A New Series Documenting My Induction into the World of Opera
I knew I was heading into the Met to see a classic for the first time. The rain was pounding on that Tuesday in Manhattan and we fought our way across the wet, windy plaza to slip into the sanctuary of the corner entryway by the Metropolitan Opera gift shop. Dripping with anticipation we shook off the tempest and followed the throng into the heart of the lobby and up the grand stair case with its deep red velvet and gold trim.
I knew enough of Puccini’s opera to recognize the music and the general story line. It was simple; a brash American military man taking a Japanese Geisha and then abandoning her, only returning at the end to collect her child whom he had fathered. I listened to a recording enough times to know the music delivered the emotional equivalent of a sucker punch so I thought myself brilliant to have stashed a couple of tissues in my jacket pocket for the inevitably sad finale. Ah, inexperience, it seems was about to catch me unawares once again.
Act one is stunningly beautiful. The set, the music, the costumes, the chiaroscuro of the black raked stage to the brilliant performers and the simplicity of the staging weaves a world that I easily loose myself into. As the opera progresses I fall forward from my steeply raked stadium seat at the back of the house into a soft and alluring divan of music and flowers. I am easily wooed by B. F. Pinkerton knowing his intentions are provisional. I abandon reason for passion as the house fills with fluttering red petals thick as the sheets of rain I ran through earlier and the curtain falls as my own “kimono” falls to the floor leaving me a trembling vessel,naked, aroused and waiting to be consumed. Lights up, I take in a deep breath.
So far so good, it’s everything I was hoping it would be. I wonder around the back of the house lined with those holding standing-room-only tickets who are now sitting on the floor. The house is full so I make my way off to the side to find the ladies room and gaze out the window onto Henry Moore’s “Reclining Figure,” sculpture in its reflecting pool. The rain continues unabated and I am drawn back momentarily into passion and fluttering flower petals.
Madama Butterfly at the Met
A number of folks from my synagogue have tickets to tonight’s performance so we find each other and schmooze on the little landing leading up to the Family Circle seating. Some people are annoyed as they make their way past us but we are all so happy just to be there we ignore the occasional looks and grumblings. Soon we are back in our seats with the lights dimming down and the orchestra warming up. I quickly clean my glasses so I can see everything clearly and we are off to act two. I am glad for having had the break. Intermission cooled my stirrings and brought me back to my senses; I am in control of myself.
Before I know it Butterfly is alone and hopeful. I follow her steps and see the world through her eyes knowing her optimism will not be enough. I even find her annoying with her overbearing sanguinity and naïveté. My legs are restless and I try not to kick the seat in front of me as I shift back and forth. My mood from act 1 is stale and I turn sullen waiting for something to happen when, as if in response to my impatience, a single drip tickles the back of my nose. I dig for my tissue thinking it’s the end of my cold. The “letter duet” with Sharpless is almost at its conclusion when Cio-Cio San reveals her child and my face is suddenly all wet.
I generally equate the rising urge to cry with a tightening of my throat and a squinting of my eyes but I’m not feeling that way at all… “I’m crying.” I tell myself, shocked at my own surprise. Tears are falling from my eyes and I have used up the two tissues I so smartly stashed in my pocket and I can not explain why I am crying. Cio-Cio San and Suzuki are joyfully strewing their home with flowers, the child is happily playing nearby, Pinkerton’s ship is at harbor, the music is bright and overtly positive yet tears are streaming down my face though I still don’t feel the classic symptoms of sadness. What is going on?! My mind has yet to catch up with the emotional response my body is clearly exhibiting and I look around trying to grab hold of something to give me stability and balance. The brilliant white of Cio-Cio San’s robe against the black of the stage blinds me and I cannot make out the translation being broadcast on the LED bar in front of my seat. My eyes blur from fresh tears. I use my sleeve to wipe them as the tissues are now wet and limp in my hand. I settle for listening, temporarily abandoning my attachment to sight. The trio settles in for an evening’s vigil on “the little house on the hill” on-stage. Butterfly awaits the arrival of Pinkerton and I settle into a waiting stance of my own. The tears from my eyes abate and I, in a place of unsettled desire for a futile hopefulness, accept the rising of the house lights as second intermission kicks in and I am returned to my seat in the back of the house at the Met.
Confused, shaken and armed with a fist full of paper towels pulled from the ladies room during intermission I thankfully welcome the fading house lights, pulling the darkness around my shoulders like a familiar blanket. Act 2 part 2 opens with a musical slap across the face followed by a conciliatory hug not unlike a hit from an abusive boyfriend on a beautiful Sunday morning. I know what is to come and I can hardly bear to watch Cio-Cio San’s descent into despair. I maintain my composure until I hear someone two rows behind and slightly to my left sniffle and choke back tears. This is all I need to start weeping openly hoping I don’t descend into noisy sobs. This time my body and mind are in sync as my emotions come into full bloom and I hand myself over to Puccini’s achingly beautiful music loosing much of myself in the process. Catharsis kicks into high gear lifting me out of worldly concerns blotting out all but the inevitable unfolding before me. With heart pounding resolution Butterfly lies dead. Streams of blood-red fabric pour out from her body. We burst forth with applause shouting “Brava,brava!” wiping away collective tears.
When my friend, Amy, died from breast cancer in 2008 I recall carrying grief around with me for several days after her funeral. It would unexpectedly rise up with my breath and I’d have to exhale a mournful sigh releasing a bit of the pain every time. As I walked out of the Metropolitan Opera into a post-storm, crystal-clear midnight sky I carried Madama Butterfly home with me. I brought her to work the next day and we had lunch together alone in my office; the sadness still palpable. Such a simple story of a woman caught in circumstances doing her best to retain some modicum of dignity in her simple life. Maybe I identify with her situation more than I care to admit. Still, I really don’t understand why I cried before the familiar pangs of sadness kicked in. Puccini’s orchestration must have been speaking to me in a language I did not intellectually know yet instinctively understood. Was it possible for my body to respond to the music before my mind could contextualize it or did my alter ego, knowing what was to come, just take advantage of the opportunity to get in a good cry? I am not saavy enough in this vastly intellectual world of operatic expertise or psychology to proffer much of an opinion. What I do know is that some tragic truth about the human condition got through to me that night. Puccini, together with the entire ensemble at the MetOpera, fashioned a remarkable production that pierced my hard-polished New York exterior and showed me how delicate I was; how poignant all our lives are.
I used to openly mock the notion of opera.
I had no idea!