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Opera virgin Ben Connor gets a lesson in the art form and is pleasantly surprised by what he discovers
It’s the climax of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Having sung themselves into a state of romantic bliss, the delicate geisha and her American lieutenant lover fall into each other’s arms. Their lips are trembling on the verge of a succulent kiss when a man in a bright red shirt walks on stage. Instantly the music stops, the lovers look up and the man quips, ‘if I can’t, neither can you pal’.
Dafydd Burne Jones is freeze-framing and kick-starting Madama Butterfly for the benefit of opera virgins like me. I’m hoping that his ‘Opera Unwrapped’ treatment will help me overcome a deep seated aversion to an art form which inspires a cult-like devotion in its fans.
It may reduce Inspector Morse or Michael Portillo to dinner suited jellies, but opera is all fat ladies in frocks to me. Sumptuous sets and colourful costumes are all well and good, and I like a big orchestra sound, but the whole ‘lets sing our conversation’ thing has never really convinced me.
Scottish Opera’s Opera Unwrapped series aims to lift the bonnet to reveal how the engine works. It’s a free, hour-long, behind the scenes glimpse into the inner workings of the art-form. We’re focusing on the current production of Madama Butterfly. If ever there was a chance to slay the dragon of my poorly informed preconceptions and open up to the finer points of opera, this is it.
The Unwrapped series has proved enormously popular, attracting everyone from school parties and gangs of teenage goths to families and bow-tied opera buffs. Tonight is no different - the multi-level, tiered seating of the gilded auditorium at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal is full. I sit on the periphery of a gaggle of school children. Incredibly they remain quiet and seemingly deeply engaged for the entire session.
Sauntering onto the stage, Burne Jones immediately commands the audience’s attention, reeling us in with an introduction to the set (an angular approach to a Japanese home) and a brief description of Madama Butterfly’s history, plot and themes of love, faith, betrayal, imperial colonialism and the clash of western and eastern cultures.
Composer Guicamo Puccini, Burne Jones informs us, swelled the standard 55-player orchestra to a grand 75. Looking over the stage precipice, he then bends to introduce - in the pit below - Scotland’s very own Puccini orchestra. My vantage point, at the front of the auditorium, provides a wonderful view into the packed pit. Why such a large orchestra? ‘It’s all about density of the sound’, says Burne Jones. ‘It is just glorious to have 75 players make a tiny sound but also have the capacity for a huge sound.’
I’m eager to hear what they can do.
Opera Unwrapped features performances, by talented understudies, of a series of scenes from a particular opera. First up: we’re in Tokyo, Japan and an American naval Lieutenant (Pinkerton) is soon to marry a young Japanese geisha (Madama Butterfly). Pinkerton, a marriage broker and the American Consul are introduced. We’re away. The Orchestra packs a punch and the tenors discuss, seemingly quite passionately, the peculiarities of Japanese furniture. Admittedly the conversation evolves and the orchestra, to good dramatic effect, inserts the American national anthem during a haughty spiel from Pinkerton, but I’m finding it hard to engage.
The scene is cut and Burne Jones cues another, introducing Butterfly, her maid Suzuki and a stand in for the absent 30-strong chorus - Butterfly’s family. In the scene Pinkerton learns that Butterfly’s family, once wealthy, is now poverty stricken. Following the instruction from Burne Jones I come to appreciate the way the orchestra expands and contracts and plays around with Japanese melodies. The understudies are singing beautifully. I might even be warming to conversational singing.
Dissected in this way, opera doesn’t seem that intimidating or dry after all. The scenes are short, sharp and fresh. Burne Jones’ pithy plot descriptions are a nice lead in and his joking with the understudies keeps everything light and easy.
A bit of historical detail adds to the charm. Despite being one of the most successful operas of all time Madama Butterfly was received with jeers and boos from the audience at its first performance at La Scala, Milan in 1904. Its poor reception has been attributed to a down-on-his-luck publishing rival of Puccini who may have bribed core audience members. The opera did not recover from this damning reception until, after being altered, it was reintroduced to the public months later in a performance in Brescia. There, after an ecstatic reception, it began 100 years of global success. The next scene really pulls me in. Butterfly, abandoned for three years, foretells the magical return of her husband’s ship in the harbour in ‘Un bel di’, a truly heart-melting aria. With one last tragic scene Opera Unwrapped is over.
As I collect my tickets for Madama Butterfly - my first ever visit to a full-length opera - I realise that I’m looking forward to experiencing the real thing. With an additional 30 chorus members and a full costume performance it promises to be quite an experience. Spruced up to the nines my partner and I arrive at the theatre and take our seats in the auditorium.
So, second time round, am I an expert? No, but familiarised with the key arias, I understand the shape of the opera for the first time.
I’m not sure that I’m a complete convert yet (I found the short and digestible Unwrapped experience far more enjoyable than the real thing). But as a believer in acquired tastes, my new insights into the theatrical and musical side of opera has definitely whetted my appetite. I won’t be block booking a box just yet, but I might have to book myself in for the Walter Scott-inspired Lucia di Lammermoor which Scottish Opera is performing in June.
Madama Butterfly, Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 25, 28 Apr and 17, 23, 25, 30 May and Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 13, 15, 19, 21, 23 Jun; Lucia di Lammermoor Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 16, 19, 22, 26, 31 May and EFT 16, 20, 22 Jun. Madama Butterfly Unwrapped, EFT, 14 Jun, Lucia di Lammermoor Unwrapped, Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 21 May, EFT 18 Jun.
Mark Robertson breaks down five famous productions to their bare essentials
Carmen Carmen is a saucy gypsy who likes the fellas. She woos Corporal Don José, convincing him that mutiny and running off to join a gang of bandits is a fantastic idea. The initial bliss doesn’t last long as Carmen’s eye starts to wander. She hooks up with a bullfighter. Don José goes mad. Carmen ends up dead.
Marriage of Figaro Isn’t life a hoot when you’re a blithering count with a fondness for the ladies? Well no, as the Count is a showy, jealous sort who gets humpy when his valet (Figaro) hooks himself a cutie (Susanna). When the Countess spies a hottie for herself (Cherubino) the count sends him to the front line for a bit of close quarter combat. Subsequently, everyone gangs up on the Count to show him just what a scheming old tart he is. There’s much to-ing and fro-ing and plenty of mistaken identity but then it’s all forgive and forget by the end.
The Ring Cycle Everybody wants to be the top dog but they need the ring to truly top the charts. Wotan and a whole bunch of godly miscreants set about trying to get their hands on the coveted piece of jewellery. Siegfried and his girlfriend Brünnhilde (Wotan’s daughter) finally get their paws on it and Wotan and his pals are vanquished. Sixteen hours of singing, shouting, fighting, flying, and betrayal.
La Bohème Marcello, Rodolfo, Coline and Schaunard are aspiring artisans dossing around their squalid gaff. They blag some grub and booze, avoid paying the rent and generally live it up. Mimi, the tuberculosis-ravaged love interest, falls for Rodolfo. Marecello and his one-time beau Musetta reconcile. A whole load of jealousy-inducing, consumption-inspired shenanigans ensue. Everyone blows their remaining cash on medicine for Mimi but she dies anyway.
La Traviata Boy (Alfredo) meets girl (Violetta). Girl is sick but madferrit, living every day like it’s her last. Boy falls for her big style. They shack up together. She gives up on her crazy ways. Boy’s Dad demands he give her up and threatens to withhold his inheritance. Violetta takes the hint, goes back to her old hedonistic ways and gets even more sick. Alfredo finally gets the girl back. Violetta snuffs it.