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Blog entries posted during September 2012

Don Giovanni, the Unknowable (by James Conlon)

“Donna folle! indarno gridi, Chi son io tu non saprai!”
(Crazed woman!, you scream in vain; who I am, you will never know!”)

Writing on the subject of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s and Lorenzo Da Ponte’s Don Giovanni is easy, because the subject is vast and fascinating. It is also unnecessary. Primarily, the music speaks for itself. Secondarily, so much has been written and said about it, that it is virtually impossible to avoid redundancy. Thirdly, almost any position the writer might take on the subject, including all the thoughts set forth in this article, can immediately be challenged and dismissed by an infinite number of equally valid or invalid viewpoints.

This holds equally true for performing the opera. Despite routine claims of innovation and fresh “insight,” performances that actually bring something new to this work are the exception, not the rule. But fortunately, the genius of the work is such that it trumps any attempt to “illuminate” its inner workings. Its substance is fully present in any competent performance. The work is unfathomable in its depths, uncontainable in its breadth, and inexhaustible in its essence.

A saying, often attributed to Artur Schnabel, holds that “A masterpiece is a work that is better than any of its possible performances.” That statement, which can make one’s head spin in its implications, unquestionably can apply to Don Giovanni. Might that partially explain why one of the greatest operas ever written lends itself, paradoxically, to more productions that fail dismally than other works of lesser quality?

Or could it be the constant enticement to artists to attempt to “say” something special or unique, to have a “take” on its meaning all one’s own? Or perhaps to apply some reductionist interpretation that decides for the public how it should think and feel, and react? Have too many tried too hard? Could it be that simply performing and not interpreting the work (however unfashionable that notion might be at this moment in history) is to render to it the greatest service possible?

The story seems to have originated with a play attributed to the Spanish monk Tirso de Molina, who curiously never acknowledged his authorship. It was entitled El Burlador de Sevilla y Convidado de Piedra (“The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest”). Don Juan, as it came to be known, would have many new settings—by certain counts over 1,720 in the centuries following its creation—mostly in France in the 17th century and most notably by Moliére. Da Ponte knew and borrowed from an operatic version called Don Juan Tenorio—referred to as a dramma giocoso (jocular or playful drama), the ambiguous appellation retained by Mozart and Da Ponte—with a libretto by one Giovanni Bertati. By the end of the 18th century the subject of Don Juan seemed to be exhausting itself when Mozart and Da Ponte alighted on it. Had it not been for them, the story might have disappeared altogether. But they produced a work of transcendent genius, transformed the story of Don Juan and, whether intentionally or not, gave birth to Don Giovanni, a modern myth.

The “new” Don Giovanni captured the imagination of the some of the greatest writers of the next two centuries. The list is long, but its most prominent exponents were Lord Byron, Alexander Pushkin, E.T.A. Hoffmann and Søren Kierkegaard at first, to be followed later by Charles Baudelaire, George Bernard Shaw and Albert Camus. When they wrote about Don Giovanni, it was no longer about a literary character, but Mozart’s Don. Through his music and dramatic genius, the protagonist was no longer just a vulgar profligate of bestial sensuality, but an enigmatic force of nature who continues to fascinate us into the present day.

With his new status of myth, each age has seen him through its particular lens. As the 19th century gradually lost interest in sin and salvation and reshaped itself, it saw him as a reflection of its own yearnings and search thirst for knowledge. Goethe’s Faust had his quest, it was said, and Don Giovanni his conquest. He was now an “antihero” who, through the excesses of his prodigious strivings, drove himself to self-destruction. He became, in the eyes of others, a melancholy hero who represents a romanticized visionary, in search of an unattainable ideal.

In the 20th century he was to undergo a radically different evaluation under the microscope of Freudian and Jungian psychoanalysis. The assessment of a flawed, but almost superhuman defiant hero gave way to a psychiatric outpatient, personifying every form of neurosis and pathology imaginable.

And so on. Each age, including our own, sees in him and his story a reflection of its own worldview. This is why, to return to my earlier statement, so many productions fail. The impulse to reduce the myth to specifics and/or a demonstration of relevance to a contemporary world actually impoverishes the richness of its mythic proportions. All approaches are simultaneously right and wrong, fruitful and sterile, expanding and limiting. The whole is greater than the parts, and by reducing it to an “interpretation” we, perforce, limit its infinite scope.

