Friday, April 20, 2007

Parrot Catches Butterfly

Not that I haven't been out and about or anything, but my last post was 3/3, and this was supposed to be a biweekly blog at least. On 3/14 I was busy working on a review of the Met Opera's production of Die Meistersinger, which you shall have, by and by, though I realize it's tacky to retro-blog. (Hey, I started a piece on the world championship chess match before I even started this blog, and I'm still looking for an excuse to post that one!) Maybe I'll get you some notes on the Edward Scissorhands production at BAM, which stands for Brooklyn Academy of Music (not a kick in the gut from Batman).

Anyway, the interruption was mainly courtesy of the IRS, which treated me to an audit right before I had to do my 2006 taxes. FYI, if you happen by mistake not to report the sale of thousands of dollars of mutual funds which netted you roughly $7.00 in profits, the IRS will bill you for taxes on the entire amount of the sale - on the reasonable assumption that you paid less than a penny for the entire lot. Well, I sent them some documentation; let's see if they're any smarter than the NYC Department of FInance, which has so far taken a year and a half to consider the documentation I sent them showing that they are billing me for a ticket on a rental car which I had already returned. Am I just a magnet for this stuff, or does it happen to everyone?

The rest of my time was eaten by my divorce case, about which the less said the better. Then again, I'll say this at least. You may have heard about Judge Garson, the Brooklyn divorce court judge who was just convicted of taking bribes to fix cases. You might wonder, how could he get away with that for so long, wouldn't someone recognize that his decisions are totally biased and prejudicial? The answer is that none of his decisions stand out as being especially bizarre in the context of the arbitrary, demeaning and irrational nature of the entire divorce system in this country (and New York State, which has a particularly medieval set of laws, rulings and assumptions). One of my former co-workers was a victim of Judge Garson; it took him 15 years to get a divorce from a woman who (according to him) was committed to mental institutions, destroyed his software business (took a magnet to all the disks) and scratched up his new car, among other things. No matter - I've spoken to people who took six, ten, twelve years to get a divorce, and didn't have Judge Garson. He fit right in: arbitrary, unfair decisions based on fallacious reasoning. Shouldn't he get a promotion to the Court of Appeals instead of a jail sentence?

Well, I'd better segue quickly into my topic, before I write a book on how the courts deal with family relations. Luckily, segueing (ha!) ain't hard to do, as you know if you've ever seen Puccini's ever popular Madame Butterfly, as I did Friday night at the NYC Opera. The opera is based on the story of Mr. Pinkerton, an American sailor in Japan who obtains a 15-year-old Japanese bride, Cio-Cio-San, from a marriage broker, and then leaves her for three years to go to back to America, where he marries an American woman. The subtle but crucial premise of the dramatic action is that abandonment in Japan is divorce; which does the work of making it legal for the opera's antihero, Mr. Pinkerton, to marry another woman, and also puts in perspective the faithfulness of Cio-Cio-San, who refuses to take another husband or believe that her American lover has left her. Owl, who shall henceforth be referred to as Fragrance of Verbena (one of Pinkerton's pet names for his Japanese wife) had more than a little sympathy with the betrayed lover; Parrot had to convince Owl that not all Americans are Pinkertons. (Fragrance of Verbena's Mom had already warned her not to get involved with an American Monk parrot, or she would be deceived; little did I know that my potential future Chinese owl-in-law was an Italian opera buff!) Well, there are plenty of dramas which explore the theme of substituting pretense or imagination for reality; it usually doesn't work out too well, though it tends to be in the nature of who we are.

Another theme here is the fundamental lack of understanding between cultures; Pinkerton clearly thinks it is just in the nature of Japanese society that he can break a contract without consequences; and though he finds this odd, he is happy to utilize it to further his own life goals, which clearly include from the outset marrying an American woman when he gets back to the U.S. He is just thrilled that he can, for instance, break his lease on the house he rents for himself and Cio-Cio-San, as well as walk out on her when he is ready. But as it turns out, Japanese culture depends on trust, something he does not understand much about, and when he returns and finds out the damage he has done, he is mortified and suggests that his own life is ruined too. Nevertheless, one thing he tries to do is make good on his obligation to the 3-year-old son he now finds out he has. Unfortunately, his way of doing this is to take the son away from the mother who can't really support him; a gut-wrenching transition that goes quite badly here - as it does, for example, in Citizen Kane, but not in the ludicrously underplayed scene in The Pursuit of Happiness - and results in the suicide of Cio-Cio-San. For while the father acts responsibly in the limited way he can, the mother makes the much more difficult decision to assist the son's departure by removing herself from the scene, so he will not regret having to leave her. And this, it seems, is the ultimate thing that Pinkerton does not understand about Japanese culture - that it is better to die with honorable intentions than to live in dishonor, having been abandoned by a husband and failed to provide for one's son. Thus the opacity of the norms and morals of another culture leads to demise on both sides.

