Song of the warhorses: Charge of the Butterfly brigade

Edouard Detaille, "Charge of the Fourth Hussars at the Battle of Friedland," 1891. Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney/Wikimedia Commons


Listening to Kelly Kaduce’s voice float like a butterfly and sting like a bee as Cio-Cio-San in Portland Opera’s new Madame Butterfly, it struck me again: operatic warhorses are warhorses for a reason. And part of that reason is that audiences, which by and large are not made up of stupid people, love melody.

They also love drama, and talent, and technique. And in Kaduce’s full-bodied but exquisitely controlled singing of one of the signature roles in all of opera, they can find a revivifying antidote to the sort of pop-diva wretched excess expressed most recently in Kelly Clarkson’s enthusiastic and clueless butchering of the national anthem before the start of last weekend’s Super Bowl football game.

There’s a right way to do this thing. And Kaduce (as well as Puccini and his librettists, Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa) did it right.

So why is there grumbling in the land?

Yes, the critics love this Butterfly. Here, for instance, are James McQuillen’s glowing report from The Oregonian and Angela Allen’s enthusiastic notice from Oregon ArtsWatch.

Still, beneath the surface, something’s rumbling. Portland Opera recently announced its 2012-13 season, and for a lot of people it was like listening to TriMet announce it was switching to horse-drawn carriages for the morning commute.

Stop us if you’ve heard this before: Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Puccini’s Tosca, and Verdi’s Falstaff, punctuated, modestly, by Handel’s 1711 Baroque opera Rinaldo, which is hardly new but is infrequently enough produced and far enough outside the Romantic-dominated mainstream to sound potentially invigorating to ears longing to hear something fresh and different.

“There are, what? – 14, 15 regulars that everybody draws from, operas that get done all the time,” a friend who follows the opera world far more closely than I do commented a few days before Butterfly opened, once again, at Portland Opera. “So you have so many slots, and those 14 or 15 are going to fill a lot of them. And then the question is, how do you fill in the slots that are left?”

With more, or less, of the same – and in that balance is the nub of the rub.

The question has been bothering opera followers, and critics in particular, who tend to worry not just about specific productions but also about where the art form seems to be headed. And the feeling in a lot of circles is that opera is headed backward, into the glories of its past, rather than forward, into the rigors and uncertainties of the future.

The tendency is especially evident in regional companies, which in tough economic times can’t afford to take too many gambles on little-known titles by little-known composers. (We’re talking here of little-known among general audiences, not little-known among musicians and music specialists.) It’s worth noting that the world of serious composed music isn’t exactly surfing on the forward edge of the cultural wave, anyway. It still tends to think of Bartok (died 1945) and Stravinsky (died 1971) as “modern” composers, and Philip Glass (born 1937) and Terry Riley (born 1935) as bold contemporary voices.

Our colleague Brett Campbell commented a few days ago on Oregon ArtsWatch about the dilemma of the warhorse. Butterfly, he wrote, “is one of those top ten or so operas in constant rotation here and elsewhere that keep PO and other companies (barely) in the black by catering to a certain segment of the opera audience’s apparently insatiable craving to hear the same familiar comfort food every few years.”

Brett’s argument is nuanced and well worth reading. Yes, it’s worrisome when opera companies rely too heavily on the same-old same-olds – even recognizing that opera by its nature is a traditional art form. Ideally, an opera company builds an audience partly by educating it, and that means adding new, sometimes more challenging works to the mix. It’s an issue that all of the so-called classical music world faces. (How often do symphonic orchestras play even “popular” contemporary composers such as John Adams or Ellen Zwilich of Jennifer Higdon?)

Still, as Kaduce and company so ably demonstrate in this latest Butterfly, a vigorous warhorse can be a thing of beauty. It may be better to think of such works not as warhorses or chestnuts – words that imply both condescension and a touch of embarrassment ­– but as core operas, in the way that Hamlet and King Lear and Twelfth Night are core plays, Don Quixote and Moby-Dick and A Tale of Two Cities are core novels, Giselle and Swan Lake and Le Sacre du Printemps are core ballets. Each helps define its medium, and each also is capable of delivering endless freshness, offering new insights or deepening old ones each time it’s experienced.