Although Mozart’s framework for this drama resides in the supernatural and in the rendering of divine justice it should be understood that the abundant freedom with which he and Da Ponte create this theatrical drama has less to do with religious dogma than the infinite variety of the human experience. Don Giovanni and the Commendatore provide the pillars which hold up the edifice that houses all of the other characters. Neither is fully human nor pure incarnation of abstract principles. They have a human life but are simultaneously symbols, manifestations of powerful forces, polar antagonists. That the latter is, if not the arbiter, at least the messenger for a divine judge is an easy conclusion to reach.

But, who is the real Don Giovanni? Even the birth of his story, whose author has never been confirmed, is still mysterious. Kierkegaard defined him as a theoretical construction that never rises above the category of “pure” sensuousness. In this view, Don Juan never existed nor can he, in reality, do so. Taken literally, his story seems almost ludicrous in its dimensions, unless he is seen as a force of nature rather than a real human being. His raison d’être is to arouse sexuality in everyone with whom he comes into contact, thus subverting society. To try to explain why he does so is, in a way, pointless: he simply does so.

“Motiveless malignancy,” Coleridge’s famous description of Iago’s character, leaves the “why” unanswered, and is a potent point of departure for the enduring mythical proportions of Don Giovanni. We meet both the Don and the Commendatore on their last day because, in a peculiar way, their past histories are not important (however fascinating and titillating the former’s might be). On that last day, they both meet their terrestrial deaths, and fulfill their function in the otherworldly drama of defiance and retribution. Divine justice is meted out.

Don Giovanni has no core to his personality. Mozart purposely deprives him of a self-revelatory or confessional aria. Unlike Verdi’s Iago, who explains himself in the Credo, the Don never reveals anything. His three solo numbers are one-dimensional extensions of his principal lusts: wine (the drinking song), women (the serenade) and violence (as he prepares to beat Masetto).

All the other characters are fully human. Tomes are written, justifiably, discussing the three women. They have produced a rich and ever developing literature on their own. These fascinatingly diverse characters, Anna and Elvira (the aristocrats), and Zerlina (the peasant), are bound together on this fatal day and have one important experience in common: they have all had their erotic impulses awakened, magnified and irrevocably changed by their encounter with this mythical seducer. One assumes that the lives of all of the 2065 women inscribed in Leporello’s catalog (whose list includes Donna Elvira) have been similarly impacted. Each woman’s character develops in the course of events, and each is allotted arias in both acts to chart that growth. At the end of the opera, the servant-class men, Leporello and Masetto, in their very practical way, will continue on seamlessly with their lives. Don Ottavio, the aristocrat, will as well, although Don Giovanni has struck closer to home for him, and one wonders if his marriage to Donna Anna will actually materialize. But the women’s lives are irrevocably changed; whether for better or for worse is a question that is left up in the air.

Together they all try, and fail, to retaliate against the Don. Retribution is the province of the divine. “Vengeance is mine saith the Lord,” we are told in both the Old and New Testaments, and so it is for our “hero.” Greeks of antiquity were punished by the gods, not because they were necessarily bad, but because their actions represented defiance to those gods. The sin of Adam has been variously interpreted, but is essentially that of disobedience. On the day portrayed in the opera, the Don, who has seemingly been allowed to ride herd on society through his legion sexual misdeeds, has become a murderer, and there, it seems, a line has been crossed.

Mozart’s Don Giovanni has been, is, and will be seen as all things to all people: seducer, iconoclast, devil, pioneer, agent of atheism, impiety and sacrilege, defender of Rationalism, mentally deranged psychopath. The list could be endless. Through Mozart’s masterpiece, he came a long way from the burlesque libertine of the original and will have eternal life in the minds and imaginations of opera lovers. Who he is, is unknowable, and what he represents a matter of perpetual disagreement. And so it should be. He has always given us the slip, and always will. He himself told us so while escaping from Donna Anna in his opening line of the opera, uttering words as prophetic as they are emblematic:

 “Chi son io tu non saprai!”

James Conlon is the Richard Seaver Music Director of LA Opera.







It's all fun and opera games...more Community Educators Training

LA Opera Community Educator Training

Every day, I reaffirm how strange life really is. Take my first volunteering session. I flew into a diva rage, flung M&M packs everywhere, slammed Cio-Cio San, pranced around the room like a bird, declared that I had stabbed someone, morphed into Cinderella's step-sister, and then, for all of that, got community service hours. And I'll admit: I had the time of my life. So, it goes without saying that I returned for the second volunteering session.

My fellow Opera Campers weren't there this time, but Mariana Silva, the Education Programs Assistant, brought in a whole bunch of teenaged friends. Carmen Recker thanked all of us for being there and briefed us on what would happen that night. In the background, we could hear some singers rehearsing in another room, which was getting me really excited.

