opera “Madama Butterfly” the exact same thing that Pinkerton does with its heroine, Cio Cio San. If that isn’t a subversion of imperialism at its fullest, I don’t know what is. The libretto is cluttered with irony, which is heavily underlined and backed up by music. Notorious tones of The Star-Spangled Banner mingle with traditional Japanese melodies that Puccini had picked up God knows where. We have a colourful multilingual and multicultural, synesthetic soup, made from tragedy and ridicule. But it is boiling up. Hungry though we are, we have to sip carefully.
Oh, the guilty operatic pleasure…
I have trouble admitting that the true magic begins when Pinkerton invites his bride to join him on their first night. Mesmerising music of the love duet tricks me into believing she really is his love. In the bitterly romantic, moonlit night, I despair because I can’t defend her from her conqueror. But perversity has only just begun. While Pinkerton savours his little Japanese doll’s chastity, I am growing into a guilt-ridden spectator because she is my love too. I am a woman who sympathises with her female condition, and yet I too lust after her as a spectator. I too am seduced by her Otherness, delicate and dark and destructive at the same time.
At this moment Pinkerton overcomes his previous estrangement, plucks the flower of her innocence and then disappears for almost the entire second act, leaving us with Butterfly to bear the consequences together. Having pinned her to the board (a picturesque and very cruel metaphor, introduced by Butterfly herself), he left her to our gaze. She is not able to fly away from her condition, so her agony begins to unfold before our eyes, with us as spectators and accomplices.
But this time, she is not the delicate, otherworldly little flower she appeared to be. She now has a child who weighs her down to the ground. And she acts like it. At the beginning of the 2nd act, she inquires her maid Suzuki about money. A woman without possession of her own, she scrutinises the privileges of her man, who possesses not only her, the house and their debts but the child as well. The only thing she possessed when she got married were the statuettes representing the spirits of her ancestors. That was the first thing she showed Pinkerton on their wedding night. But for him, they were just funny little toys. The question is, does she really suffer because her man jilted her or because she is deprived of a social identity. She is neither Butterfly the geisha nor Madame Pinkerton. She is neither Japanese nor American. She is a wife who couldn’t keep her husband and a mother of a fatherless, therefore illegitimate son. Neither divorced nor married in the full sense, she is a true outcast.
Puccini shows the undoing of a woman who cast away her ancestors’ inheritance to accept her husband’s because she was taught that’s what you’re supposed to do when you get married. Trouble is, she has never been entitled to her own identity. Trapped between men, she has no choice but to passively wait for an outcome.
… Until she cuts herself with her father’s knife. This is her ultimate awakening. All of this exotic world was bound to be destroyed anyway. It reaches its annihilation, to our great anguish since we enjoyed it dearly. At the same time, the indecency of our enjoyment makes us feel relief when it finally ends. But Puccini wouldn’t be a great sadist artist that he was if he hadn’t opted for a cruel and bizarre end. Suicide alone isn’t enough. It has to be seppuku, the disembowelment that symbolically reconnects Butterfly’s shattered identity.
Yes, Butterfly is a victim. But she doesn’t go off the stage in a clear and humble way. She invites Pinkerton to come in half an hour, when the deed gets done. She chooses to transfigure. Her motherly guts, literally spilt all over the place, are to haunt him forever.
It would be equally wrong to blame Tolstoy for having his adulterous heroine Anna Karenina commit suicide. It wasn’t Tolstoy who drove her to that decision. It was the 19th-century society, which didn’t tolerate transgressions and had a thing for punishing women. Tolstoy merely analysed societal mechanisms of the age he was living in. And by doing so, he made Karenina one of the most powerful and willful heroines in the history of literature. (This is not to say Tolstoy was neutral towards the women’s question. He had his own problematic views about it. But great books reveal much more than their authors’ intentions.)
Furthermore, Tolstoy was a novelist who endeavoured to depict reality. (At the very moment he curses me from behind the grave for putting him in line with opera composers.) Puccini, as well as any other opera composer, had no such intention. He was accused by many a critic in his own time of being effeminate and weak because he portrayed women, sickness, and decadence of every kind. All he actually tried to do was to give us a chance to feel (not read, nor interpret, much as we enjoy doing so) the tragedy of a woman. A woman of a great personality, who suffers greatly, but does not suffer in silence. On the contrary, she has a big and beautiful voice.
