Friday, March 11, 2011

Butterfly and the Sea...

Joseph Campbell delivered a series of lectures on mythology to the Cooper Union (for the Advancement of Science and Art) in New York City between 1958 and 1971. A dozen of these characteristically illuminating discourses are collected in the book Myths to Live By (Penguin, 1972, 1993).

I have had it on hand with other "reference" books in preparation for our production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly. Though Puccini's operas do not appear to be close relatives of myth (like those of Monteverdi, Gl├╝ck and Strauss), his archetypal characters resonate with the force and depth of ancient Greece.

The central chapters in Campbell's book are called "The Separation of East and West," "The Confrontation of East and West in Religion," "The Inspiration of Oriental Art" and "Zen."

Following the posts below, I have been making notes and musing over an essay on the imagery of the sea in Madama Butterfly. In "The Importance of Rites" (from 1964), Campbell relates the structure and form of ritual to mythology, and its galvanizing force on communities that enact such rites. Campbell cites the "life-amplifying service of ritual" in the Japanese tea ceremony, and compares it to the exquisite Japanese garden "where nature and art have been brought together in a common statement harmonizing and epitomizing both."

After citing olympic-style athletic events (like track meets) he quotes Oswald Spengler's definition of "culture" as society "in form." His next example of "the high service of ritual to a society" is the "solemn state occasion" that followed the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He mentions the necessity for a "compensatory rite to re-establish the sense of solidarity of the nation."

I know many of the members of the vibrant Japanese community in Roanoke are eagerly anticipating our production of Madama Butterfly, and are planning to greet the opening night audience in our lobby, dressed in traditional costume.

Victor Hugo's proverb, "music expresses that which cannot be said, and cannot be suppressed," reverberates today. I wrestle with the idea of even attempting to articulate thoughts about Butterfly and the sea in the wake of so devastating a natural disaster as the Tsunami that has ravaged Japan. I believe we can draw strength from Campbell and the "great cloud of witnesses" who have written, composed and created works that evoke--and activate--the deepest source of our human emotions. This body of creativity speaks to our shared humanity and connects us around the globe and across the centuries.

Campbell mentions the symbolism of the funeral rites for JFK, from the seven horses and the military groom to the "riderless saddle" with "stirrups reversed." He cites the "mythology of the seven spheres and of the soul's journey."

When we consider the sea as an archetypal image of the soul and the unconscious, a metaphor for the immensity of the deep and the void, a symbol for god and death, we are connecting to the power of myth to give form and structure to experience.

As Butterfly's friends first appear on the crest of a Nagasaki hill, they sing (in impressionist harmonies redolent of the ocean) "Ah! So much sky! So much sea!" As Butterfly emerges from behind her friends, they turn and sing to her (in lines lost in the wash of sound in one of opera's most beloved entrance scenes):

"Before you cross the threshold,
turn and look, turn and look
at those things dear to you,
look at this expanse of sky,
all these flowers, all that sea!"

The posts below are "about" some of the nature imagery in the opera, and reasons it remains popular and relevant. The eminent conductor, Joseph Flummerfelt has said the great composers give us the "gift of connection." The proverbial "spark of the divine" connects the artist to inspiration, who in turn "translates" the spark into the creative work, which is itself a gift. This connectivity extends across and between works and peoples. As Campbell writes, "these symbolic overtones--unheard by outward ears, perhaps, yet recognized within by all--" connect us to a/the source. Though Puccini did not expound on the role of mythology as a fount of inspiration, his fondness for the (nature) poet, Pascoli (referenced below) is an important clue in understanding why Puccini's music resonates with elemental power.

In the famous love duet that ends Act I, Butterfly contrasts the diminutive, modest tastes of her people to the immensity of the sea.

"We are a people accustomed
To little things,
Humble and quiet,
To a tenderness
Gentle, yet wide as the sky,
Deep as the rolling sea."

Puccini was criticized for a "soft" (ie: feminine) affection for his heroines and his "piccole cose" (little things). And his "sugary music" (musica zuccherata) awakens emotional openness--with all its vulnerability--vividly and directly. The gushing lyric beauty of his "heart on sleeve" voice has been copied and imitated ever since, but never surpassed.

Butterfly compares her hope to a "wisp of smoke rising over the horizon of the sea" as she awaits Pinkerton's return. When Sharpless confronts her with the possibility Pinkerton may never return, she becomes faint, and foreshadows her tragic undoing. She quickly recovers her composure and sings, "It's nothing. I thought I was going to die, but it soon passes, like the clouds pass over the sea."

Pinkerton's ship (the Abraham Lincoln--another name Campbell invokes in "The Importance of Rites") appears in the harbor, revivifying Butterfly and auguring the beloved "flower duet" she sings with her confidante. As they pick flowers to prepare a ritualistic hero's welcome, Suzuki reminds Butterfly

"So often you came to these bushes
to gaze far away, in tears
over the wide and empty sea."

Butterfly responds with poetry that resonates across historical time and cultural space:

"The long-awaited one has come,
nothing more shall I ask of the sea;
I gave tears to the soil,
its flowers it now gives to me!"

From the narratives of the great flood (common to all creation myths) to Homer and beyond, the sea courses with a through-line of connective energy that mirrors all facets of life on earth. It inspired much of what is arguably Puccini's most perfect opera.

James Joyce said the Greek dramas epitomized the central function of art, which is to inspire/provoke the fundamental human emotions: pity and terror (or, love and fear). That catharsis, regardless of type, distinction or quality, opens us to "unfathomed wonder" (Campbell) and connects us to the deep feeling of emotion which is our shared humanity.

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