Puppet Tears

Puppet Tears


I have a lot of catching up to do,  but I have to begin with something I just experienced last night,  because I can scarcely think of anything else right now.   I’m talking about last night’s simulcast from the Metropolitan Opera of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.  This was actually the repeat simulcast- the live simulcast was ten days ago and I was busy both with Kenosha’s Solo and Ensemble competition and then auditions for “Godspell” at the Racine Theater Guild.   (Grrrrr and Double Grrrrr,  but it couldn’t be helped.)  Marshall drove over, however, to watch “Butterfly” and we met for supper afterwards- and he could hardly verbalize how much he loved this performance and how moving it was.   And for ten days I have been impatiently waiting for my chance to finally see it for myself. That chance finally came last night.

And I loved it too, every bit as much as he did.   In fact,  I was one sloppy gusher of tears for most of the second act and for some of the third act as well,  crying even at points which have typically not moved me to tears.  And I walked out of there feeling like I had just experienced one of the most powerfully wrenching emotional journeys I’ve ever had. Part of it I’m sure is that I have lots of strong feelings about this particular opera.   I truly fell in love with opera by listening to Marshall’s highlights recording our freshman year in college and have always had a very soft spot in my heart for this story and score.   And probably the highlight of my time with the Lyric Opera of Chicago was when I got to sing the role of the Registrar in Hal Prince’s magical production of “Butterfly,”  which that season was taped for telecast on PBS.   True,  my role consisted of one – that’s right, one – word . . . but still, to be even a tiny part of the proceedings was a thrill.   So whenever I encounter this opera,  I am also revisiting some very important moments from my own past.

But all that being said,  and even after hearing Marshall rhapsodize about this production and performance,  I was still in no way prepared for how shattering it would be to experience this.   The production itself was striking – and at times gorgeous . . .  and it treated the story with freshness without getting too strange.   The performance was incredible,  especially because of the remarkable singing and acting of Patricia Racette in the title role.  I saw her in the opera at the Lyric,  but it was even neater to see her on the big screen where one could see every incredible nuance of her portrayal.   She is most certainly not 15 years old nor Japanese . ..  but nevertheless she was Cio Cio San, from the naive, ecstatic joy of the first act to the firmly determined steadfastness of the second act to the heartbreaking, noble self-sacrifice of the third act.  She was mesmerizing.

What I was most intrigued about, going into this performance, was a relatively small detail in the production which has garnered all kinds of discussion. . . namely, the designer’s decision that the character of Sorrow- Cio Cio San’s little boy – be portrayed by a puppet operated by fully visible puppeteers in the style of traditional Japanese theater.  When I first heard about this, it sounded like the worst idea since New Coke.   But Marshall said he loved it and encouraged me to give it a try – and I have to say that I loved it too.   One reason the designer gave for this choice is that almost certainly you are not going to be able to have a child actor who will be able to do all that was possible with this puppet (operated at all times by three puppeteers, believe it or not) – and those singers performing with the child are almost certainly encumbered by worries about how the youngster will do and what they have to do to keep the child engaged.   That was certainly true in the Butterfly production at the Lyric in which I appeared.  The little boy who portrayed Sorrow was very cute and very docile,  but he was a little boy who tended to look out at the audience a lot and who otherwise had a largely blank or neutral expression on his face the whole time he was onstage.  (The role is silent. by the way.)  He was good – but also something of a distraction.

The puppet in last night’s performance, by contrast,  seemed far more alive, if you can believe it – and as the designer hoped,  the singers seemed free to do what they needed to do without having to worry about what a real live youngster might or might not do.   And after just a few moments,  it was incredible how much we as viewers were able to ignore the three puppeteers (clad in black and also veiled) who were almost always fully visible.   (One operated one arm and the head, another operated the other arm, and the third operated the feet.)     And I suppose the highest compliment I can pay is that at the dramatic moment when the character of Cio Cio San enters, triumphantly carrying her young son in her arms (until that moment, we have no idea that Cio Cio San has a son by the American naval officer who seems to have abandoned her) I started crying uncontrollably in a way that I’ve only cried maybe once or twice in my whole life.  From the first moment I laid eyes on that puppet,  I saw it as a him . . . Cio Cio San’s son .   What is especially remarkable about that is that the puppet is in most ways not very realistic.  In fact, there is a good-sized knob right on the back of its head for the puppeteer to grasp and other features which make it very clearly a puppet rather than a real boy.   But it says something about our powers of imagination that this puppet – nothing more than plastic and enamel – could evoke this flood of emotion and love from me and from so many people who saw it . . . or should I say him.

(I’m reminded of a wonderful moment on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson many years ago when Jim Henson was on with Kermit the Frog-  and kermit did most of the talking – and Carson over and over would stop mid-sentence to say to the audience in bewilderment and even astonishment “I can’t believe I’m talking to a frog!”  And indeed, that’s what it felt like to him and to us who were watching.   And back before Kukla Fran and Ollie (now that dates me)  puppets have had that power to be alive for us. )

I have but one regret. . . and that is that so many people who I know would have loved this didn’t see it.   At the risk of blubbering all over again,  that makes me want to cry all over again.    Because it just doesn’t get any better than this, and sitting there watching this,  I felt like the luckiest person in the world – and only sad that Kathy and her family and my family and my voice students and choir members . . . and on and on . . .  weren’t on the same magic carpet ride that I was.