I began listening to classical music in the late 1980s, but I stayed away from opera for ten years or so. Opera seemed to me something for the initiated, like espresso for the casual coffee drinker. The fact that each work contained a complicated story, sung for the most part in a language other than English, made the whole thing seem esoteric. And then there was the difficulty that actually seeing an opera performed by a major or even minor company just wasn’t practical: I lived in a mid-sized town in South Carolina, not New York or London or Rome. Our town didn’t even have a university that might attract amateur productions.Later, when I was living in Charlotte, North Carolina, I went to an outdoor festival of some kind. Now I forget what the festival was about—was it the Fourth of July?—but there were musical performances of various kinds, and one of these involved a stocky fellow with a goatee. He was a police officer, but had been an amateur opera singer in an earlier vicissitude. He sang “Nessun Dorma,” from Giacomo Puccini’s opera Turandot. I have no idea if he sang well or poorly, or if he hit the famous high notes properly (a sustained high B, and then a longer sustained high A). But I found myself suddenly, surprisingly moved. My eyes watered, and I pretended to a friend that “allergies” were bothering me—this despite the fact that I had little idea of what the song was about.It was then that I began spending what money I had on opera recordings—Puccini and Verdi especially, but also Mozart and Wagner and Strauss. Attending operas was more difficult. As an impoverished graduate student in Edinburgh I managed to get down to Covent Garden for Rossini’s Centerentola, once saw Turandot at the Vienna Staatsoper, and went to every opera staged at the Edinburgh Festival from 2001 to 2003.But from Edinburgh I moved back to my home state, South Carolina, and for a variety of reasons I have no desire to live anywhere else. To my great regret I’ve never been to the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and to my even greater regret, I probably won’t be there any time soon. I find myself in a time of life—young children at home, a writer’s bank account—in which expensive trips to New York aren’t feasible. Each year I intend to go, and each year it doesn’t work for one reason or another. Such, I guess, is the fate of many opera fans in my position. We have to settle for recordings, for lesser productions, and for the Met’s famous—and admittedly wonderful—live radio broadcasts on Saturday afternoons.Ten years ago, the Met began broadcasting its Saturday matinée performances live in movie theaters. For my failure to attend one of these “Met HD” performances, as they’re called, I have only the usual excuses: The nearest theater to feature these broadcasts is 45 minutes away, ordinarily I use Saturdays to write, my wife and children are not opera fans, and so on.But in April I finally mustered the wherewithal to go. My 14-year-old daughter agreed to accompany me. We saw the Met’s production of Madama Butterfly. I would have been satisfied with a so-so performance by the Met’s standards, but Roberto Alagna and Kristine Opolais sang near flawlessly as Pinkerton and Cio-Cio San, the latter’s acting beautifully subtle as the 15-year-old Butterfly (not an easy feat: Opolais is tall and 36). The late Anthony Minghella’s justly famous set—it debuted at the English National Opera in 2005 and features a puppet as Cio-Cio San’s toddler son—accomplished what ought to be, but often isn’t, the goal of a set designer: vivifying the story without calling attention to itself and so distracting us from the music.The story of Butterfly is calculated to draw an emotional response. A young American naval officer, Pinkerton, marries the 15-year-old geisha Cio-Cio San, whom friends call Butterfly, but Pinkerton is mainly interested in the pleasure of it all. In the second act, Pinkerton has been gone for three years. Butterfly, who has now borne Pinkerton’s son, has rejected a wealthy suitor in the deluded confidence that her husband will return and take her to America. He does return, but he has married an American woman. Butterfly agrees to give up her son and bids farewell to the world.The American critic Virgil Thomson, who admired Madama Butterfly as a masterpiece of musical theater, admitted “its lack of even the most elementary intellectual content.” Love the music though many of us do, the plot is pretty awful.I was totally unprepared, then, for an experience of the sort that opera-goers long for—the kind of experience the greatest opera composers, especially the greatest of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, labored to produce. I was, in short, overwhelmed, just as Puccini hoped his audience would be. And this happened, I think, not despite the synthetic setting in which I saw the opera—a movie theater—but precisely because of it.Let me back up and explain what I think these composers were up to. The scores of Wagner and Verdi, and even more so of Richard Strauss and Puccini, are so richly textured as to create an aural experience that, while pulling the listener in, seeks also to devastate and dumbfound him. Just occasionally, when these composers are at their most creative and insightful and when their scores are performed by competent and conscientious