One would think that in its combination of verbal, theatrical, and musical components, opera would be able to make use of these modalities in ways that include those that Murch talks about. The possibilities have recently been brought closer by the addition of film to performances of the New York Metropolitan Opera, which are now broadcast in high definition in cinemas all round the world. For me with these showings, the modalities have not always combined successfully, but they did in the very moving second act of Giacomo Puccini's Madama Butterfly (first performed in 1904), which I saw as one of these Met film broadcasts three weeks ago. Is it accidental that this production was by Anthony Minghella (who sadly died last year)?
In Act 1 of Madama Butterfly, US Navy Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton marries a young Japanese woman, Butterfly. Act 2 occurs three years later. Pinkerton has long ago gone back to America, and Butterfly continues to await his return to her. Everyone says he will not return because such American husbands never do. Butterfly sings the aria: "Un bel di vedremo," its libretto by Giacosa and Illica. An English translation is as follows:
One fine, clear day, we shall seeIn this aria, Butterfly imagines her husband's return as she looks down from the terrace of the house he had built for them, towards the harbour of Nagasaki. Puccini's music is full of the most poignant yearning. After the phrase "Poi la nave bianca entra nel porto" [Then the white ship enters the harbour] there is a double stroke on a tympanum: a shot from the ship's gun, and its echo. It is the sound of the warship, bristling with armaments, self-congratulatory, coming to offer to the Japanese—what shall we call it?—trade, interaction with foreigners, Western culture.
a thin trail of smoke arising,
on the distant horizon, far out to sea.
And then the ship appears.
Then the white ship
enters into the harbour,
and thunders out it's greeting.
For Butterfly, the sound is a gunshot of the mind. Her confidence that the love of Pinkerton is real is paired with her knowledge that he has abandoned her. The double stroke on a drum is the precipitant of meaning in her life. Perhaps, too, it can be a precipitant of our understanding. (The end of the story is that Pinkerton does return. He is accompanied by an American wife, and they take away from Butterfly the two-year-old son Pinkerton has had with her. She commits suicide, in a very Japanese way.)
Michael Ondaatje (2002). The conversations: Walter Murch and the art of editing film. Toronto: Vintage Canada.