Opera as Idea and Performance: Class 3

Just finished the third opera class with Lyric Opera General Director Anthony Freud and UChicago Law Professor Martha Nussbaum at the helm, and I still can’t believe how easy it is for the three hours of class to go by – time really does fly when you’re having fun 😀

Yesterday’s class focused on Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, and our special guest was soprano Ana María Martínez! Ana María, who flew all the way from Houston to join us for this class (wow!), just finished performances of Madama Butterfly in LA and spoke about her experiences and approach to playing Cio-Cio San and other operatic roles, such as Rusalka, Carmen, and Manon Lescaut. She also included anecdotes about the unique experience of singing and acting with a Bunraku doll (Cio-Cio San’s son) in the Met’s production of Butterfly, inflexibility with stage directors, psychoanalytic/emotional perspectives of various characters, and the physiology of operatic singing/acting. I was sad that I couldn’t attend her concert with Placido Domingo earlier in the year – it would’ve been incredible to hear these two sing live in concert – but I’m looking forward to hearing her in Lyric’s production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin next season. Additionally, we got to listen to Ana María’s recording of Cio-Cio san’s famous aria, Un bel dì, and she also sang a bit for us in class, which was very cool! I got to talk to her and Anthony afterwards, and in addition to Anthony taking my photo with her (as he kindly did a couple of months ago for me and Renée Fleming – this might become a regular occurrence, haha 😀 ), we also talked about how when Pau Gasol comes to visit Lyric, he usually stops by backstage to take photos with the cast. Anthony had some photos of Pau visiting Ana María backstage a couple of years ago at Lyric – very cool to see!

A bulk of the discussion on Madama Butterfly rested on why it is still such a popular opera in the repertoire today, as well as the ideas of cultural insensitivity/objectification, racism, and sexism (and whether or not Puccini is promoting these ideas through the opera), which was strongly illustrated in many of the readings that were assigned. At one point, Professor Nussbaum did make an observation that I found interesting: she noted that in Butterfly, Puccini often associates Cio-Cio San with “Japanese” music, in that it is mainly comprised from the pentatonic scale, which could be seen as cultural stereotyping. Yet in Verdi’s works, such as in Nabucco, Verdi gives some of the greatest and most powerful music to the Hebrew slaves in the famous chorus, Va Pensiero, and did not aim to portray the Hebrews in terms of their “culture,” which makes Verdi the better composer. She also made this same point with Verdi’s Macbeth. Anyways, whether one agrees or disagrees, it is safe to say that both Verdi and Puccini were incredible Italian composers and obviously people are always going to have their own preferences on who is their favorite composer. I do find myself enjoying Verdi more than Puccini, but nevertheless, I think Puccini still wrote some of the most beautiful operatic works in existence today.

Speaking of Verdi and opera, next week, I will get the once-in-a-lifetime (in my opinion) opportunity to attend a 3+ hour rehearsal of Verdi’s Falstaff, led by Maestro Muti!! The rehearsal will feature the entire CSO, chorus, and soloists, which includes the Falstaff of today, Italian baritone Ambrogio Maestri! Maestri, playing the role of Falstaff, made his debut in La Scala with Muti, and since then, he has become an internationally renowned singer. I recently saw the Met’s HD production of Falstaff with Maestri in the title role, and he was amazing – so I’m greatly looking forward to the rehearsal and concert. Additionally, Maestro Muti will be leading an open rehearsal of Verdi’s I vespri Siciliani with the Civic Orchestra this coming Sunday (which will be right after the BRSO’s performance w/ Mariss Jansons). To see the world’s greatest conductor of Verdi conducting Verdi in both live rehearsal and concert is going to be INCREDIBLE 😀 Stay tuned for more posts!

And side-note…I won’t be going to the Tchaikovsky/Mahler program Muti is leading these next two weeks, as all 5 dates are almost sold out and seats are pretty expensive. I am surprised that the only 3 performances of Falstaff aren’t at all sold out (plus there are student tickets), and yet all 5 of the Tchaikovsky/Mahler performances are practically filled – it boggles my mind. I think people know that Muti is known for his Verdi, so I don’t understand why Falstaff isn’t as popular…maybe people aren’t as excited about opera as I am and don’t want to sit through 3 hours of a concert? No idea…but I’m definitely the opposite – I bought my ticket for Falstaff  way in advance because I thought it was going to be sold out by now! Anyways, I should probably get ready for SOSC tomorrow – we have a project assignment coming up in the next couple of weeks and I haven’t started on it at all. I do know what the topic will be though: opera!


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