Opera Review: Madama Butterfly

Thanks to the generosity of my mother, Susan and I saw a matinée performance of the New York City Opera’s production of Madama Butterfly on Sunday.

Madama Butterfly tells the story of B.F. Pinkerton (Christopher Jackson) of the US Navy who on a whim purchases a 999-year lease on a home overlooking the harbor in Nagasaki, and works out a similar agreement with a marriage broker Goro (Matthew Surapine) for the young Cio-Cio-San (Shu-Ying Li), known as Butterfly. He does this because he knows he can break the contract at any time and he even as he prepares to marry Butterfly he toasts his future “real wife” from America. As loathsome and culturally insensitive as he is, Cio-Cio- San can’t help but fall in love with Pinkerton, and in a weird way the American Dream as she rebukes her family and Japanese culture. The second act is dedicated to Cio-Cio-San patiently awaiting Pinkerton’s return despite everyone she knows telling her that it is false hope. In the final act, Pinkerton does return — with his American wife. In the final insult, their only purpose is to take Cio-Cio-San’s sun Sorrow with them to America. Cio-Cio-San allows them to take her son, but takes her own life as well just before the curtain falls.

Critically, there are things that are hard to buy in this story. What makes Cio-Cio-San fall in love with Pinkerton? There seems to be no excuse for her foolishness even if she had few other options available to her due to her culture and gender. Yet, in a sense that is true to life. People are blinded by love, blinded by hope, and blinded by dreams. That is the real tragedy to me because love, hope, and dreams are three of the most positive qualities of humanity, and yet they can destroy us.

Leaving the theater we overheard a woman say “They should have killed him instead of her.” I wonder what the audience of Puccini’s time thought about Pinkerton’s moral choices. Puccini and his librettists certainly seem to want to make us understand Pinkerton’s remorse in the third act. Of course Pinkerton acts on that remorse by going off and moping on his own instead of, you know, actually speaking with the woman he impregenated and abandoned. Do pre-feminist audiences think this was good enough, even progressive for an American man? The mind boggles.

Musically, Madama Buttefly is full of beautiful, heart-wrenching melodies. Shu-Ying Li especially carries the show with her lyrical voice. The second act in particular has some of her best arias and a lovely intermezzo by the orchestra. Christopher Jackson is kind of stiff, but his stage time is actually overshadowed by supporting characters Suzuki (Keri Alkema) and Sharpless (Marco Nisticò). The characters provide the conscience and realism to counterbalance the leads, and their voices provide beautiful singing, albeit Alkema spends much of the performance laying on the floor weeping. I love how operas are cast by voice not by physical appearance so that the American Alkema plays a Japanese house servant and the Italian Nisticò plays an American Consul, adding the multicultural soup. Henry Titcomb as Sorrow doesn’t sing but provides a touching and charming performance as a typical little boy.

The staging and costumes are also great. I’ve seen so many productions lately that update the costumes to another place and time that it was nice to see them sticking to 1900-era Japanese and American fashions. I particularly liked that all the women in the wedding scene wore small American flags in their hair. In a great dramatic moment at the climax of the opera that may not be noticed by those without opera glasses, Cio-Cio-San removes the Star-Spangled Banner from Sorrow’s hand and replaces it with the Rising Sun. The stage is set simply but used effectively. A set of steps at the back of the stage represent the hill upon which Pinkerton’s house while sliding doors represent the walls. In Act II, Cio-Cio-San, Suzuki, and Sorrow spread a silk cloth and flower petals across the steps. The safety commissar in me cringes at the thought of the boy slipping down the steps, but visually the effect was beautiful.

For those keeping score, this was my fourth opera.  I’m not the most cultured guy but I do enjoy the experience.

Concert Review: Gyuto Monks Tibetan Tantric Choir

In my days as a college radio DJ at WCWM-FM I hosted a world music show called “Move Over Francis Bacon.” Not that I knew much about music of different countries and cultures (how I would love to have had the internet back then), but I did enjoy digging through the WCWM record collection and making new discoveries. One of my favorites for their unique sound are the Gyuto Monks. Practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism and now in exile in northern India, the monks of the Gyuto Tantric University perform a unique multiphonic chanting in which each monk sings not a single not but an entire chord.

Western musicians such as Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead became aware of the Gyoto Monks and over the past couple of decades the monks have made several tours of the United States. This of course raises questions about why music intended for religious ritual is performed on stage. The Dalai Lama has a good response to that which is printed in the program:

“Some people may ask ‘Why are they performing publicly what should be esoteric rites?’ Perhaps these people feel that secret teachings should not be turned into a theatrical spectacle. But they need not be concerned. The secret interior path and its processes are things which the ordinary eye cannot perceive.”

I would add that you’re not likely to hear any complaints of a performance of say a Christian oratorio by Handel at Symphony Hall.

Last night I had the opportunity to hear the chants of the Gyuto Monks for the first time at their performance at Harvard’s Sanders Theater courtesy of World Music/Crash Arts, one of the best concert series in the Boston area. The monks took the stage quietly and sat in a v-formation before a picture of the Dalai Lama and other liturgical arts. They wore their simple saffron robes but for the various tantric practices they put on cloaks and hats with beautiful patterns, all with deliberate mindfullness.

One of my first realizations is the preconceptions I have of Buddhist monks are a bit off. I figured them to be masters of discipline, unaffected by the discomforts of life. Yet I noticed several monks shifting in their seats, scratching their noses, and adjusting their tassles as they chanted. One monk on the end of the row who appeared to be the youngest had a lot of difficulty with keeping his cloaks from slipping off his shoulders. This was all rather comforting to me although I still expect it would be difficult to be a monk with restless legs syndrome.

