‘Madama Butterfly,’ and multi-generational moments of magic

By Mike Ashenfelder

My 13-year-old daughter and I were sitting at a table on the crowded patio of the Castleton Festival tent during intermission of “Madama Butterfly,” drinking iced tea. It was a clear, balmy night. “Pinkerton is sort of ignorant about Japanese ways and about Butterfly’s feelings and her way of life,” said my daughter between bites of a cookie. She didn’t think he was bad. Just callous and clueless.

A scene from the Castleton Festival’s production of “Madama Butterfly.”
A scene from the Castleton Festival’s production of “Madama Butterfly.” Raymond Boc | Rappahannock News

This was her first opera and I wanted to understand her impression of it. She said she didn’t know what to expect before she came. She’d been concerned that she might not “get” opera, that there was something mysterious or complicated that you had to be trained to understand. But she was struck by the beauty of the music and the excellence of the Castleton orchestra, by the sets and the singers, and she followed the story easily.

When we first arrived at the Festival, we went to the orchestra pit to see the musicians. She plays the flute in her school band, so I hoped she could relate to the orchestra. She told me about the seating arrangements of the flutes and woodwinds. Then she marveled over the huge gongs and drums in the percussion section; one of the highlights of her school year was when she filled in on percussion at their spring performance.

Maestro Lorin Maazel, who did not conduct that night, came out and gave a brief introduction in which he said something to the effect that opera is often perceived as a cartoonish exaggeration of human behavior, but is in fact a magnification of it, and if we are fortunate, the story, acting, music and staging coalesce into transcendent moments of magic. I hoped that my daughter might experience one of those moments.

She was absorbed in the first act. I could see the delight in her face as the chorus of Butterfly’s friends came onstage twirling their colorful parasols. And she was clearly dazzled by the solemn beauty of the nature scenes projected onto the backdrop.

Finally, the first act ended as Butterfly, the former geisha, and Pinkerton — the American sailor who marries her for a lark — tenderly embraced, the stage darkened and the music faded. We got up and went out for intermission.

“The translations often don’t match word for word,” my daughter observed. She noticed that occasionally a performer sang a word or phrase that didn’t appear in the subtitles — proof that she was paying attention to translation, something she doesn’t get to do in her daily life. Another experience that the opera provided for her.

We talked about Butterfly’s age. My daughter is a typical young teenager; she is never far from her iPod. She wanted to wear high-top sneakers to the opera, even though she wore her finest dress. I pointed out that Butterfly was a young teenager too, only 15, and she was going to marry a sailor. My daughter shuddered and said, “Ewww.”

She changed the subject as she looked around at the crowd. She started talking about social class and she quizzed me as she tried to fit us in the spectrum of class. “Are we middle-class, upper-middle-class?” she said. “Lower upper class?” And her meaning became clear: Do we belong here? I assured her that opera had nothing to do with social class and that there was a range of people in the audience who were all here for the same experience.

When we went inside for the second half of the opera, we lingered for a moment looking down into the orchestra pit again and my daughter asked me how old I thought the musicians were. I guessed that the average musician was 20-something and I told her that Castleton trains young musicians. Then she turned and pointed up to the audience and said, “And look — the audience is mostly old people.” True.

She enjoyed the rest of the opera, though she got fidgety during the scene of Butterfly’s overnight vigil, where Butterfly sits patiently waiting for daybreak and the return of Pinkerton. It’s a long, serene scene, and no one stirs on the stage for several minutes.

My daughter was still excited after the finale and the applause and ovations. We dawdled in the lobby, savoring the specialness of the experience, as the audience drifted out. She talked about the big climax. Like a young detective reviewing clues, she noted that Butterfly had fussed over the knife too much during the opera and my daughter was proud that she figured out Butterfly was going to kill herself. “I knew that was going to happen,” she said triumphantly.

I tried to think of bits of other operas might enjoy: Maybe Fafner the dragon in Wagner’s “Siegfried” or Papageno in the “Magic Flute.” She loves melodies, so she might appreciate classic arias. She might like to see an opera in New York’s Central Park, where kids go with their families.

The Castleton Festival has kid-oriented events, which we plan to attend; we missed “Story in Music” and “Peter and the Wolf.” I want my daughter to continue to experience excellence in live performances, like our night at Castleton Festival’s “Madama Butterfly.”

Above all, I want her to continue experiencing those transcendent moments of magic. Thank you, Maestro Maazel, for making one possible for her. Rest in peace.

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