musicians, the result alters the listener’s frame of reference. Somehow you are so fully engaged in the music and drama that you come to inhabitant a world in which people get themselves into highly improbable situations and sing everything they say or think. Not every opera achieves that experience, but some do for some listeners on some occasions. Great novels engage readers at a very different level (novels don’t produce melodies except maybe for the quiet ones in your head), and even a powerful film must make its score subservient to dramatic development, with the result that a sense of detachment always remains.Immanuel Kant in the Critique of Judgment comes close to describing opera at its most powerful when he distinguishes beauty from the sublime. “We observe,” he writes, “that whereas natural beauty conveys a finality in its form, making the object appear, as it were, pre-adapted to our power of judgment,” the sublime “may appear in point of form to contravene the ends of our power of judgment, to be ill-adapted to our faculty of presentation, and to be, as it were, an outrage on the imagination.” The sublime, in other words, smashes our ability to assess. The English philosopher Roger Scruton, in his book The Aesthetics of Music (1997), writes similarly of the way composers of opera and song attempt to obliterate all critical detachment between story and listener. He illustrates the point, as it happens, by reference to Butterfly’s song “Un bel di vedremo,” in which the doomed, vulnerable heroine works herself into an expression of defiant confidence that Pinkerton will return. The music, writes Scruton,
conveys not only her love for him but also the self-deception on which it has been built. You cannot fail to be touched by this situation. But Puccini wishes you to be overwhelmed by it—to put aside all critical distance, and to give way to an unlimited sympathy for the heroine, as she displays her innocent heart.
The composer does this, if I may simplify Scruton’s brilliant analysis, by moving the orchestra suddenly from one key signature and cadence into another, with a fast crescendo as Butterfly sings Tienti la tua paura, io con sicura fede l’aspetto—“Keep your fears to yourself, I know for sure he’ll reappear”—then moves the orchestra quickly back to piano and a limp cadence. She is struggling; strength and hope now return only in bursts.
Of course, it works. But some listeners, not without reason, find the passage highly questionable. Are not these rhetorical devices too pat, too obvious? Is not that final cadence a sign that the composer . . . has allowed the music to exhaust its movement before achieving a conclusion, as though Butterfly’s emotion were too short-winded to deserve our sympathetic grief?
Scruton mentions these objections not in order to agree with them, but to show what the composer is trying to do, and the risk associated with trying to do it.Now back to the Met HD production of Butterfly. Objections to Puccini’s emotionalism may be valid and reasonable, but as I watched Opolais sing, I would have been incapable of holding on to them even if I were inclined to. In HD performances, the music is broadcast through unseen speakers all around you. It doesn’t come from the orchestra pit in front of you, there for you to consider and judge. It comes from everywhere. You are enveloped by it. There is nothing around you but the music Puccini wrote, performed live by one of the world’s great orchestras. And the set and singers, projected onto a vast movie screen, are so large as to keep you from seeing or thinking about anything else. And so Puccini’s aim, as Scruton has it, is achieved. Judgment is at an end; you are overwhelmed.Seeing and hearing Butterfly live in a movie theater was not a superior experience to seeing and hearing the real thing—I don’t claim that. But it was unlike any musical experience I’ve ever had.I mentioned attending this production in an email to a friend, a rather old-fashioned Episcopal priest in New York, and she objected. “I am a passionate believer in hearing the human voice unamplified,” she wrote. “I am not a fan of high-def, but if it gets your daughter hooked then that’s good. Still, she should know the importance of sharing the same space with the unamplified voice.” I bristled at this. I reminded her politely that some people don’t have the advantage of living within a short drive of the Metropolitan Opera House, and anyhow the music isn’t “amplified”; it’s simply broadcast.Or is it? Now I’m not so sure. Maybe, after all, I’m simply giving in to the ersatz pleasure of amplified music. Opera, of course, is not amplified—the orchestra and singers don’t rely on microphones to be heard, as today’s almost invariably puny-voiced pop singers must. The purpose of the Met’s HD project, of course, is the laudable one of reaching new audiences. But maybe in an aesthetic sense it’s a form of cheating: a way to stage performances that, however sensationally executed in person, are artificially magnified and intensified by a movie theater’s sound and video system. I’m still not sure.As the final shattering blows sounded from the Met’s orchestra in New York, Cio-Cio San dying of a wound from her own dagger, my daughter and I sat in a dark movie theater 700 miles away, both of us weeping.“When’s the next one?” she asked.