Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Grab Your Shoes, It's Puccini! (a nod to the Cullmanns)

Recently, my husband and I went to see Madame Butterfly for the first time. The music, of course, was beautiful. Briefly, it is an opera about an American naval officer who marries a 15-year-old Japanese geisha for kicks, then leaves her, unaware she is pregnant. She waits faithfully for him, convinced that he will return. He does, three years later, with an American wife. Of course, the Americans think the child would be better off raised in the United States.

[SPOILER ALERT: If you plan to see the opera, don’t read any further.] Madame Butterfly, losing her man and her son, commits suicide. “To die with honor, when one cannot continue to live with honor” is inscribed on the knife with which she messily takes her life. Obviously, this was in the day before paternity suits, child support and alimony. Not exactly a feel-good opera, but many of them aren’t.

Madame Butterfly is apparently the most performed opera in the United States, according to OPERA America, an organization that promotes opera in North America. Italian composer Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini wrote this opera in 1904, revealing that even then, the Ugly American image was alive and well in Europe. Any woman who watches this opera, wants to take off her shoes and run up to the stage to beat some sense into the leading man. But it is, after all, fiction. Unless you take into account all the very real Eurasian children left behind in Vietnam which served as the basis for the 1989 musical Miss Saigon (which, oddly enough, is said to be based on Madame Butterfly).

There are many theories on how Puccini came up with the idea for this opera. It may have been based in part on the short story "Madame Butterfly" (1898) by John Luther Long and dramatized by David Belasco. Puccini may also have drawn from the novel Madame Chrysanthème (1887) by Pierre Loti. According to one scholar, the opera was based on events that actually occurred in Nagasaki in the early 1890s. Let me grab those shoes again.

Interestingly, Puccini, who lived from 1858 to 1924, loved fast cars, Toscano cigars and perhaps a dalliance or two. His wife accused their maid of having an affair with him. The accused woman committed suicide, but was later proven innocent in court. Puccini had to pay out a large settlement to her family. Love and death. Sound familiar? Oddly enough, this happened five years after Madame Butterfly was performed. So this would be life imitating art.

[SPOILER ALERT: If you plan to read Puccini's biography, don’t read any further.] Cigars and chain smoking eventually manifested into throat cancer and killed Puccini, but not before he wrote a number of heart-rending operas set in Italy as well as in the American West, Japan, China and Paris. This apparently was ground-breaking for Italian composers, who usually kept their dramas in Italy.

Next year, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center will be presenting another of Puccini’s operas—La Tosca. Set in Rome in June 1800, La Tosca is a melodramatic story, with the Kingdom of Naple’s control of Rome threatened by bad-boy Napoleon’s invasion of Italy. It contains depictions of torture, murder and suicide—all sung to beautiful music. Of course, we'll be there.

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