In the first half of the program the monks chanted their deep, long notes. At several moments they picked up and cradled bells in their hands, but did not ring them. When they finally did ring their bells it created a dramatic moment from a simple action. In the second half of the program, the monks brought several instruments on stage with them including cymbals, drums, and short and long horns. The special assistant monk who sat outside the V-formation (whom Susan called the Sacristan) always made sure to step around the long horns and not over them when he came forward to make offerings.

Now I do confess that this performance may have been a bit much for me and it was so soothing I nodded off a couple of times. Still it was a remarkable experience and one I’m glad to be priveliged to enjoy. At the end of the show the vice-abbot answered questions with the help of a younger monk who knows some English. I was particularly touched by the vice-abbot noticing the love that Americans offer to their pets and asking that we extend this love to all human beings as well. A point well made and for that he got a round of applause (although it did feel odd, almost disrespectful to applaud at this performance).

Concert Review: Camera Obscura

Jan. 27, 2007 — Camera Obscura at Paradise Rock Club, Boston, MA.
Opening Act: Essex Green.

A camera obscura is an optical device in which light shining through a small hole into a darkened space displays an inverted image of the scene outside as best seen in the work of Abelard Morell. Camera Obscura is also the name of one of my favorite new bands who hail from Glasgow, Scotland. Their music is characterized by ethereal female vocals reminiscent of The Sundays and the cranberries mixed with a sound similar to the late 50’s/early 60’s doo-wop and Phil Spector Wall of Sound era. The comparisons are only minimally valid, however, as Camera Obscura’s sound is unique and refreshing. They played in Boston this past weekend and Susan & I were there to hear them.

The Essex Green from Brooklyn opened the show. They are a band with three men and two women, all of whom are instrumentalists (I love our equitable times). They play high-energy pop (or neo-psychedelic pop as the website describes it) and are reminiscent of, well … Camera Obscura. Keyboardist Sasha Bell and guitarist Chris Ziter trade off on vocals. Drummer Tim Barnes looks like a stereotypical stoner and plays the skins like Animal from The Muppet Show. From our seats at stage left we had a good view of the slender female bassist who apparently is not an official member of the band since there is no mention of her at the website. They played a surprisingly long set for an opening act, 45 minutes. They sound pretty good and I think it will be worthwhile to check out their new album The Cannibal Sea.

After a break, Camera Obscura came out to play led by two women in fine 50’s-style frocks, lead vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter Tracyanne Campbell in rust orange and keyboardist/vocalist Carey Lande in a lovely lime green dress (I wonder if they were secretly showing their support for Rangers and Celtic respectively). The men who were not as well dressed include Kenny McKeeve on guitar, Lee Thomson on drums, and most impressively Nigel Baillie, a jack-of-all-trades who played a variety of percussion (including one song where he enthusiastically bashed one of Thomson’s cymbals) and the trumpet that adds the texture of many of their best songs. As for the opener we had the best view of the bassist Gavin Dunbar who looked much older than his band mates.

Highlights of the show include a clap-along to “I Need All the Friends I Can Get” in which the Boston audience showed their rythmic endurance. Leaky HVAC tubing caused a stream of water to fall on the bassist’s spot, first Essex Green’s female bassist and then on the head of Gavin. He was forced to play precariously perched on the edge of the stage until a staffer came to wipe up the puddle. Not a good show for the Paradise and that’s the type of thing that will keep bands from returning. When a front row spectator shouted out requests for specific songs, Tracyanne retorted that they were being “bossy.” It was later revealed that the bossy people were from New York. The audience were informed that the band plays requests in exchange for whisky and although it was a joke one fan took them up on the offer.

A nice thing about seeing a new band play is that they’re likely to play all you favorite songs whether you shout ’em out or not. Camera Obscura did not disappoint playing my favorites “Come Back Margaret,” “Country Mile,” “If Looks Could Kill,” “Lloyd, I’m Ready to be Heartbroken,” and “Teenager.” They finished their encore with “Razzle Dazzle Rose” which is the perfect mix of melody and energy to complete the show. After the surprisingly long opening act, Camera Obscura’s main set was surprisingly short, just over an hour including the encore. On the other hand we were tired old fogeys and it was good to still be able to catch the T home, so we didn’t complain.

Concert Review: Marcia Ball

Jan. 25, 2007 — Marcia Ball at the Regattabar, Cambridge, MA.

At the invitation of Susan’s friend Donna, we met up with a large group at the Regattabar in Harvard Square’s posh Charles Hotel for a concert by Marcia Ball and her band. Self-described as honky tonk, Ball plays a mix of electric blues, cajun, and a lot of stuff that actually sounds like early rock & roll along the lines of Fats Domino, Buddy Holly, and Bill Haley. Each song left a lot of time for improvisation and solos by the guitarist, saxophonist, and Ball herself on piano. A highlight of the show was Marcia Balls’s performance of Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927”.

The Regattabar is an odd venue with high ceilings around the edge of the room and the performance space all but shoved in a corner under a low ceiling. We owe much praise to Donna for getting us excellent front row seats, but it is still a bit odd watching a show in this cavelike environment, albeit it is not as clausterphobic as Club Passim.

Susan and I felt the guitarist bore a stunning resemblance to our friend Mike G. Not just that he was a skinny guy with glasses, but als that the guitarist seemed to stand and have mannerisms in the way of Mike G. When we found out the guitarist was also named Mike we knew we couldn’t be fooled anymore by his simple disguise of a soul patch.

All in all it was a fun and entertaining show. The best part for me though was to see Donna so thouroughly enjoying herself, snapping her fingers, and singing along.