It is not without some irony that the cultural disparity is played out in part by Cio-Cio-San's rejection by her uncle, a Buddhist priest, who condemns and essentially excommunicates her for rejecting her own religion and culture. What a depressing lesson for our own situation today, where the sense of an irreconcilable clash between Western and Eastern (in this case Islamic) culture is upon us all. Utlimately, methinks this is overblown a bit. Fragrance of Verbena grew up in a city of moderate size some 10,000 miles away from here, in a nation that practically defines the idea of "difference" when it comes to culture and history. But Fragrance of Verbena's main difference from American women, as far as I can tell, is in the way she pronounces "Louis Vuitton", "Cartier", and "BMW" (did someone say "Maclaren"? Sshhhhhh.....) and the place where she would prefer to have her house with the two-car garage (Bay Ridge vs. Park Slope, maybe). Or to put it another (perhaps more palatable) way - fundamentally, everyone wants a life that is satisfying and social relations that involve mutual repsect. Pinkerton did not fail to understand that he was violating someone's trust by marrying under false pretenses; he was even informed of this by his friend Sharpless, the American consul. It is an idea built into Western marriage contracts and practically every other contract; the difference is only in having a legal superstructure to enforce it. For her part, Cio-Cio-San had every right by Japanese custom to take another husband, but refused to recognize the reality of her situation. Ultimately, it was not culture clash that was to blame, but the failure of the parties to make choices based on inferences that were easily available to them. Well, easily? Perhaps not. Negotiating the waters of cultural difference can be challenging, but what I am suggesting is that there is no real opacity, except the opacity of one's own stubbornness. Ideological difference is real, but for the most part it is rooted in things we all know about one another. Anyone with an inkling of the history of the Middle East should understand, for example, that the forcible overthrow of one religious power center, and its replacement by a competing one, is going to solve no problems whatsoever, but will certainly create more grist for the fundamentalist mill. From Ireland to Israel to India to Iraq, it is not some opaque and incomprehensible difference of culture that underlies the trouble we see; it is a more basic lack of respect and equality of opportunity that one side fears from the other, usually not without some justification. Madame Butterfly suggests that cultural identity is important, but it also suggests that the real problem is a lack of will to follow the system one's own culture provides for recognizing the difference between right and wrong, reality and fantasy. "Islam is a religion of peace", someone was recently quoted as saying in the Times. So be it; and I assume this applies to both the Sunni and Shi'ite interpretations. For more than four centuries, Western systems of international law have recognized the difference between just war and war of aggression, between legitimate intervention and violations of national sovereignty. So there is the basis for international peace, and cultural opacity is a flimsy excuse for not being able to achieve it.

The role of Cio-Cio-San was sung by the impressive Shu-Ying Li, who not only provided a convincing account of the vocal challenges but offered a compelling character portrait of the innocent but dignified Japanese bride. Christopher Jackson's Benjamin Pinkerton was strong enough as a carrier of melodies, but it is hard to imagine a less moving dramatic performance. One could hardly believe that this is a man in the grip of love (at the beginning) or despair (in the final act). I admit that from the front of the fourth ring, without opera glasses, it was a little difficult to make out facial expressions. But this is not a film with close-ups after all; stage acting should not depend on that. There was little difficulty in recognizing the nuanced movements of Matthew Surapine as the marriage broker Goro, or Mme Butterfly's delicate movements (even if they perhaps drew more on the Beijing Opera tradition than Japanese culture, not to mention Puccini, Giacosa or Belasco). Jackson's awkwardness with the dramatic aspects stood out to me and detracted from the overall production. Neverthteless, from a musical point of view it was superb, with some of the arias being carried off with piercing intensity. One quartet (I guess - I believe there were at least four vocal lines going on) in Act III was particularly beautiful. The orchestra received a well-deserved burst of applause when they stood at the command of the capable conductor, Atsushi Yamada.

But the real discovery, to me, in the production, was the voice of Keri Alkema, who played the devoted maid Suzuki. Though the part is relatively small, from her first note to her last I had the impression of being in the presence of a truly exceptional mezzo, with a tone rich and strong enough to practically dominate any scene in which she appeared. I hear Wagner or Strauss... almost too much for Puccinin. As far as I can tell from the program notes, she has mostly performed with the Chautauqua Opera. Any chance of a move to the Big Apple, Ms. Alkema? I mean, nothing against upstate, I know they have the oldest continuously operating opera company in the U.S. (or something like that) but I would really like to hear that voice in a lead role some time.

Well, Parrot just spied a bright red bird darting from a Brooklyn tree and is off in hot pursuit. Just a friend, Fragrance of Verbena... oh, you don't believe me? Betrayed as Mom predicted by a cynical American! Well, you can change her name but she's still as wise as an Owl. Anyway, what's a scarlet tanager doing in Brooklyn? Must have been my imagination... which I should not mistake for reality. At least while I'm awake.

1 comment:

Nous Letters said...

Very enjoyable read. Thanks!