I soon diverted my attention from the voices, though, because the presentations were starting. The first one was Sean Mulstein's about one of my favorite operas, Tosca. It was created for in-school Opera Clubs. He was enthusiastic and well-paced. He talked a little about Tosca, and then moved onto the activity: Tosca jeopardy. He divided us into three teams: Team Tosca, Team Mario, and Team Scarpia. For every question, each team would send a representative up to the front. If their teams knew the answer, the representatives would raise their hands. It sounds relatively docile, but the intensity skyrocketed. We were dashing back and forth to communicate, not-so-discreetly whispering answers. The highlight was the Daily Double. The slide pronounced, “Name this aria.” As he hit Play, we braced ourselves for the gloomy blue chords of “E Lucevan le Stelle or the crisp notes of “Recondita Armonia.” Then, without warning, Carly Rae Jepsen bleated out of the speakers, “Hey, I just met you, And this is crazy, But here's my number, So call me, maybe?” I was simultaneously thoroughly confused and laughing my heart out. Needless to say, we all loved the activity. It was interactive, and the questions were challenging—well, aside from “Name this aria.”

We then moved on to the seedier world of Don Giovanni, as presented to us by Stephanie Wilson. The presentation is for eighth graders, and she spoke in a very direct, natural, candid manner. As for the activity, it was hilarious. Again, we got into groups, and each group was assigned a character. Our task was to write messages to any characters we wanted to. (We can text Don Giovanni! We can Facebook message Donna Elvira! Who says opera is stuffy and pretentious?) My group was poor Donna Anna. After briefly staring at the blank page, we composed an e-mail regarding funereal arrangements for Il Commendatore. After some more thought, we wrote a Facebook message directed to the other women, warning them to stay away from Don Giovanni—apparently because he's dangerous, but actually because he's ours. Lastly, we wrote a tweet to the big cheese himself, and it went like this: “@Don Giovanni: You're a jerk. #JustKidding #TiAmo.” All done with our messages, we read them out loud. 

For me, though, the activity didn't end there. It got me thinking about what nasty things I would say if I could text opera villains. And that, I think, is why the game was so effective. It made me continue thinking. (But seriously. Somebody give me Pinkerton's number.)

After the Don Giovanni presentation, David Yaroslavsky stepped up to deliver his presentation about The Flying Dutchman, intended for tenth graders. He was clear and casual as he introduced the opera and the activity. His game worked like this: there was a basket filled with slips of paper. Each of the slips had a word or phrase related to the opera, like “Seven years,” “German,” and even “Pirates of the Caribbean.” We would get into three groups. The groups would take turns sending up a person, who would draw out a slip and describe the word or phrase on it. Once his or her group guessed the word or phrase correctly, he or she would draw another slip. This would keep going until time ran out. Each slip the group had gotten through would count as a point. The group with the most points would win. The first round went on until we ran out of slips. Then, Mr. Yaroslavsky tossed all of the slips back in and began Round 2. The rules for Round 2, he explained, would be different. When describing what was on the slips, we could only use one word. Well, we started getting very confused, using vague hand gestures and glancing around helplessly. Some of us were really clever, though. One person up front glanced at the slip and called out “Heavy!” Miraculously, a group member immediately answered “Leitmotif!” Just when we thought we were getting good at it, though, Round 3 started. And in Round 3, no words were allowed. At all. We flailed our arms and twisted our faces into various expressions, going crazy trying to make ourselves understood. One of the funniest moments was when someone read the slip and then pointed at Ray Busmann, one of the educators. We started rapid-fire guessing, but every single answer received a shaking head. In despair, someone called out, “Johnny Depp?” Finally, another person got the correct answer: German. Mr. Busmann, though, was too elated to hear. “Who said Johnny Depp?” he gloated. “Who said Johnny Depp?!”

Community Educator Training

Since we had gotten through three presentations, it was time to take a break. After that, it was back to work with Mr. Busmann's presentation on Don Giovanni. Its target audience was tenth grade. He was absolutely hilarious—confident, assured, and humorously raw. He chose several of us to be Don Giovanni characters and proceeded with his Jerry Springer-style “talk show.” First, he gave a dramatic speech about the lives and loves of men and women. Then, he called the characters up one by one, playing corresponding music as they sat down. As the audience, we got to cheer or boo as he put them through merciless questioning. “Would you ever be faithful to one woman forever?” he asked our Don Giovanni at one point. Giovanni replied with a grin, “If there were only one fish left in the sea.” Of course, we howled with studio laughter. At last, with only two minutes left, Mr. Busmann thanked his interviewees and delivered his closing speech. He pontificated once more about the sorry romances of mortals and said goodbye to the audience.