If you’ve made it to the end of this lengthy text, add your own view in the Comments section. (I promise I will keep it shorter in the future.)
All of us like to swallow a piece or ten of instant wisdom every now and again. Even if it is about opera. We are just too lazy to read lengthy papers on any topic and prefer to get enlightened by short and catchy tunes known as QUOTES.
Unlike compilations of affirmative quotations that can be found on the web, this one is intended to make you think twice before you book those tickets for an opera performance. Or, if you are an exhibitionist, so-called out-of-the-box kind of person, maybe you will embrace the opportunity all the more eagerly. The latter would be even better because we are always in need of new motivational and demotivational quotes. (You’re welcome to contribute by sharing them.)
Let’s begin with one that addresses the very essence of opera.
1) If you wish to know what OPERA is, I shall tell you that it is a fantastical work of Poetry and of Music, in which the Poet and the Musician, equally embarassed the one with the other, take great pains to turn out an evil work.
Charles de Saint-Denis de Saint-Évremond
This 17th-century man of letters was apparently malevolent and did what opera hates the most – deconstructing its structure. Yes, it is usually bad poetry and loose drama. Yes, the music can sometimes be not-so-good if one would extract it for some reason. But music and poetry are interdependent when woven into an opera and therefore should be taken as a whole, just the way they were meant to be.
2) The opera is like a husband with a foreign title: expensive to support, hard to understand, and, therefore, a supreme social challenge.
Many sexists would, no doubt, compare it to a wife rather than a husband. Hysteria, blabbering and repeating all kinds of nonsense all the time, when all a man needs while resting in his armchair and smoking a pipe is some peace and tranquility.
But does one really need a foreign-titled spouse that comes with all sorts of complications and is hard to support? Let’s see an answer to this question, provided by a famous composer and conductor.
3) I once said that the most elegant solution of the problem of opera was to blow up the opera houses, and I still think this true.
Ok, chère Pierre. We know you were an old complainer who struggled with the very concept of opera. And refused to conduct anything Italian, because opera is, more often than not, Italian. And who hated contemporary opera too. And tried to compose one, in vain. And made a controversy out of Wagner’s “Ring” (for which you earned our eternal gratitude). Blowing up art ventures is such a modern thing to do. But we live in a postmodern era now, so we are way past that. Better than exterminate a supposedly outdated art form, let’s laugh at it. That way it will still continue to exist, as a guilty pleasure to enjoy when no one can see us.
4) I love Wagner, but the music I prefer is that of a cat hung up by its tail outside a window and trying to stick to the panes of glass with its claws.
Admittedly, there’s much to hate in Wagner. But instead of deciding between Wagner and a cat, we can mix them together, just like an Imgur user did.
Such a spicy comment on Wagner, however, came from a poet who was his ardent worshipper, as you can see for yourself in his fan letter.
5) The thing to do for insomnia is to get an opera score and read THAT. THAT will bore you to death.
Reading can be an awesome way to lull oneself into sleep. But reading an opera score, when you are a singer, usually means reading it out loud. Really loud. The great American mezzo-soprano left us to imagine what kind of dreams it could lead into.
6) Real life is imparted to the opera by the use of prisons, daggers, poison, the writing of letters on stage, bear and wild bull hunts, earthquakes, storms, sacrifices, the settling of accounts, and mad scenes…
Opera stagings in the baroque era were full of unearthly (but alas! all too earthly) effects such as these observed by Marcello, who was – guess what – a composer. In his 1720 satirical essay “The Fashionable Theater”, which you can read online if you read Italian, he mocks the burlesque he thought opera had become thanks to vainglorious divas and social machinery that was supporting it all. We can suppose he was a well-minded critic. Perhaps his rancor was directed to his contemporaries rather than the opera itself as an art form. But even if it weren’t so, it’s a nice piece of rancor.
Marcello, you aren’t alone. Even the haters of our time either detest opera’s excessiveness and dramatic implausibility or reproach any effort to modernize it by bringing it closer to the modern theater. Both fractions are and aren’t right, because us opera lovers enjoy it for its overabundance, as well as its flexibility and power to transform and, thereby, survive.
7) Of all the noises known to man, opera is the most expensive.
A-ha! Here is the precursor of today’s hypocritical rants. Like all the blockbuster movies and TV series weren’t expensive. Like opera is the worst money-drainer. Like it didn’t require hundreds of persons on, below and off the stage in order to be performed. Finally, like all the kings and nobles ever haven’t been willing to support opera AND theater AND all other kinds of amusement available.
