Nobody Threw Tomatoes
Inviting 8,000 people to attend—for free!—Madama Butterfly at KeyArena was the coolest thing Seattle Opera has done in ages. Reverse snobs who grouse that opera is elitist would have been drop-jawed at how many of the hoi polloi attended and loved this performance. KeyArena was filled with kids and parents, hipsters and secretaries, retired people and penny-pinchers, females and their confused but willing men, hormonally twitching adolescents, and beaming people in wheelchairs, and everyone was having a fantastic time.
Madama Butterfly tells the very Pacific Rim story of an American guy who impregnates an Asian teenager, and Seattle Opera made the most of the East-West relationship by giving folks at KeyArena samples of green tea, origami lessons, and the chance to try on Japanese-type costumes. (Parts of the crowd looked like kids at an anime convention.) At halftime, on the big screen, there were opera cartoons (the fat lady and the "wabbit") you could laugh and howl at and then fantasize about wearing a horned helmet and a ginormous breastplate. Also at halftime, you could eat chips and salsa (three flavors), licorice whips and popcorn, and drink a beer.
Before the late l9th century, opera performances had room for this kind of carrying on by folks from different social classes. Think about it—those stories of singers being booed and people throwing rotten tomatoes? Not everyone was in a private box drinking champagne, eating caviar, and watching through a lorgnette. Some people were on the ground eating tomatoes (and sausages). Some people were wandering around seeing their pals and drinking and throwing things at performers they didn't like.
Fortunately, this production was spotless, with spare, elegant sets and evocative lighting, glorious singing. But seeing opera on an HDTV screen can be troubling. It makes people's faces huge, which can be good in the case of seeing the hunkiness of the Liam Neeson–ish baritone Brett Polegato (playing the Consul) close up, but not so good for seeing the amazing soprano Patricia Racette as a 15-year-old Japanese girl. Racette is probably the world's leading Cio-Cio-San, and because of her training in Japan, she's got a great sense of geisha movement. But those huge close-ups make it impossible to ignore the Anglo-American-ness of the woman beneath the makeup. In McCaw Hall, however, the greater distance between audience and singer allows one to respond less to the visual details and more to the music (sublime) and the broader visual concept (spare, airy, pink).
Nobody threw tomatoes or anything at the screen in KeyArena. However, when tenor Stefano Secco (Pinkerton, the guy who impregnated and left the teenage Cio-Cio-San) came out for his bow at the end of the show, the audience booed him. Like the sports fans who usually fill the arena, the audience loved the underdog/heroine of their team and hated the guy from the other team who beat her. Like true believers, they got caught up in experiencing the story of love gone wrong, of seeing a guy with a power he doesn't know how to use break a couple of women apart.
Live music and drama can do the same thing to a willing crowd as live sports—they can all make you see bigger or truer or clearer what it is to live, and allow you to imagine your own puny life as big as the ones you see on the screen or stage or field. Here's to further endeavors like this to introduce people to what was always meant to be a popular form of art.