Butterfly Resources, part III: critical responses

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The Japanese Fan (Gustave de Jonghe, 1880s).

Read “Madama Butterfly: A Study in Ambiguity” by Jordan Serchuk.

Read “The Heartless GIs Who Inspired Madame Butterfly by Rupert Christiansen.

Read “Washington National Opera’s Madama Butterfly, Reviewed,” by Mike Paarlberg.

Read “Past vs. Present: Puccini’s Madame Butterfly vs. Weezer’s Pinkerton” by Maxime Scraire.

Weezer’s “Across the Sea”:

Read “What About Yellowface?” on this blog.

Take a look at this Pinterest page of mostly Western women in Japanese kimono.

A database of all the Japanese folk songs Puccini incorporated into the score of Madama Butterfly.

Now watch this entire film.

Butterfly Resources, part II

The opera in a nutshell.

Maestro Antonio Pappano and the cast of the Royal Opera production discuss the rehearsal process.

English National Opera presented Butterfly two years ago with a puppet as Trouble, Butterfly’s son.

Do you think it works?

A short animated film to Butterfly’s Act II aria “Un bel dì vedremo.”

Glyndebourne Opera updated the story to 1950s post-World War II Japan:

Punk rock producer Malcom McLaren’s take:

The Kazakh countertenor Erik Kurmangaliev singing Butterfly’s Act III aria in a Russian-language production of American playwright David Henry Hwang’s play M. Butterfly (which actually does not follow the plot of the opera at all, but concerns a relationship between a French diplomat and a Chinese opera singer

Butterfly Resources, part I

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Read the complete libretto in English translation here.

Watch the complete opera here in a 1975 film version. No subtitles (but you won’t need them because you have the libretto!), but beautifully and sensitively performed.

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“La Japonaise (Mme. Monet in Kimono” (Claude Monet, 1875).

 

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Photo from Operation Babylift, Saigon, 1975.

Ossian in Italy

Ossian

How did the poetry of Ossian (really, James MacPherson) influence Italian opera in the nineteenth century?

Why was Ossian — later acknowledged to be a fraud — so important to the Romantic generation in Italy?

Could it be because these supposedly ancient poems spoke to the longing for a unified culture and community, one based on spiritual aspirations rather than on the arbitrary borders set out by the various monarchies of Europe? In other words: because “Ossian,” as a Scottish poet, addressed issues of the time — including the longing for nationhood among diverse peoples — in a way that would surely have been censored or suppressed if the poems had been “modern”?

As Sante Matteo writes:

Ossianism, as a kind of cultural virus . . . spread quickly and widely. In Britain, which had recently suppressed a series of insurrections in Scotland and solidified its domain over the recently formed “United Kingdom,” these Ossianic characteristics . . . promoted Scottish nationalism and undermined English authority.

So, for all of his purported ancientness, Ossian is about resurgence, rebirth — risorgimento in Italian. The Italian Risorgimento was the political and artistic movement dedicated to Italian liberation and unification.

So we go from early Italian Romantic opera, like this:

to overtly nationalist and revolutionary Italian Romantic opera, like this:

 

Classically Black, part IV: Postmodernism

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When we talk about postmodernism in music, we’re generally referring to the period after World War II. Some of the hallmarks of postmodernism are an experimental approach to form, structure, and instrumental/vocal techniques, a distrust of historically-informed musical styles, and an aesthetic that borrows from and refers to popular music styles. Postmodernist music has taken on many different and sometimes-conflicting forms and philosophical narratives.

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Composer Tania León (b. 1943) draws on her Afro-Cuban heritage and its syncretic music traditions in her art and concert music.

The aria “Oh Yemanya” is from her opera Scourge of Hyancinths, whose libretto she co-authored with the Nigerian poet and playwright Wole Soyinka.

León says of this aria:

[Yemanya] is the same deity that my grandmother and my mother — if we were sick, then they would pray to this deity. If I had an exam, if I got to play in front of the public, everything was geared toward — all the sanctity and the blessing of this deity. Then this man has sent me something where this mother is praying to the same deity my family prayed to? This is the piece!