8) I hate the opera. I think I must have a tin ear. No matter how hard I concentrate it still sounds like a bunch of Italian chefs screaming risotto recipes at each other.
We can’t say Onassis didn’t have an opportunity to hear a good opera singer. In spite of the fact he was made of money, he apparently wasn’t too fond of this type of extravagance, not even after he captured Maria Callas’ heart. No wonder she neglected opera while enjoying their love adventure. There is no place for singing out the “Ah’s” and “Oh’s” of opera when you’re trapped with someone who can’t stand it.
9) Going to opera, like getting drunk, is a sin that carries its own punishment with it, and that a very serious one.
Madame More was, as Wikipedia would have us believe, a philanthropist, as well as a religious writer and a moralist. She was also a prominent opponent of female education, because women, in her opinion, had better things to do. Like taking care of their families. Of course she thought women are unfit to govern or take part in public life. That being said, we find her incompetent to judge opera which tends to be feminine, but nevertheless decided to include this quotation because it deals with sin and drinking.
This brings us to our last quote for the day.
10) Bed is the poor man’s opera.
An Italian proverb
Opera is an Italian invention. Although it was born in a narrow circle of intellectual aristocrats who fancied themselves as inheritors and restorers of the classical Greek tragedy, it apparently became an awesome thing to joke about among ordinary people. All jokes have a grain of truth. But is this one saying more about opera or poor people and their beds? I would think of it this way: opera likes beds, and beds like opera. Thanks to the miracle of internet, nowadays you can watch opera in bed. Thanks to your imagination, you can bring its lasciviousness to bed as well.
Which quote do you agree with most? Tell us in the comments section. Or share your favorite. Or invent a new one if you like.
Seriously. That is so 20th century. Today there are no first ladies of opera (except in the so-called developing countries, such as mine). Either a singer is top class, and opera companies chase her with contracts, or she is not top class and she has to try even harder to make her way through thousands of great performers. But even the most sought-after singers are not divas, nor are considered divine in any way.
No matter the anachronism, the terms “prima donna” and “prima donna assoluta” have been historically associated with Maria Callas.
Why do we talk about her right now? Because she died on September 16, 39 years ago. And she definitely deserves to be the subject of many an article anyway.
Because opera is unpleasant, and she sang opera
The first time I heard her voice was when I was 10 or so. I jumped into the middle of an aria that had been playing on the radio. I had no idea who was the singer. Listening to her for only a couple of minutes was quite a distressing experience for me. I didn’t know a thing about opera at the time, but that voice haunted me through the night. And not in a good way, I have to admit.
Our next encounter happened 5 or 6 years later. During that period I was introducing myself to opera. Naturally, I wanted to hear the most famous name. With the very first notes, I realized the voice sounded strangely familiar, and I tried my utmost not to turn it off. That aria was supposed to represent a lovely little song by a girl who begs her father to let her marry, for God’s sake!
What I actually heard was a naughty little monster pretending to be a sweet girl.
Exactly that was the reason why I remembered having heard her before. It was one of those few voices one can never forget (even if they wanted to). Her singing was all but beautiful. That voice could never be a voice of an angel or any other boring virtuous creature. She was a true opera witch. And witches are exciting. All it takes to fall in love with them is a little time and (im)patience to get to know the depths of their witchcraft. In Maria Callas’ case, it definitely takes more than one aria. So, back to my story, I picked one more aria. Followed by yet another.
Because she was unpleasant, and opera is (still) about her
Mind you: Maria Callas is probably the most controversial opera star who ever lived. Opera and controversy – could you imagine a juicier symbiosis? Wait, what is that sweetish smell of the diva’s perfume… Yay, it’s our loving brand Gossip.
It’s hard to stay out of controversy when a singer loses 80 pounds in less than a year in order to improve their dramatic expressivity on stage. (It seems Callas was well aware of a common conception that opera singers are fat.) It’s even harder when they are fond of hookups with extravagant, yachts-loving, tone deaf zillionaires. One thing is for sure: not everyone could be dumped for Jackie Kennedy. Audiences got so obsessed with Callas that they even developed a habit of throwing vegetables at her, according to Terrence McNally.