The whole thing was so funny that it's impossible to forget, but there are several other elements that I think made the presentation so effective. It engaged the audience the whole time, since we got to react to everything that happened. Also, Mr. Busmann chose marvelous selections from Don Giovanni to introduce the characters, and as the participants strode up to their seats, they started moving to the melody. They had gotten inside the music and the music had gotten inside them.

The next activity was on Madame Butterfly. It was created by Eduardo Mollinedo-Pinon, and the target audience was sixth grade. After speaking for a minute or so, he gave us our imaginary scenario: we had to explain a certain Madame Butterfly character to a friend via messaging. The message would be in haiku format, with five syllables in the first and third lines and seven syllables in the second. He divided us into small groups and assigned each group a character. Our group got Butterfly, and the others got either Pinkerton or his American wife, Kate. Mr. Mollinedo-Pinon's assignment seemed pretty simple, since there were only three lines. But that was exactly the problem. How to summarize that huge, complex story in only seventeen syllables? We stared at the paper for a long time. Eventually, we managed the task of reduction, conceiving a very depressing poem. We all read our finished haikus out loud. I really didn't expect that wide variety of style, content, and word choice—some poems were casual and lighthearted; others, like ours, were just tragic. I didn't realize how open the project really is. I think it'll work wonderfully with sixth graders.

Like the previous volunteering night, this night closed with a Cinderella activity. This one, though, was created by Rachel Staples for AP level 12th graders. And this one just happened to be a dating game. Before the main activity began, she talked a little about Cinderella, her speaking both candid and matter-of-fact. Then, she asked the men to imagine that they were the prince of Los Angeles—what kind of girl would they take to prom? She turned to the ladies and asked us what traits we would like in a man. When we finished this exercise, she picked one of us volunteers to be Prince Ramiro, and selected three more of us, including me, to be Cinderella and her stepsisters. Without our Prince hearing, we sorted out who would be which character. Prince Ramiro, back turned and oblivious to our identities, began questioning us: he asked about matters such as what we'd do with large sums of money and how we would treat a beggar. Finally, at the end, he was asked to guess which one of us was Cinderella. Yes—it was me.

And thus ended my beautifully strange day. Echoing Cinderella, I couldn't stay at the LA Opera palace for long—I had to get home before midnight. And echoing Mario Cavaradossi, I could also say this: “E non ho amato mai tanto la vita!”

Why We Sing - LA Opera and City of Hope

Ashley Faatoalia at City of Hope

I've been fortunate enough to sing at several of the LA Opera's City of Hope concerts. While it's always an honor to participate as an artist, I have never received the response I did yesterday afternoon. 

Following the concert, I stayed outside the auditorium with my fellow artists to greet our audience. After several exchanges with people asking for photos, thanking us for coming, and asking about the company, I headed inside for a few photos with the ensemble. Just as I walked away, a lady approached me with tears in her eyes. She told me that she was a cancer patient receiving treatment on campus. She told me that things had not been easy, and that she almost didn't come to the concert. Then she took my hands and thanked me for "making time stop for a little while" and taking her mind off her illness. We hugged and I gave her my best wishes for recovery. 

Ashley Faatoalia at City of Hope

I don't share this often, but my father passed away in 2006 after a two year fight with pancreatic cancer. Whenever people ask who my heroes are, I always list him because he lived and fought against his disease for two years after the Doctors told him he'd be gone in a matter of weeks. I was raised by my mom, and my father and I didn't always have the closest relationship, but his illness brought us together in a strange way. I watched him have good days as well as awful ones. Even when he was at his worst, he found ways to take his mind off things (usually through laughter or music). One of my last memories with him is from my senior recital at Chapman University. He was clearly ill, the cancer was spreading, and he was not himself. In spite of all this he came and shared one of the most important musical events of my life with me and waited afterwards to hug me and tell me that I had done well. I cherish that moment. 

When this lady spoke to me so sincerely and openly, it touched me in a profound way and brought back memories of my dad. I feel proud to be a part of the Education and Commuity Programs department and the work that we do and blessed for the ability to change someone's day and make it a little brighter. 

Opera for Educators in one word: Enthralling

 If I had to sum up what Opera for Educators was like in one word, it would be “enthralling.”

The 2012-13 season at LA Opera has it all, intrigue, political upheaval, sex, murder, pirates, black curses, eternal and tragic love and, of course the occasional annoying step-sister or two. This season is filled with classics, celebrating Verdi and Wagner’s 200th birthday; throw in a little Rossini here and little Mozart there, and you have a sensational season.

