A Butterfly with Longevity

The space needle was nestled against the full moon on the opening night of Butterfly

I’ve written a few translations for operas, and one of the lyrics I am most proud of is in Alfred’s drinking song, from Johann Strauss, Jr.’s Die Fledermaus.

Love is like a butterfly,
Lasts at most but half a year.
But tomorrow I could die.
Kiss me while I’m here!

After I wrote that, I started to wonder if a butterfly really could last half a year, so I looked it up. Most of them die off pretty quickly, but some Monarchs make the half-year mark. That’s a long time for an insect.

Years later, while listening to Seattle Opera’s Madama Butterfly, I thought about the lifespan of Butterfly interpreters. The role is just so difficult. And there’s really no point in taking it on if you’re not going to immerse yourself in the character’s journey from youth and hope to despair and premature death.

One of my friends works behind the scenes at Seattle Opera. (I had opening night tickets this year.) Not having seen Madama Butterfly himself, my friend asked me what I thought. When I fell all over myself telling him how great it was, he seemed surprised. “The chorus boys have been pretty catty,” he said.

I wasn’t surprised to hear that. My own expectations for Patricia Racette had been low. All Puccini is ear-candy, of course, but whenever I hear someone hyped as the “foremost Puccini interpreter,” I’m skeptical. Hmm, I think, how long has she been at it? Not too many voices can specialize in that repertoire and continue to sound fresh for years on end. When I lived in New York, I heard a lot of wobbly Puccini interpreters at the Met. One major exception: Mirella Freni. She was 55 when I saw her in Manon Lescaut, and she looked and sounded 30, which is a prime age for a singer.

When Racette first opened her mouth, I wondered if my skepticism had been well-founded. Her pitch was imprecise in her floating high notes, mostly because of her vibrato. The rest of the cast was incredible in every respect, so I sighed and settled in for another flawed Butterfly. It’s a relentlessly sad opera in any case. Even without reading the synopsis, you know right away that it’s all going to end badly.

However, something surprising happened. She got better, a lot better. Perhaps she’d been nervous at the start—after all, 8,000 people were watching the broadcast live at Key Arena. By the end, I had even been won over by her voice. The part requires amazing stamina—both vocally and emotionally—and if she’d truly been on the outs vocally, she’d never have acquitted herself like that. By the end I could feel my eyes stinging with tears. When I heard my fellow-season-ticket-holder friend sob, I kind of lost the mood (there’s something a little comic about someone else sobbing in that context), but by the end I had tears streaming down my cheeks, too.

My boyfriend Jeff attended with his aunt the following Wednesday. Afterwards, I said, “Wasn’t that great?!”

“It was the saddest thing I have ever seen,” he replied. “But good, in a masochistic way.”

“What about her singing?” I asked.

“She sounded great to me,” he said. “No pitch issues I was aware of.” Jeff is a classical guitarist and has one of the best ears I know of.

It’s been easy for me as a voice teacher to hear flaws and think I know the solution, but time has taught me that there is so much that can rattle a singer—physical fatigue, emotional stress, body changes, small changes in the vocal folds … Sheer vocal technique is not always enough. And perfection is not what your audience is looking for. They want to be entertained; they will forgive you a lot if you keep them interested. Beautiful sounds with no emotional content become boring in about five minutes. What is amazing about the truly successful opera divas—the ones who travel the world ten months of the year playing the leading Verdi, Puccini, Mozart heroines—is that they are able to do it night after night, that they take enough pride in themselves and respect their audiences enough that they never just call it in.

So back to the chorus boys. Of course they were disdainful. They haven’t experienced this singer from the audience. They’re hearing her from backstage in snippets. Many are young–well, not that young–most have never had to carry an entire opera themselves through a run, and here’s this spinto soprano who is renowned for her acting. What self-respecting fledgling opera singers wouldn’t turn up their noses? Ah well, a cat can look at a king. They’ll learn.

But I say, Bravo Patricia. I was totally sick of that opera, but you made it come alive again!

This video isn’t taken from the performance I saw, but here is Mirella Freni at about that same time, amazing as always:

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One Response to A Butterfly with Longevity

  1. Dennis says:

    Great blog entry. I love your observations. It is interesting to juggle technique, talent and passion. All three have to blend harmoniously for a performer in order to be in the moment, especially for an opera singer. many performers have two of the three, but it is special when you get to sit in the audience and watch a performer who is blessed with all three.

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