She is currently writing an opera about the Little Rock Nine, with a libretto by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

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León with Soyinka (right) and Gates.

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Anthony Davis (b. 1951) has written several operas, including X, about Malcolm X:

His operas also include Amistad, about the 1839 slave-ship uprising, and The Five, about the Central Park Five.

Is his music syncretic? Does it incorporate styles of black music outside of the classical tradition?

George Walker (1922-2018) and his son Gregory T.S. Walker (b. 1961 and also a composer) talk here about George’s work; Gregory performs his father’s violin piece Bleu:

The complete talk:

Anthony Braxton (b. 1945) incorporates elements of free jazz into his classical compositions:

Black Opera

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Harry Lewis Freeman (1869-1954).

Harry Lewis Freeman, known in his lifetime as “the black Wagner,” was the first African-American opera composer to have a staged work successfully produced. Born in Cleveland, Freeman eventually moved to Harlem, where he taught music and established the Negro Grand Opera Company.

His opera 1914 Voodoo is about a love triangle on a Louisiana plantation during Reconstruction, one of whose participants is a “Voodoo queen,” Lolo. The New York Herald Tribune noted that the opera portrayed

typical Negro life in the days of slavery, while the music includes spirituals, chants, arias, tangoes and other dances, among these a ritualistic voodoo ceremony.

In 2015, the opera was revived for the first time since 1928 by the Harlem Opera Theatre, who performed it in a concert version at the Miller Theater at Columbia University.

Here, Janinah Burnett as Lolo performs the “ritualistic voodoo ceremony.”

Freeman was not, however, the first African-American composer of opera. The first known operatic work by a black composer in the U.S. was Virginia’s Ball by John Thomas Douglass (1847-1886), which had its premiere in New York in 1868. Unfortunately, the score has been lost. Below is an excerpt from his solo piano work “The Pilgrim.”

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James Weldon Johnson’s brother, J. Rosamond Johnson (1873-1954), is best known for his setting of his brother’s poem “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” also known as the Black National Anthem:

He was also a successful composer of light operas for the Broadway stage around the turn of the twentieth century.

In addition, Johnson was a singer, who performed the role of Frazier in George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess — the most enduringly successful opera to employ an all-black cast (the opera is still cast only with singers of African descent, by specification of the Gershwin estate).

The English National Opera performed Porgy for the first time this month, with a cast of young black English singers.

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Ulysses Kay (1917-1995), above, who wrote in a more “internationalist,” neo-classical style, also wrote operas. This is a score excerpt from his 1985 opera Frederick Douglass.

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In performance by New York’s Opera Ebony:

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William Grant Still (1895-1978), above, known as the “Dean of African-American Composers,” wrote eight operas. His 1939 opera Troubled Island, about the 1804 slave rebellion in Haiti, was the first opera by a black composer to be performed by a major company, the New York City Opera.

 

 

Sounding “White”

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Throughout 2018, the New York Times has been running a series of stories called “Overlooked,” which are the obituaries of notable women from the past who the paper declined to acknowledge at the time of their deaths. In August, the Times published an overdue obituary for Sissieretta Jones, the first black opera singer to appear at Carnegie Hall. Jones was marketed as “The Black Patti” — i.e., the black counterpart to the reigning opera diva of the day, Adelina Patti, below.

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Jones was the daughter of former slaves. The obituary notes that, while Jones performed opera excerpts in concert widely across the United States and Europe, as a black soprano she was prohibited from appearing in fully-staged opera productions with white singer colleagues. An interviewer at the time suggested that she “whiten up” with makeup, but Jones refused.

“Try to hide my race and deny my own people?” she responded in the interview, which was published by The San Francisco Call in 1896. “Oh, I would never do that.” She added: “I am proud of belonging to them and would not hide what I am even for an evening.”

