Opera is where the guy gets stabbed in the back and instead of dying, he sings. Ah, Robert Burns, what a turn of phrase you have. Mind you, there was a time when I’d have shared your opinion but in recent years, I’m mellowing. And, living in Budapest, with the opera practically part and parcel of everyday life, and tickets from 400 huf (about €1.30 / $1.50), I get to indulge more often than I might otherwise.
Before all major operatic performance at the Opera House, there’s a dress rehearsal. That’s pretty standard. Tickets are reserved for OAPs and students and are not on sale to the general public. But if you have an OAP or a student in your repertoire of friends, they can purchase the tickets for you as that’s where the control is – the cash desk.
Last night I got to see the dress rehearsal of Madame Butterfly, the seventh most performed opera in the world. Puccini’s first version, which premiered in Milan in 1904 was very badly received. He then revised the two-act opera into three acts and later that year it got a much better reception. But still a work in progress, it would see three more revisions before the standard version that we see now was finalised.
I don’t pretend to know anything about opera. I’m tone deaf and wouldn’t recognise an aria out of context if my life depended on it. It took me a while to realise that O Sole Mio (which I knew as the Cornetto song) didn’t come from an opera at all and while I might eventually recognise something I’ve heard before in a full-length opera, Madame Butterfly was an exception.
I’d seen it before so I knew the story, but I was still grateful that the Opera in Budapest now offers surtitles in both Hungarian and English; it doubled as a language lesson. I came away with one new phrase: igazam volt (I was right).
I had forgotten the story until Pinkerton appeared and then it all came back to me. The rotten SOB married a 15-year-old (yes, 15!) Japanese girl, Japanese style – i.e., for a term of 999 years with an option to cancel the marriage every month. He said from the git go that he was only amusing himself and that his plan was to marry an American wife in America. Now, I know it’s only a story, but I was incensed. And it didn’t get any better. Far from being carried away by the music, I just got more and more annoyed with that idiot and then found myself getting increasingly annoyed with Cio-Cio San (Madame Butterfly), torn as I was between admiration for her unwavering belief in him and disappointment at her stupidity. When he didn’t know up as promised, after the robins had nested the following year, he was never going to show. Get a grip, woman. And when, in the end, she tops herself, I hadn’t an ounce of sympathy for him. I’d willingly have told him where he could shove his remorse.
I was quite surprised at the emotion it evoked in me as it’s not the most memorable of operas (music wise). But perhaps that’s why it is the seventh most performed opera in the world. More than a century later, women are still being suckered by men and their proclamations of undying love and affection – those of us at least who put romanticism above pragmatism. Will we ever learn?
The Opera House is a warren of staircases that are difficult to navigate. I entered through one door and left through another and got lost during both intermissions. The house was 90% full, which was great to see. And the mix of mini-skirted teens with the twinsets and pearls was quite amusing. I now have aspirations to be classically elegant in my 80s.
After seven years of it, I’m still grateful that a dose of culture in Budapest is not prohibitively expensive and that with a little effort on my part, my knowledge of opera might slowly increase. Note to self: go more regularly in 2015.