Operas Serve Up Raw Drama

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The year is 1904. U.S. Naval officer Pinkerton rents a house on a hill in Nagasaki, Japan, for him and his wife-to-be, Cio-Cio-San—a 15-year-old girl whose name means “butterfly.”

He marries her for convenience, intending to leave her once he finds a proper American woman, which he does. He only returns to Japan to claim their son. Admitting to be a coward, he leaves the dirty work to his new wife, Kate, as well as Butterfly’s maid, Suzuki, and the American Consul, Sharpless.

Butterfly tells Pinkerton’s three emissaries that if he comes to see her, she will give him their child.

She prays to the statues of her ancestral gods. And when Pinkerton doesn’t come, she says goodbye to her son and blindfolds him. She places a small American flag into his tiny hands and disappears behind a screen, and cuts her throat with her father’s hara-kiri knife.

Pinkerton rushes in. He is too late.

The story of “Madama Butterfly” is quite dramatic. Italian composer Giacomo Puccini’s legendary opera is synonymous with the theatrical tool and, arguably, the most beloved opera of all time, according to Opera of the Hamptons Music Director Robert Allen Wilson. It transcends language, he said.

“The music is so explicit that you don’t even have to understand the Italian and you just listen and watch and you know exactly what is being said and communicated,” he explained last week during a telephone interview. “That’s the genius of Puccini. You can listen to the music and you feel the character. You understand what they’re feeling at every point. He is just a genius.”

Birth, struggle, love, conquest. Triumph of light over darkness, of hope over despair. These themes swirl together within the most tremendous dramatic operas—which “capture the language of the soul and humanity,” Mr. Wilson said—and will be discussed during the “Great Drama in Opera” workshop on Wednesday, June 5, at the Rogers Memorial Library.

The hour-long session will also include “Cavalleria Rusticana” by Pietro Mascagni and Puccini’s “Turandot,” according to Opera of the Hamptons Artistic Director Barbara Giancola, who has been putting on these workshops at the library for nearly a decade.

This year will be a bit different, though, she reported. Instead of focusing on one opera and breaking down the story, Ms. Giancola has instead selected three works and will demonstrate how the composer saw the opera, the librettos and the emotion in each through both discussion and performances.

“You know when you hear a commercial and suddenly the music gets dramatic? You say, ‘Uh oh, something’s gonna happen.’ It’s no different in opera, it’s exactly the same,” she said last week during a telephone interview. “Everything is quite dramatic, just as it could be romantic. Oh my goodness, they have plenty of that. If you’re not dying, you’re falling in love. Believe me, when you hear these stories, some of them are so convoluted. How the heck did they ever come up with that one? The fact is, many of the stories are taken from real life.”

Just as “Madama Butterfly” is inspired by true events, so is “Cavalleria Rusticana,” she said. Mascagni’s masterpiece revolves around a love square: Turiddu, a young villager, returns from the military service only to find that while he was gone, his fiancée, Lola, has married Alfio, a carter. In revenge, Turiddu seduces Santuzza, a young woman in the village. Overcome by her jealousy, Lola begins an adulterous affair with Turiddu.

Little does Lola know, Santuzza is pregnant.

“Have you heard this story before? It’s so common,” Ms. Giancola said. “Talk about drama. That’s also based on a true story.”

While “Cavalleria Rusticana” is pure Italian passion, anger and anxiety explored in a realistic setting, Mr. Wilson said, “Turandot” is more of a fairy tale. In fact, Ms. Giancola said that she used to tell the story of the icy princess, Turandot—who would have her suitors beheaded if they incorrectly answered her three riddles—to her nieces and nephews

“It doesn’t sound like something that really happened, but how do I know?” Ms. Giancola laughed. “All these princes and having all their heads in the court, oh please. Unless, in ancient times, they did that kind of thing.”

Mr. Wilson shared in Ms. Giancola’s skepticism.

“It’s not everyday reality at all, whereas ‘Butterfly’ you believe it could probably happen and ‘Cavalleria’ is a very down-to-earth, dramatic, gutsy kind of story,” he said. “You can’t go wrong with any of these pieces. Year after year, people go out to hear ‘Madama Butterfly’ because of the human story and because of the beauty of what the composers brought to those stories, the power. And it just envelops people and that’s what they really want and what they need.”

Opera of the Hamptons will host “Great Drama in Opera” on Wednesday, June 5, at noon at the Rogers Memorial Library in Southampton. Admission is free, but reservations are required. For more information, call 283-0774 or visit myrml.org.

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