Michael Hackett and Mitchell Morris

Two weeks ago we held our season’s first Opera for Educators class focused on our first production of the season, Verdi’s The Two Foscari. I had an early start to the day coming in around 7 in the morning to set up tech for our speakers. Jill Burnham, our wonderful Education Manager, had Dr. Michael Hackett, chair of the Theater department at UCLA, Dr. Mitchell Morris (always a crowd favorite), professor of musicology at UCLA and the incomparable Maestro James Conlon come to speak to our educators!

As a college student, it just doesn’t get any better than this: an entire day devoted entirely to the study of one opera from experts in the field! Dr. Hackett gave an introduction to the opera, its setting, its direction, its roots in Byron’s play, and how the music reflected the libretto. After Dr. Hackett, Dr. Morris introduced Verdi in the realm of the Bel Canto conventions, as Verdi was the last composer of this style. Dr. Morris has an incredible ability to distill the essence of his talks into vocabulary that is accessible to people of all musical or non-musical backgrounds. His vibrant personality and clever humor is always a hit with the crowd. It’s always a treat to listen to him. He is an extremely generous speaker and one who shares his passion eagerly. His incredible insight into opera is all the more enriching because he is a professor of musicology. Analyzing the music, the melody, harmony, the texture of the orchestration or how the rhythm of an aria reflects a vital aspect of the character is getting to the meat of it. Connecting the dots between the music and the drama makes the picture all the more vivid.

Now, by the time Dr. Morris began his lecture, I saw Maestro Conlon silently walk into the room and take a chair in the back to listen. It is quite humbling to see masters in their respective fields become students, if only for an hour or so, and open their hearts and minds to a fellow colleague. Following Dr. Morris, Maestro Conlon came up to the podium to speak about conducting The Two Foscari. I sat next to him barely comprehending the reality unfolding in front of me. He, like Maestro Plácido Domingo, is a monumental figure in the music world! Music directing the fourth largest opera company in the nation is no easy task and here stood next to me that very man. I could barely contain my excitement. I sat there mesmerized for the hour and a half he spoke. I, along with the hundred or so in the room, hung on his every word. He spoke zealously about the importance of arts education and opera in children’s lives and it was like a religious experience for some of us, I’m sure.

“I was once blind, but now I see,” has never meant something until now.

James Conlon at Opera for Educators meeting

He spoke from his heart and to hear so great a man share the same thoughts and feelings about a subject so near to everyone’s hearts, was a powerful experience.

To top it off, each Opera for Educators class usually includes a mini-recital usually given by one or more artists! The wonderful Christopher Allen, Assistant Conductor at LA Opera accompanied baritone Randall Gremillion from LA Opera's Chorus with excerpts from Verdi’s Rigoletto among other pieces.

Every time there is an Opera for Educators class, I come out with a renewed and reinvigorated spirit. I am reminded of why I am pursuing music, why I work at LA Opera and why we’re all here. LA Opera’s purpose is simple: to bring the highest quality productions to everyone. In this way, I believe LA Opera is unique in its continuous and active involvement with the members its large and dynamic community.

Opera for Educators

As Maria Callas once put it, “an opera begins long before the curtain goes up and ends long after it has come down. It starts in my imagination, it becomes my life, and it stays part of my life long after I've left the opera house.”

Our second Opera for Educators class on Don Giovanni is this Saturday, September 8th, and we still have space available! Register online by clicking HERE, or we will be taking walk-up registration on Saturday.

I hope to see you there!

LA Opera Launches New Season with Ignite!

LA Opera opened its 2012/13 Season on September 15 with the Company Premiere of Giuseppe Verdi's The Two Foscari, starring General Director Plácido Domingo (performing his 140th role and celebrating his 45th season in Los Angeles) and conducted by Music Director James Conlon. The evening was generously underwritten for the eleventh year by the Milan Panic Family with special production support from Barbara Augusta Teichert. Rolex continued their corporate commitment to LA Opera as the 2012/2013 Season Opening Sponsor and Official Timepiece of LA Opera.

Taking a cue from the fire breather who appears in the opera’s carnival scene, the Company celebrated the launch of the new season with a gala dubbed Ignite!, created by Gala Chair Jill Baldauf and Honorary Chair Mary Hayley, which raised more than $1.5 million for the Company

After arrivals on the red carpet, the festivities began with a cocktail reception and seated dinner for 320 guests on the Music Center Plaza. Guests were welcomed into a red- and orange-draped outdoor environment designed by Special Occasions Event Planning, with flame-shaped floral arrangements by Flaming Flower Productions. Wines were provided courtesy of Laetitia, LA Opera's still wine sponsor.

