Heading out to see a new art form can be intimidating. If you’ve never been to the theatre to see a play – the prospect can be frightening, if you’ve never seen a ballet – understandably you’d be a little nervous.
Recently I took the pludge and engaged with a new art form, I went to the opera. My first opera experience was back in July when I headed to the WA Opera and watched their production of Lucia Di Lamermoor. Last night I returned for the opening of Madam Butterfly at His Majesty’s Theatre.
So, what’s it like going to the opera? One thing that is clear from the beginning is that people like to dress up – even on a Tuesday. While there were many in formal black tie and suits, scattered among the crowd were more adverturous fashion purveyors, this is a spot where you could clearly get away with a velvet jacket or an outrageous cravat, or just go for all black and look super arty. Embrace the fashion moment, dressing up is half the fun of a trip to the opera.
The story of the opera of the evening is easy to follow. The attendents have a quick one page guide to the story on hand, plus the programme is filled with the story, the history and creative team’s insights into the work. Take a moment in the bar before the show to read through the story, or flick through the main plot points in your seat before the curtain comes up.
The current production at the WA Opera is Madam Butterfly, written by Giacomo Puccini. The Italian composer visited London in 1900 to see a production of his opera Tosca – while he was there he saw a play by David Belasco which told a story about US Naval Officers visting Japan and the marriages of convinience they had with Japanses girls. Four years later Puccini had his next opera ready – a musical version of the story.
US naval officer Pinkerton is based in Japan, here he leases a house and through a marriage broker arranges for a Japanese wife to be supplied, the geisha Cio-Cio-San. The first half of the opera sees the couple meet, servants being hired for the house, the interference of relatives and the arranged marriage.
After the interval, the action moves forward three years, Pinkerton has returned to the USA and forgotten about his Japanese wife, but she patiently waits for his return. Even though she has the opportunity to marry again to a wealthy land owner, she remains loyal to Pinkerton. When Pinkerton’s friend, the American Counsel, Sharpless brings a letter to Cio-Cio-San from Pinkerton which says he has moved on, she reveals that she has given birth to his son. Sharpness can not bring himself to tell Cio-Cio-San that Pinkerton has already married an American woman.
Pinkerton returns to Japan, Cio-Cio-San is excited by his return as she sees his ship enter the port, she waits up all night for his arrival, but he does not come to her house. In the morning while she is asleep he arrives and having learned that he has a son, he leaves his friend Sharpness to buy off Cio-Cio-San and his new wife Kate to explain that they wish to adopt the young boy. Cio-Cio San insists that Pinkerton hismself come to colelct his son, and realising that the young boy will have a better life with his father and his American wife, she lets her son go. Finally at the end, all alone Cio-Cio-San takes her own life.
Even though the opera is sung in Italian it’s really easy to follow, big screens on either side of the screen provide simple subtitles to keep you in the loop with the coversation, and having read the story outline – you know what’s going to happen.
Puccini’s music is captivating – you already know it, you’ve heard it hundreds of times in film and television shows or even through Malcom McLaren records.
Near the beginning of the second act when Cio-Cio-San begins singing the opera’s most famous aria Un bel dì vedremo (One Fine DayWe Shall See) the anticipation of hearing someone tackle this most famous piece of music will have you sitting on the edge of your seat. It’s a piece of music that so perfectly captures the feeling of love, it bursts out, it can’t be contained, it’s powerful and goes further than you first anticipate.
Later in the second act while Cio-Cio-San waits all night for Pinkerton to arrive, the mesmerising and melancoly Coro a bocca chiusa (Humming Chorus) is another highlight of the score. Puccini’s music is uplifting and incredibly emotive.
The performance of leading lady Kelly Kaduce, making her debut with West Australian opera, having travelled here from the USA for this production, is captivating, a combination of great acting and an amazing voice. The role of Cio-Cio-San has moments of comedy, is filled with great tragety and a lot of subtlty is required to convey everything to the audience. Kaduce was very impressive.
A night at the opera is full of fun, and anticipation – anticipation for the famous aria, anticipation for the famous numbers and ultamitely anticipation of a tragic ending. Along the way you learn some history, spot some amazing fashions, gain some culture and enjoy few glasses of wine before the show. If you’ve never been – I recommend taking the plunge. It’s affordable too – with tickets starting from just $27.00.
Graeme Watson, Photo: James Rogers