The opera Madama Butterfly is 100 years old today, and the popular belle of the zo odori has hardly aged a jot since Giacomo Puccini set her pining on the stage of Milano’s Teatro alla Scala back in 1904.
Since then, Cio-Cio-San and her faraway Pinkerton have watched opera shuffle over into the has-been section of the popular arts, in America at least. It’s been bowdlerized into musicals, macerated into movies, caricatured and sampled in song. Opera broadcasts are no longer center-of-the-dial radio events, and even the summer-night sojourns out into the city parks by the Metropolitan Opera company feel more like propitiations to neglected gods of high culture than brushes with the florid tremble of art. As far as the working lumpen go, the only complaint I’ve ever had about music here at the Day Job – and I’ve worked the musical fringes of my co-workers pretty hard over the years – was when I tried out a nice recording of La Bohème at my desk one day.
Office Manager: What is that horrible noise?
Linus: (Looking around) What horrible noise?
Office Manager: That noise. Coming from your stereo.
Linus: Noise?? That’s La Bohème.
Office Manager: Make it stop.
Linus: But that’s a Callas recording. It’s Puccini. It’s one of the high points of…
Office Manager: Make it stop now. Don’t make me kill you.
I’ve seen Butterfly at least twice; I keep thinking there’s a third one in there somewhere, but I can’t imagine where or when it might be. In 1994 at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, the show was staged with minimal sets and broad use of banners and flags. It was one of my very first full traditional operas (I came a bit late to the fold).
In the interlude where Cio-Cio-San watches the harbor and waits tragically for Pinkerton’s returning ship (you can freshen up on the story of Madama Butterfly courtesy of the Met, if you like) the soprano stepped tentatively out into a fogged stage bare but for whorls of spent white silk draped along the floor. As the music swelled the silk took on color and blew into blue waves all around her, rising high into the empty space like giant wings, held in place only by her feet, finally engulfing her altogether. The impression was of a tiny devoted life swept away by a tide of indifference and distance. It was beautiful and I’ve never forgotten it, though I remember nearly nothing else about the production.
I saw the Met production in 1995 or so, shortly after Placido Domingo began conducting the show rather than singing in it, so my Cio-Cio-San was probably Maria Spacagna. The sprawl of the Met is not ideal for their design of the piece as a small, just-so story in its particular setting – I remember it as a bonsai show, meticulous and intricate but, in the end, not much to dine on, especially at those prices.
Miracles of Technology Dep’t: follow this link to hear a 29-second recording of Puccini’s voice.
In other birthday news, McSorley’s Old Ale House on East 7th Street turns 150 today, which is somethin’ in the City of Change. I first had “the two” at McSorley’s, with a side of onions and blasting-cap mustard, after they had begun admitting women (as a reluctant result of Seidenberg v. McSorley’s Old Ale House, 1969) and before the bar made the concession of a second bathroom for the unwelcome second sex. Back in those days the myth still held that McSorley’s Light and McSorley’s Dark were something homemade and special; we’ve discovered since that they were the light and dark brews of the house from F.X. Matt Brewing in Utica. If you’re the right age and you went to the right New York bars, you may remember Prior Light and Prior Dark from taps here and there around the city: same stuff.