All audience members attending the performance were greeted at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion with complimentary champagne courtesy of the Henry Wine Group, LA Opera’s sparkling wine sponsor.

After the performance, the Ignite! theme continued with an after-party for 430 guests featuring fire dancers from Zen Arts, fire pits, a s’more station, and dancing on the Music Center Plaza. Specialty cocktails, incorporating juice donated by POM Wonderful and presented by servers in flame-colored tutus, were created by Crave Cocktail Catering and Shotgun Promotions, and Urth Caffé provided a specialty coffee bar. The lighting was designed by Chris Werner Design, and music was provided by Wayne Foster Entertainment. Gift bags were provided by Bloomingdale's and designer Sue Wong.

The evening was hosted by Plácido Domingo, who welcomed Stana Katic, the star of ABC’s Castle, as the evening’s Honorary Gala Chair for ARIA, LA Opera’s group for young professionals. Other guests included Academy Award-winner Christoph Waltz, actress Anna Gunn of AMC’s Breaking Bad and fashion designer Sue Wong. Gala guests included many of LA Opera’s most dedicated supporters, including Board Chairman Marc I. Stern and his wife Eva Stern, Chairman of the Executive Committee Carol Henry and her husband Vice Chairman Warner Henry, production underwriter Milan Panic, Barbara Augusta Teichert, Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, Marilyn Ziering, Alfred and Claude Mann, Ambassador Frank and Kathy Baxter, Aubrey and Joyce Chernick, Em Green, Kenneth and Beth Karmin, Susan Disney Lord and Scott R. Lord, Nancy and Barry Sanders, Catherine and Paul Tosetti, Christopher V. Walker, Esther and Abe Zarem, and Diane and Michael Ziering.

The Two Foscari: Fire Breather

A lot of attention has been given to the fire breather effect in our new production of The Two Foscari.

The fire breather, an experienced professional, enters the stage with a lit self-extinguishing torch. On a pre-determined musical cue he fills his mouth with liquid, then blows the liquid through the flame of the torch. 

The Two Foscari Fire Breather

The size of the fire ball is determined by the quantity of  liquid the fire breather expels. 

The Two Foscari Fire Breather

Development and testing of this effect have been taking place for months here at the LA Opera. LA Opera works closely with the Los Angeles Fire Department and acquires special permits for all open-flame effects like this. Extensive time was invested at the costume shop to optimize the fire breather’s costume.

The Two Foscari Fire Breather

At the conclusion of the effect the fire breather extinguishes the torch by releasing the “dead-man” switch on the handle of the torch. He then exits the stage, hands the torch to a union prop person and rinses his mouth. 

Mary Jane Phillips: The Miracle of Butterfly

Today, when Giacomo Puccini’s operas are popular as never before, it is difficult to imagine a time when he was a failure, yet he struggled for nearly ten start-up years before he could score a solid success. In that period he often fell into depression. He once seriously considered leaving Italy for South America, where he could earn a living as a music teacher. In another low moment he talked of going back to his old job as an organist in village churches. A “third-rate organist,” he wryly described himself.

In the mid-1800s his first opera, Le Villi, won praise from critics and survived, though it was never widely popular, and his next work, Edgar, was such a fiasco that he despaired of it altogether and warned a friend about it, saying, “May God save you from this opera!”

All this meant that from 1883 to 1893, he fought a running battle against poverty. Living in unheated apartments, he could barely scrape together enough for rent and food. In fact, he was so poor that one evening when friends dropped in, he had to sell his pet bird and its cage to get enough money to buy meat for a stew.

On the all-important night of the premiere of Le Villi, he took his bows wearing his only decent suit. In a word, he lived meanly, getting older and watching his rivals become famous. Puccini was such a late starter that he was almost 35 when he scored his first big commercial success with Manon Lescaut (1893). Then La Bohème (1896) and Tosca (1900) catapulted him to the top of his profession, bringing in a steady stream of royalties and lending him much-needed confidence. After 1901, when Giuseppe Verdi died, Puccini was even seen as “Il Successore,” the venerate composer’s successor.

Finding a Subject
Seeing how popular Tosca was, Puccini knew he had to start another opera quickly to capitalize on it. A composer’s first task—sometimes the most difficult task—is finding a subject or a source for a new work: a novel, play, story or poem that a librettist can turn into a viable theater piece. Composers often said they had to “see” a potential source as a drama and “feel” the music in a subject before deciding on it. And if that posed challenges for such practiced and confident musicians as Rossini, Donizetti and Verdi, it sometimes utterly defeated Puccini, plagued as he was with self doubt. Over the course of his career, he became positively notorious for changing his mind about projects and forcing his librettists to revise finished work, even work that he had had redone three times or more. Several major projects were abandoned. He almost gave up on La Bohème and played “Yes and No” with Tosca for several years. At the end of his life, when work on Turandot was well along, he even considered dropping it and looking for something else. Surprisingly, though, he had few doubts about Madama Butterfly.