And when this passionate, dark Little Mermaid lost her voice early (either because of the weight-loss, or because she didn’t build her repertoire wisely, or whatever the reason) and died in solitude, which many could deem quite romantic, there it was – a perfect recipe for a delicious meal to be devoured by the masses. Hard work, professionalism and meticulousness were also her thing, but they don’t make the news.
She was a diva in her time because there is something very operatic in a sublime talent that gets tarnished by different sorts of miseries. But she stayed a diva to this day – because history will remember her as the first 20th-century singer who showed that the dramatic aspects of opera had to be resuscitated in order for opera to survive. She acted the drama (which we are still able to see in the 2nd act of Covent Garden’s “Tosca”), but she also sang the drama. Which is a legacy every opera singer of our time has to live up to.
(Tosca) Ti soffoca il sangue? Muori dannato! Muori, muori, muori!!! (Is your blood choking you? Die accursed! Die, die, die!!!)
Giacomo Puccini, “Tosca”, 2nd act
There’s got to be more to opera than just sighing, crying and dying.
There’s also screaming. A part which I really, really like. One of the practical reasons is neighbors’ noise which eventually leads to retaliation. If neighbors in some lower-class district bother you as they bother me, with their quarrels and babies crying, turn the volume up and give ’em this.
Another reason why I enjoy the screaming is that it’s usually the only part of opera that I can perform convincingly, in the shower or anywhere else.
There’s a man in Amsterdam who also likes to do it. Can you imagine his surprise when the police broke into his apartment to check on domestic violence? They had received a report from a worried neighbor. It happened this year in January.
Enough with the neighborhood issues. (Although I suppose all of us would be satisfied if everyone loved opera. Police officers too. Let’s sensitize, people!)
Did they always scream?
For centuries opera has been associated with agitated divas and earsplitting sounds they make. Here is what Jean-Jacques Rousseau had to say about it, back in the 18th century:
What you could not possibly imagine are the frightful cries, the long-drawn-out groans which fill the theatre throughout the performance… One sees the actresses, almost in convulsions, violently extracting this screeching from their lungs, their fists clenched against their breasts, their heads held back, their faces inflamed, their blood vessels swoolen, their stomachs quivering… The most difficult thing to understand is that these screeches are almost the only things the spectators applaud.
The thing is, he was an opera composer himself. In this fragment, he was campaigning against the contemporary fad of tragic operas and their abundance of artificiality. Hundreds and thousands of those operas were to be seen in that age, defining – and reflecting – the taste of the establishment. They were sponsored by the court and attended mostly by wealthy aristocrats. (In fact, Rousseau’s only opera, “The Village Soothsayer”, was itself very popular – and appreciated and loved by king Louis XV. Which apparently troubled the great philosopher, who refused an honorary life pension offered by the king himself.) So this unflattering impression came from a critic of opera who, as so many critics of opera, worshipped it. He was just being somewhat malicious for the occasion. And wanted the best for his darling, as we all do.
When i scream sometimes it isnt enough so it just evolves into an opera
There was once a perfect reader (alongside Don Quixote), the one with a twisted, self-centered imagination, who wanted everything to be about her. It was Flaubert’s (anti-)heroine, Madame Emma Bovary. Let’s see how she professed her literary taste.
I detest commonplace heroes and moderate sentiments, such as there are in nature.
Isn’t she a perfect opera spectator as well? Living a little, ordinary life, but craving thrill that escapes her, lusting after splendor which is all but decent and true-to-life. Searching for stories that are utterly useless, but they are dramatic and beautiful because she doesn’t live them every day.
Opera has always dealt with topics of love, hate, sex, jealousy, power, murder, treachery, magic, witchcraft, curses, maledictions and other mundane matters. And it has an aspiration for overdoing it, both in terms of plot and expression. Even the most simple, down-to-earth stories (and opera likes to use them as well) tend to become unnatural when sung. Especially when you sing while dying. Or sing “I’m dying” while dying.
However, it has never pretended to be realistic. The psychological base of art is the depiction of human experiences just for the sake of us getting to see/hear the heroes suffer and rejoice in our stead. We’ve suffered long enough, after all. But we’ve never rejoiced enough. Art is there to make the balance. Through reception, it converts suffering to delight. That’s what the ancient Greeks called catharsis. And I bet you can feel it in opera more than in any other art.
Let the divas scream, then. When the performance is over, I want to scream too.