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Jones was preceded in forging a new path for black classically-trained singers by Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, who was born a slave in Mississippi sometime around 1820, and later taken to Philadelphia and freed when her owners divorced. She toured the United States in 1851, singing programs of opera arias and art songs, and was managed  by a white man who was evidently a racist and a supporter of the Fugitive Slave Act, and who prohibited black audiences from attending her concerts.

As the music critic for the Buffalo Commercial Advertiser enthused after Greenfield’s debut concert in that city:

A Black Swan!

Among the musical novelties of the day, the public are soon to be astonished by the debut of a young lady of African extraction, by the name of Eliza[beth] Greenfield. We had the pleasure last evening in company with a party of Musical Amateurs, of listening to her performance and must confess we were completely surprised and delighted.

Miss Greenfield possesses a voice of great purity and flexibility, and of extraordinary compass; singing the notes in alto, with brilliancy and sweetness, and descending to the bass notes with a power and volume perfectly astonishing. She sang among other pieces “When the gloom if night retiring,” with a degree of artistic finish that many of our celebrated Prima Donnas might envy.

The critic undoubtedly meant Sir Henry Bishop’s “Like the Gloom of Night Retiring”; there is documentary evidence of Greenfield having sung the piece in Buffalo.

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There is also evidence that a Buffalo police phalanx had to be called in to protect the singer, the audience, and the concert hall after threats of “dire disasters to the building if the dark lady were permitted to sing.”

Indeed, The Buffalo Daily Express was constrained to plead, in its review of her concert:

May we not hope that her music may tend to soften the hearts of the free and lighten the shackles of her race enslaved.

When Greenfield appeared in Cleveland, the music critic for the Cleveland Plain Dealer noted the astonishment of the audience as they heard “white” sounds emanating from a black body:

It was amusing to behold the utter surprise and intense pleasure which were depicted on the faces of her listeners; they seemed to express – ‘Why, we see the face of a black woman, but hear the voice of an angel, what does it mean?’

Sadly, there are no recordings of Sissieretta Jones or Elizabeth Greenfield; the latter died before the advent of recording, and the former, tragically, though she died as late as the 1930s, apparently chose not to record.

We have the examples, however, of many great black sopranos who have followed in the course laid down by these pioneering prima donnas.

Jessye Norman, for instance, is my absolute favorite singer in my aboslute favorite composer, Johannes Brahms — not to mention being unsurpassed in Wagner and other operatic repertoire.

Here she is singing “Divinités du Styx,” from the 1767 opera Alceste by Christoph Willibald Gluck:

In spite of the success of the success of black women singers, black men have traditionally fared less well in opera. A 1972 New York Times article, “When Will the Black Male Make It in Opera?”, describes the predicament of

Therman Bailey, a tall, good‐looking man in his early forties, [who] was signed by the Cologne Opera a few years ago. After he arrived there he was assigned a large number of roles to prepare in German. As the weeks went by, he was given more and more to learn but never a performance. He complained and finally worked up the long chain of bureaucracy to the artistic administrator, who said, “Really, we’re not sure how you’re going to look onstage.” Bailey said, “Then why the hell did you hire me? I haven’t suddenly changed color!” 

Inspired by his anger, Bailey reached over and pointed to a list of the company’s repertory. “Look at these operas! Almost every one is set in a Mediterranean country where blacks have always lived, Why can’t I do one?”

And George Shirley, the first black tenor to perform a leading role at the Metropolitan Opera, suggests that

white men erroneously see the black male “as a sort of superhuman sex machine. Maybe because of this, we’re a threat in all areas. No white man is threatened by a black woman, but when a black man is raised into a position of equal competition, the white man doesn’t like it. He says to himself, ‘Why should I open my world up to this guy when I al ready have to deal with so many white guys?”

This has been especially true for tenors, who sing the romantic male leads in opera, and thus are paired with (usually white) sopranos, which, in the United States especially, has been perceived as threatening and unsavory by (predominantly white) opera audiences.

Fortunately, things are changing, but opera is not only tradition-bound; it’s also not especially woke.

What does it mean to sound black? To sound white?

Can A White Girl Sing Selena?