I’ll argue something else: It’s the core operas, not the little-known or experimental ones, that are most likely to draw in new young audiences and help guarantee the future of the art form. Carmen, with its flashy drama and catchy tunes, is the ideal gateway opera, a piece that appeals almost instantly to people who had no idea they might like that sort of thing. It could be a Broadway show. It’s filled with melodies a kid can whistle for days afterward around the house.

Some people grow into an appreciation of opera. Others fall head over heels at first listen. Terrence McNally, the playwright whose works include Master Class and The Lisbon Traviata, once told me it was that way for him: a smack in the face, a life-altering moment. I remember, as a college freshman more interested in jazz and American roots music, going to the 1965 film version of Franco Zeffirelli’s La Scala  production of La Boheme starring Mirella Freni and Gianni Raimondi and having my head spun around. I wasn’t sure what was going on. I only knew it was something bigger and grander than I’d realized was possible. (Other movies, including Marcel Carne’s Les Enfants du Paradis and Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et La Bete, had similar effects.)

Discovering Boheme and other operas didn’t replace my love for Coleman Hawkins and Miles Davis and Sarah Vaughan. It enhanced my understanding of music. And knowing a little about both jazz and classical traditions helped prepare me for more thoroughly contemporary sounds, from John Cage to the astonishment of George Crumb’s Vietnam War-inspired Black Angels. It became possible to see how all of it flowed from interlocking traditions.

Kelly Kaduce as Cio-Cio-San. ©Portland Opera/Cory Weaver.

My 14-year-old son, who started down this path two or three years ago by falling in love with Tchaikovsky and ballet, has expanded into opera and classical music. He saw Portland Opera’s Madame Butterfly twice – at the final dress rehearsal with a friend, and on opening night with me. He can talk familiarly and tellingly about the differences in the two performances, and of the differences between Puccini’s music and Mozart’s in The Marriage of Figaro. He spent a recent Saturday morning listening to Tosca in the Met live radio broadcast, and has spent a little quality time in recent days with the Pavarotti-Freni Boheme (this one with the Berliner Philharmoniker) and the Sutherland-Pavarotti Turandot. Schubert, Schumann, Dvorak, Mozart and Gershwin have hit the CD rack – all warhorses, and all pieces that he listened  to, not just played in the background. The other night he rustled through the CD shelves for a few minutes and then complained, “I can’t find any Handel. Don’t we have any Handel? I feel like listening to Handel!” Yes, it’s a traditional lineup – and a very good one. Will his tastes expand as he grows older? Probably. Will he be listening to opera and other art music for the rest of his life? If he doesn’t, I’ll be shocked.

An extremely traditionalist classical-music critic once told me that opera ended in 1924, when Puccini died. Of course he was wrong. But maybe Puccini’s death marked the passing of a certain kind of opera – of opera that grew out of popular musical and dramatic traditions, opera that could be enjoyed by people who hadn’t studied music theory. Puccini, Verdi, Mozart, Rossini, Telemann, Strauss wrote operas that worked as theater and engaged a certain kind of self-trained amateur ear.

In spite of opera’s upper-class inclinations, they were populist artists, creating music accessible to anyone willing to give it an honest try. As art music and popular music began to travel their separate ways, that sort of happy-medium musical theater began to fade (as it also has on the Broadway stage). There will simply be a smaller audience for Nixon in China than for The Magic Flute. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing: Maybe Nixon in China is meant for a more specialized audience. And maybe contemporary art composers are simply less interested than their predecessors in opera as a form for their work. Maybe smaller, less theatrical formats suit their ideas better.

The question then becomes: Is opera a museum art form? Yes, and no. If the question means, is it an art form rooted in and even dominated by strong traditions, the answer is yes. If the question means, is it a mummified art form, the answer is no. Is Shakespeare mummified theater? Are Vermeer and Rembrandt mummified artists? Not when every new generation that encounters them does so with the shock and thrill of encountering something deep and penetrating and new.

Let’s stipulate for the record: It’s too bad that Portland Opera’s 2012-13 season is made up almost entirely of Greatest Hits. Let’s stipulate also that it’s a good thing the critics are pointing this out: Looking at the big picture is an important part of their job. That doesn’t mean the productions of these “warhorses” can’t be superb. And it doesn’t mean that general director Christopher Mattaliano, who has opened up the company’s repertoire to the likes of Britten, Glass, and Ravel, is giving up. It simply means that times are tough, and when times are tough the pragmatic thing to do is to pay particular attention to the bottom line.