The source of Puccini’s opera is a one-act play called Madame Butterfly, which two Italian friends took him to see in London in 1900. Its author and producer was the American impresario David Belasco, then on tour abroad. Although Puccini understood no English, his sharply honed intuition about theater told him all he needed to know about the geisha. In the course of his career, he depended on this instinct all the time, most notably in the 1890s, when he saw Sarah Bernhardt in the French-language play La Tosca, and in 1907, when he saw Belasco’s The Girl of the Golden West in English in New York City, understood almost none of the dialogue, and still knew it was right for him. La Fanciulla del West was the result.

Real People, Real Tragedy
Belasco’s literary source for Madame Butterfly was a short story by an American writer, John Luther Long. Surprisingly, the characters are based on real people, the plot on actual events. Long’s sister, Jennie Correll, a former Methodist Episcopal missionary in Nagasaki, told him about the geisha known as “O-Cho” or “Cho-San, Miss Butterfly,” a “Tea-House Girl” who had taken a lover, a “young man” who was a ship’s officer and a foreigner. He “married” Cho-San but had no intention of remaining faithful to her. However, when he had to ship out, he promised to return and send her a signal when his ship entered the harbor. Cho-San bore his child and waited for him “for many nights,” watching the port from behind a screen, but he never returned.

Fascinating recent research on this historical source of Butterfly has been done by Arthur Groos, whose article “The Story Behind the Story” appeared in the program of the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, London, in September 2003. The resourceful Groos identified the man most likely to have been Miss Butterfly’s American husband as Ensign William B. Franklin, a ship’s officer. In the opera the character is called Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton. Groos has even found which years Ensign Franklin was in Nagasaki, 1892 and 1893, thus establishing the correct historical frame of the opera. If Puccini’s Cio-Cio-San and Pinkerton seem real to us, it is because they were. And, one must add, because Puccini made them truer to life than life itself.

Creating the Opera
The two expert librettists who wrote Madama Butterfly had worked earlier with Puccini on the text for La Bohème and Tosca. One of them, the brilliant but hotheaded Luigi Illica, had also saved Manon Lescaut after three other writers abandoned it and Puccini. The other, Giuseppe Giacosa, the poet of the team, was one of Italy’s most serious and respected men of letters. As was customary, Illica wrote the scenario or first draft of the drama, and Giacosa wrote the poetry that made the libretto “sing.” In practice, however, both men worked with the composer from beginning to end—“slaved for” Puccini, as Giacosa once complained—and he often drove them to desperation.

A story as simple as Butterfly’s might easily have been turned into a short, workable libretto, but expanding a one-act play into a full evening of opera meant inventing new scenes or even whole acts, which the composer had to cover with about two hours of music. In fact, Act I of Madama Butterfly is Illica’s creation, as Puccini readily acknowledged. It worked; but other disputes with the librettists delayed the new opera’s progress. Among them was the composer’s decision to cut an important scene set in the American consulate. It had been put into Act II then moved to Act III. Both Illica and Giacosa thought it heightened the drama and moved the story along, but Puccini took it out all the same. A much larger problem was his extraordinary reorganization of the drama into two long acts with only one intermission. Thus the last act would be Act II, lasting an hour and a half without a break and including the present second act, the “Humming Chorus,” the orchestral intermezzo and the present third act. At that time, Italian audiences were not likely to tolerate anything that long. Giacosa, a successful playwright with decades of experience, raised all kinds of objections, warning Puccini that his long Act II would wreck Butterfly. To no avail. Puccini kept his two-act scheme, although the changes he made slowed his work and at times almost brought it to a halt.

In the end, though, it was an accident rather than composer-librettist disputes that came close to bringing Butterfly down. Puccini was in two automobile crashes while he was working on the opera. The first left him with nothing more than small scrapes and bruises, but the second, in 1903, almost killed him after he was trapped under his overturned car. He suffered a broken leg, which did not heal and had to be re-broken and re-set. Then, in the course of a long, agonizing recovery, he discovered he was diabetic.

