Jun 6, 2021Liked by Heather Johnson, Opera Daily

A film I recently saw online at the Korean Film Festival 2021, "The Pregnant Tree and the Goblin", caused the story of Giacomo Puccini's "Madama Butterfly", and the exquisite "Scuoti quella fronda di ciliegio . . . vieni ad adornar" ("Flower Duet"), to land differently with me this time.

The film began as a documentary about an elderly "comfort woman", a former prostitute, who had catered to servicemen at a defunct U.S. Army base in Korea (https://watch.eventive.org/kffdc2021/play/606b62f235ccef007635cf1d). It then evolved into a combination ghost story and horror story, making it a fitting metaphor for a tale about such survivors who lived in the shadows of a modernizing Korea.

There are 115 years between the 1904 premiere of "Madama Butterfly" and the 2019 film by directors Kim Dong-ryon and Park Kyoung-tae. Yet, the female protagonists in these two artworks -  the comfort woman for American soldiers, and the naïf who married a U.S. Navy lieutenant - both captured the ambivalence, dependence, desperation, hope and disillusionment of their respective homelands, as Korea and Japan collided with an America boldly extending its military power into Asia.*

When my focus is purely on the music, "Madama Butterfly" and "La Boheme" are among the most beautiful operas I've ever heard. Could it be that Puccini felt the only way to make such tragic love stories bearable was to envelop them in spectacular music?

The literary antecedents of the opera are interesting. According to Wikipedia:  "Madame Butterfly" (1898) by John Luther Long, which in turn was based on stories told to Long by his sister Jennie Correll and on the semi-autobiographical 1887 French novel "Madame Chrysanthème" by Pierre Loti. Long's version was dramatized by David Belasco as the one-act play "Madame Butterfly: A Tragedy of Japan," which, after premiering in New York in 1900, moved to London, where Puccini saw it in the summer of that year.**

I certainly enjoyed listening to the different versions of "The Flower Duet", but Heather Johnson, are you holding out on us? I hope to hear or see your performance of the same someday!🤩. For the record, I especially loved:

Montserrat Caballé and Shirley Verrett


Angela Gheorghiu and Enkelejda Shkosa


These artists really imbued the duet with emotion and drama as Cio-Cio San's excitement, at the return to Japan of her husband, Lt. Pinkerton, drew her skeptical maid Suzuki and their son into her over-the-top exuberance. Sadly, we know "she's about to go through some things".

Not Exactly Musical Notes:

"On July 8, 1853, American Commodore Matthew Perry led his four ships into the harbor at Tokyo Bay, seeking to re-establish for the first time in over 200 years regular trade and discourse between Japan and the western world. (https://history.state.gov/milestones/1830-1860/opening-to-japan)

"Causes of the Korean War (https://www.historycrunch.com/causes-of-the-korean-war.html#/)

"The Literary Origins of the Opera" https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madama_Butterfly

And for no good operatic reason . . .here's the classic "Joy and Pain" by Frankie Beverly and Maze (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lQhZSyXUUX8) 😎

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I definitely love to focus on the positive but it's hard to dispute that tragedy is more emotionally intense, therefore the music is more intense and usually more memorable! If you look at comic opera - it tends to be more technically intense while tragic opera are more emotionally intense. There are definitely exceptions but your comment made me think a bit more about this!

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Jun 11, 2021Liked by Opera Daily

How nice to get your follow-up comment, Heather, knowing how busy you are. As to your astute observations, emotional intensity is probably the reason our daily diet of news is filled to overflowing with disasters, catastrophes and, in the generic sense, man's inhumanity toward man. We can't look away from tragedy. Once it has touched us, though we may learn to live with it, it's impossible to forget. I suppose bad experiences, bad news and tragic opera plots help us to recognize danger or harm, and how to avoid the choices and circumstances which could lead to them.

Your comment about the technical intensity of comic opera (or "buffa", the term learned from Opera Daily) has me rethinking the complexity of "The Barber of Seville" and "Der Rosenkavalier". The composer and librettist had to think not only about the music, but also about how to make us laugh at the characters and, through them, at ourselves. I'll keep your distinction in mind as I gain more exposure to this genre.👍💖

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Again, OperaLover2 you have incredible observations! I always look forward to your responses. Madama Butterly is in my top 5 operas, if not my favorite. To me it is the saddest of all operas because we all know from the downbeat there is no possible way for it to end happy. There is some of the most masterful writing by Puccini in Butterfly as well. The moment when Sharpless is reading her Pinkerton's letter and says to her roughly translated "what you say if I told you he would return no more" and you feel Cio Cio San's heart stop in the music. He writes her breathless reaction like she can't get the words out which leads to the most glorious music of the opera when she reveals her son.

I remember the first time I did this opera I sang the very important role of the "Cousin". If you blinked you missed my one line! After the performance my father was in tears thinking about this time stationed in Japan while in the navy and how often he saw stories similar to this in the 1950s. This opera affects people in so many different ways but what a heartbreaking and in so many ways powerful story. If you think of it, in the end Cio Cio San controls everything. She will leave this world and her son in her own way, rather dying than parting with her son and regaining her "honor".

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Jun 28, 2021Liked by Opera Daily

Thank you for your lovely reflections, Mme. Heather. I'm so glad you've enjoyed my two cents' worth. I am sure you and Michele have opera fans with a lot of expert knowledge and experience in The Listening Club. For me though, Opera Daily has given me my opera wings, and permission to enter your world. When I watch "Madama Butterfly" online, I'll be focusing on Puccini's music between Sharpless reading Pinkerton's letter, and the moment Cio-Cio San reveals her son. 🎶

I can only imagine your Dad's pride at seeing you perform, whether it was just one line, or whether it was you starring as Cio-Cio San. I was touched by your description of his eyes welling up with tears when watching the opera. When I first saw "Madame Butterfly" many years ago, I confess, my understanding was only at the polite applause level. I will leave the next live performance with a deeper appreciation of the parts that make up the glorious whole.🤸‍♀️

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