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April 16 is a state holiday in Texas: Selena Day.

Who was Selena?

Selena was, is, and, were I to guess, will remain for eternity the most beloved female of all time in the Latino community. (Second place is the Virgin Mary, if you’re looking for context.) . . . She looked like (a more attractive version of) us.

This year, a (mostly) white singer caused controversy by booking a Selena tribute gig at a Dallas club.

Singer Suzanna Choffel explains:

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Some cried foul. One Facebook commenter noted:

“Call it what you want, but the fact that you preface your video with, ‘Yes, I know I’m a white girl,’ means that the little 1/8 of you that you now (after being called out for appropriation) claim is Mexican means very little to you, and you ain’t Latina.”

Choffel was defended, on the other hand, by Rachel V. González-Martin, a professor of Mexican-American and Latina/o Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, who

[defines] cultural appropriation as what happens when [a] community with significant resources takes as its own the expressions of a community with fewer resources.

But, [González-Martin] said, cultural appropriation can be hard to identify.

“Once people are exposed to culture, it’s out there . . . That’s why cultural appropriation is so difficult. To say, ‘You’re not Latino, so you’re not allowed to like Selena’ is ridiculous, and it’s bigoted, and it’s small-minded.”

What do you think?

To put it in a certain context: this is one of the best-known songs by Flaco Jiménez, a Texas-born singer and accordionist, like Selena a master of the Tejano style.

Every year on his birthday, these two white Dutch guys make a video of themselves covering it as a tribute to Jiménez. Is it cultural appropriation? Is it cultural appreciation?

What about the Japanese group Orquesta de la Luz, considered one of the best salsa bands of the 1980s and 1990s?

Celia Cruz, the Queen of Salsa.

Professor González-Martin’s idea that once culture is out there, it’s out there, is not true just for the cultural expressions of historically-oppressed or underresourced groups. In recent years, for instance, Richard Wagner’s operas have been adopted as required listening by American white supremacists who probably never took Music 101. (If they had taken it with me, I like to think, they might have emerged with a little more love for their fellow man.)

For instance, the famous Ride of the Valkyries from Die Walküre was used as the opening theme music for a white supremacist radio show in Florida.

And at a speech at a rally in Sweden, white supremacist Lana Lokteff asserted that:

“lionesses and shield maidens and Valkyries” would inspire men to fight political battles for the future of white civilization.

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Someone else used Wagner’s music as a sonic pun in an endless loop of alt-right spokesman Richard Spencer getting punched at Trump’s inauguration:

As the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote in 1916:

I made my song a coat 
Covered with embroideries 
Out of old mythologies 
From heel to throat; 
But the fools caught it, 
Wore it in the world’s eyes 
As though they’d wrought it. 
Song, let them take it
For there’s more enterprise 
In walking naked.

Blackvoice

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You know what blackface is.

Is there such a thing as blackVOICE? What is it?

Historically, we might call “blackvoice” one of the performative tools of blackface minstrelsy. In the days when minstrelsy was considered an acceptable form of entertainment, blackface and blackvoice existed simultaneously in the same performance/performer.

What about now?

Iggy Azalea is only one of the most obvious white adopters of a “blaccent” in her work. The practice is of long standing, however.

This is Alison Moyet, a white English “blued-eyed soul” singer from the 1980s.

Covering this classic hit:

Is it blackvoice?

Is this?

Is this?

This raises the question: Is there such a thing as whitevoice?

In this 1980 performance of Mozart’s opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Harem), African-American soprano Reri Grist sings the role of Blonde (which means “Blondie” in German), an English maid who, with her mistress, has been taken captive in a Turkish harem. The gruff harem guard, Osmin, takes a shine to her; she tweaks him, telling him that women like to be treated with kindness.

What do you think?

 

 

Whose Music Is It?

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The great American contralto Marian Anderson in 1928.

Music scholar and historian Kira Thurman discusses the exodus of African-American classical musicians to the German-speaking lands in the late nineteenth century, and their reception once they arrived.

For more on Dr. Thurman’s work, go here.