An even bigger and more wrenching change affected his emotional life in this same period. During his convalescence he was forced to break off his passionate three-year-long affair with Corinna (the only name by which she is known), a young woman from Turin. Puccini, who was unmarried, was legally free to marry her, and he may have promised to do so. However, he had a long term bond with someone else, a very angry woman, Elvira Gemignani, who lived with him, had been his mistress for nearly 17 years and had borne him a son. In all that time, he and Elvira could not marry because her husband, whom she had abandoned, was still alive. This is not to say that she and Puccini were happy. Over the decades, Elvira’s insane jealousy constantly threatened their peace of mind, even though he tried to reassure her, describing his flirts as “cultivating my little gardens.”

In fact, he had very few serious affairs, but Corinna was certainly one of them, and Elvira was furious about her. While Puccini was recovering from the crash, he came under unremitting pressure from her, other family members, and his publisher to stop seeing Corinna. Moreover, everyone wanted him to marry Elvira, whose husband had died. Giving in, he very reluctantly agreed; but Corinna—contrary to what everyone expected of her—did not go away quietly. Instead when she learned that Puccini was breaking off their romance, she handed his love letters to an attorney, who then threatened to publish them. This put the composer at risk for public exposure, scandal, a lawsuit (possibly for breach of promise) and other more dire legal woes, so he had to settle out of court. As part of the agreement, he also had to declare that he intended to marry Elvira. That he did, in January of 1904.

It was the worst of all possible outcomes. Imagine Puccini after the auto crash. Age: forty-five; in atrocious pain, confined to bed for months, then moving into a wheelchair and on to crutches and canes; suffering with diabetes; unable to sit at his piano, but driven to finish Madama Butterfly and get it onstage; fending off criticism and fearing scandal; separated from Corinna; and, in the end, standing at the altar of the parish church and exchanging vows with Elvira, with whom he had such a tumultuous relationship. In one desperate letter to his foster daughter he wrote, “The life we live, Elvira and I, is simply terrible.”

It is simply a miracle that he ever finished Butterfly, but he did, and he was even optimistic about its chance for success.

A Fiasco of Monumental Proportion
Among all of Puccini’s operas, none came closer to ruin and even oblivion than Madama Butterfly, because its world premiere was a total debacle. The fatal night was February 17, 1904. From the very start the La Scala audience, rarely sympathetic to Puccini, seemed prepared to destroy the opera. Even during the first act, they jeered at him, shouted abuse and gave him only two curtain calls—a very bad sign. Worse, when he came to the footlights leaning on a cane, someone laughed. Nor was the soprano spared. “Butterfly is pregnant,” one man shouted, and at the point there were so many hoots and so much laughter that she could not hear the orchestra and began to cry.

The worst moment, however, came exactly as Giacosa had predicted it would: when the long second act stretched on and on. During Butterfly’s vigil, some people began to applaud, thinking the act was over, but when the lights failed to go up and the orchestra went on playing, the whole theater simply erupted. As one critic wrote, it was this long intermezzo that started the downhill slide to the opera’s wretched end.

Giacosa, of course, was fully vindicated. The extent of the catastrophe is clear from this review: “Groans, roars, moos, laughs, bellows, sneers, the usual cries for encores that were intended to inflame the audience even more—that in brief, is how the public at La Scala welcomed the new opera by Maestro Giacomo Puccini. After this pandemonium, during which almost nothing could be heard, people walked out of the theater, as contented as lambs! Never have we seen so many happy faces...in the lobby... The show in the [audience] was as well organized as the one onstage, beginning just when the curtain went up.” This meant that at least part of the demonstration was staged by Puccini’s rivals and carried out by a hired claque.

Saving the Opera
Puccini described that night as a lynching, and he was so demoralized that he might well have tossed the score on the junk heap. Indeed, a healthy, self-confident artist could have put aside a work that had had such a bad start. And in Puccini’s case, this blow came as he was trying to survive the shipwreck of his private life. It is very much to his credit that—sick as he was—he stayed the course, going back to work with Illica and Giacosa the very morning after the premiere. They made major revisions; and finally, when Puccini was satisfied, he saw Madama Butterfly get a fair hearing at last, in May 1904, when it rang up an absolute triumph in Brescia. In effect, then, he saved this opera himself, simply by believing so strongly in it; and his greatest act of courage lay in facing its ruin and finding the strength to create a masterpiece.

Credits and acknowledgments: William Ashbrook, The Operas of Puccini; Julian Budden, Puccini: His Life and Works; Eugenio Gara, Carteggi puccinani; and Arnaldo Marchette, Puccini com’era.

Mary Jane Phillips is the author of books including Puccini: A Biography, Rosa Ponselle: American Diva, and the definitive Verdi: A Biography, which won the Royal Philharmonic Prize, the ASCAPDeems Taylor Award, and the New York Governor’s Award of Excellence.