San Francisco has grown on me over the years and it is now one of my favorite US cities. It lacks the architectural grandeur of Chicago, the in your face energy of New York or the neo-imerial triumphalism of Washington DC; but it shares the messy coherence of Boston, in part because it has age on its size. The rebuilding after the 1906 earthquake and fire followed the old street pattern rather than imposing a grid. It feels comfortable with itself from the ramshackle trams to the brash development of Fisherman’s Wharf and the eclectic culture of Castro. It has a lived in feel to it and while it has the most visible (and probably the worst) homeless issue in the US it doesn’t really feel threatening, evening walking back down Market Street as I did this evening.
I had been the Opera to a highly competent performance of Madam Butterfly. I was curious to see how an opera whose theme is the naive exploitation of a Japanese Geisha by an American Sailor would be received in a Navy Port with a large Japanese population. It is also one of the most emotional of Puccini’s operas, the one in which the influence of Wagner is most evident. It was my father’s favorite opera which makes any performance poignant for me. Combine those two with a Soprano who not only looked the part and who could act (not always the case), but whose upper register had the power to physically tear your soul from your body and tears were streaming from my eyes during the final act. For those not familiar Butterfly chooses death with honour having been betrayed by the indifference of her lover. As she strikes her stomach with her father’s knife (A gift of the Mikado with an invitation to commit Seppuku, her son plays unknowing amongst the flowers and you can feel the agony of moment.
Its always interested to watch the familiar things in an unfamiliar setting. I have lost count of the performances I have seen, although the ENO’s production with its haunting link to the Nagasaki Bomb will always stay in my mind, not least as it was the last time I saw the opera with my father. However this was different in the way the audience behaved. Ok we had the familiar idiots who think that I want to hear their comments on the set during Viene la sera or choose to rustle sweet/candy papers during the most poignant of all arias Un bel di. But it was no more or less than London and could be silenced by deploying the glare that all devoted opera goers develop.
What was interesting was the diversity of the audience. I was settled into the Grand Circle, a luxury I can afford in the US but not the UK where I would pay more for the upper regions of the balcony, fondly known as the Gods. We had a sizable presence from the Gay community clustered to my right and down. My coincidence I had ended up with a large number of men in corduroy suits, accompanied by wife’s dressed in up market versions of costumes they first wore in the Summer of Love. Left and front those who could not afford boxes but felt they should be able to were seated. Ball gowns and lounge suits or Dinner Jackets in the main with Fedora Hats for the men (a curiosity that). To my left the neck and cheek of an elderly woman resembled the drapes of a curtain with the residual effect to too many a face life. Scattered through out this was a younger Asian audience, many of who were there for the first time. I ended up with a group of them at the interval as there were curious about the opera, and this strange foreigner emotionally caught up in the event. Their respect for the performance was impressive.
The other curiosity was the reception at the end. In Covent Garden few people would be there for the first time, and the audience would know when each act was over and respond accordingly. Here the audience waiting for the lights to go up, seemingly seeking confirmation that the respective act was now over. At the end they also booed the Tenor who sang Pinkerton, not for a poor performance, his rendering of the series of arias that end the first Act was outstanding. No it was a music hall reaction, the good guys were cheered the bad guys were booed. I’ve never seen that at an opera before.
I’ll be back for the Ring Cycle in 2011 and I’m already curious as to how California reacts to Wagner.
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