When programming turns traditionalist the challenge is to look for the core of the classic, the thing that made it classic in the first place, instead of simply doing it by rote. On that count, this lovely Butterfly succeeds. You can even argue that in a culture dominated by force-fed infantilization of the arts, performing a genuine classic is a revolutionary act. Simply by being a superb singer interpreting superb music, Kaduce performs a radical act that exposes, for anyone who actually listens, the awkward phrasing and inapt embellishments of poor Kelly Clarkson’s unfortunate mass-media mangling of The Star-Spangled Banner.

In our post-Einstein universe, time and tradition are mutable things. The past is its own country, but it’s also part of ours: we see it, claim it, cling to it because it has enduring value, even if we see it through contemporary eyes. Butterfly? Beautiful! Yet if time is bendable, it still makes a difference, as I was reminded recently when listening to a recital by soprano Lindsay Ohse, one of this year’s Portland Opera studio artists. She sang three sets of songs – by Mozart, Poulenc and Rachmaninoff. It wasn’t that the Poulenc and Rachmaninoff were better than the Mozart (it’d be hard to argue that), but they definitely spoke to a different time, which meant a different world-view, one nearer to our own, and therefore they offered insights that Mozart couldn’t because he never experienced our world. I found myself deeply sympathetic to their not-quite-contemporary voices.

We need the past, but we need the present, too. Our approach to classics, and their very nature, is in constant reassessment. In 1970 the early-music revival and its original instruments were the work of radicals, or maybe radical traditionalists: the energy of the movement was revolutionary and invigorating. Today it’s a common and accepted part of the musical mainstream. Webster and Shakespeare can be filtered and rebottled, as they have been recently in Portland, as (I Am Still) the Duchess of Malfi and Shakespeare’s Amazing Cymbeline, without losing their essence.

And Madame Butterfly can play it straightforward, revealing the brilliance that was lying there all the time. In almost unremarked ways it can make connections to more contemporary adventures, too: Anne Manson, who conducts Butterfly so ably and energetically, also conducted Portland Opera’s excellent recent production of Philip Glass’s Orphee and returns this spring to conduct Glass’s Galileo Galilei, which is hardly a chestnut, but which might become  the doorway for some other 14-year-old into the wonders of opera. Wonders that will look backward, and might look forward, too.

There’s more than one way to ride a warhorse. And whatever armor it’s wearing, it can still be a magnificent steed.

2 Responses.

  1. Curtis Heikkinen says:

    This is a very thoughtful and eloquent defense of warhorses or as you say, core operas. You correctly point out the need for core operas but seem to also recognize the necessity of newer repertoire as well. I have been wrestling with my feelings about standard repertoire in opera and classical music. I have been listening to opera and classical music for some time now. I have heard or seen most of the core classical and operatic repertoire many times. Frankly, much of the freshness of this repertoire has faded for me because of the repetition of these pieces on the radio, in the opera house and in the concert hall. I understand the need for arts organizations to rely on warhorses in order to survive, especially in tough economic times. Frankly, however, even in more prosperous periods, I have not found the repertoire that adventurous. What new operas or classical pieces that are composed seem to get very brief exposure and then are seemingly consigned to oblivion. I am very pessimistic that the world of classical music and of opera will ever move significantly beyond the core repertoire, which it really must do in order to maintain relevancy. I fear that symphonies and opera companies will continue to limp along as they do and 20 or 30 years from now, they will still be churning out performances of Beethoven’s 9th , Carmen and Tosca. There will still be much anguish and discussion about the same issues surrounding core repertoire but in the end nothing much will have changed. Sorry to sound so pessimistic but there seems to be no way out this box the warehouses have built for us.

  2. Holly Sanders says:

    Most audiences are really whiny when they perform Adam’s Nixon in China and Glass’ Satyagraha, they aren’t ready for it. I enjoyed Nixon this year much more than I did 20 years ago when I first heard it. I still can’t hum a tune from a Philip Glass performance though!

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