Opera in the real world

Here’s something good—something the New York City Opera did on the second and third nights of this season. On the second night (having opened the night before somewhat conventionally, with a new production), they had a gala. All seats were $25, and not all the music was classical. Rufus Wainwright sang; he’s a big opera fan. And the gala finished with the East Village Opera Company, who do dance versions of opera hits. (They’re hardly the only group that’s done this, but their versions—try “La donna è mobile”—are especially tasty.)

Of course, most of the music on the gala came from the company’s productions this fall, but also doing non-classical music (or non-classical versions of opera tunes) makes tremendous sense to me. I don’t know how many times I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again (and many times in the future, I fear): Classical music inhabits a world where other kinds of music also live

Then, the next night, City Opera did Butterfly, again with all seats selling for $25. I was there. The house was sold out; the audience, much of it, seemed younger, maybe new to City Opera. Paul Kellogg, the company’s director, and Cynthia Nixon, from Sex in the City, came onstage to introduce the show. Kellogg was friendly and substantial, Nixon was a little stiff, till she blew a line, laughed, and then relaxed.

After Kellogg and Nixon came a video, introducing members of the cast and backstage crew, and the conductor. (Maybe members of the orchestra, too; I don’t remember.) the video was wonderfully done, funny, lively, and informal, but also quite informative. There was another installment of it before the second act. The video, I’m sure, made people in the audience feel they knew their fellow human beings who were responsible for what was happening onstage. Certainly when the conductor came out to start the first act, he got very warm applause, because (I think) the audience already felt they knew him from the video.

I’d rate all of this a complete success. There were things I didn’t like about the performance (though the production, directed by Mark Lamos, is very effective). The two leads, especially; neither was equal to his or her role. And the conductor and orchestra didn’t really gel together till the final act. So—without real Puccini voices from the Butterfly and Pinkerton, and without firm shaping in the pit—I thought the climax of the love duet didn’t really happen.

But the crowd disagreed with me! Right as what was meant to be the climax happened on the stage and in the orchestra, they burst into applause. So what do I know? Maybe, with real voices and stronger shaping in the pit, the applause would have been louder. But certainly the climax worked for many people, and—ignoring all those silly old classical music rules—they showed their appreciation right away, as I can imagine the audience might have in Puccini’s time (or at least might have, if the Butterfly premiere had been successful).

But here’s something strange. Nobody from the music business seemed to be there. Not critics (apart from my wife, Anne Midgette, who was reviewing the performance), not executives from other big classical music institutions in New York. Nobody seemed to want to see how this substantial reaching-out from City Opera worked. Why not? We all say we want to see new audiences. And hereCity Opera does something substantial to bring one in. Doesn’t anybody care about whether it worked?

One caveat, though. There was talk at the beginning, from Cynthia Nixon and in the video, about how Butterfly shows the meeting of two cultures. “Just like Lost in Translation,” Nixon said, or words to that effect, referring to the wonderful Sophia Coppola film from a couple of years ago, starring Bill Murray. And certainly the Mark Lamos production made the most of this. Pinkerton, in the first act, tries to shake hands with the Japanese he meets; they shy away, as if his very western gesture struck them as aggressive. And then in the third act, Butterfly’s little child, meeting Sharpless, the American consul, reaches out to shake his hand, as clearly he’d been taught to do. It’s very sweet, and also very telling. Bravo for everyone concerned, from the director right on down to the kid playing Butterfly’s child, for thinking of this, and bringing it off so effectively.

And yet…is this really what Butterfly’s about? Or, rather, would anybody use it as an example of two cultures meeting, especially compared to Lost in Translation’s much more honest, much more contemporary version of that? I think, first, that Puccini wasn’t so much interested in that side of the story, any more than he really cared about Chinese culture when he wrote Turandot, or the wild west in Fanciulla. He mined these settings first for local color, then for pathos. Some things in Butterfly, when you look closely at them, don’t make any sense. What language, for instance, are the American and Japanese characters supposed to be speaking when they talk to each other?

Maybe Goro (the hustling Japanese marriage broker, who does business with Americans) speaks a little English; maybe Sharpless, the consul, speaks some Japanese; maybe Butterfly, preparing for her marriage, or from her work as a geisha, learned some English. But their conversations, rendered in the opera in comfortable Italian, wouldn’t, in real life, had been so fluent. And when Suzuki, Butterfly’s servant, speaks to Sharpless in the final act, and even more when she speaks to Pinkerton’s sposa Americana, Kate, it’s impossible to be believe the conversation could be easy. Suzuki, surely, wouldn’t speak any English. Puccini just didn’t bother with such things. (In the American play the opera is based on, Butterfly speaks painful pidgin English, or so I’m told).

So, for this and other reasons, I think City Opera made exaggerated artistic claims for what they were presenting. The real story, I’d think, is one the opera world faces every day. Here we have the landmarks of the repertoire. They’re what draws the audience. So they’re constantly performed. Opera companies have to make the best of that, which they often do by trying to give the works contemporary meaning. Sometimes this succeeds, and sometimes it fails; for Butterfly, I think it’s something of a stretch.

So in a way City Opera wasn’t aiming very high. The real reason why Butterfly succeeds is pathos. And opera, in the popular view, is all about pathos. Remember the wonderful opera scenes in Moonstruck? Cher goes to La bohème, and cries. The City Opera audience goes to Butterfly, and might well cry, too. It really doesn’t matter whether cultures cross or not, and in not explaining that opera can aim higher than this, City Opera itself, I think, didn’t aim very high artistically.

By the way—I love Puccini. I just think we have to understand his operas as something like old-time Hollywood movies, aimed right at our sentimental hearts (and at commercial success), without too much pretense of reality.

And one final note. Paul Kellogg is leaving City Opera. In a story on his leaving in The New York Times, he cited some frustrations:

In an interview, Mr. Kellogg said the constant work needed to entice the young and neophytes to opera was discouraging, though also fulfilling, taking note of the popularity of the house’s “Opera for All” low-cost events last week.

He also said that the struggle to win ever-dwindling support from corporations and foundations was a full-time job in itself.


In other words, he’s suffering from the classical music crisis. I’m enormously sympathetic. I can imagine that he got into this business to produce opera (just as I got into it to compose, and because I loved classical music). Now he finds that’s not enough. The audience and funding both are shrinking. So the job of an opera producer expands into new areas, which—game as he might be to explore them—isn’t what he expected.

Aren’t many of us suffering from this?

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