How to traumatise your children with high culture

I feel a bit of a fraud writing an opera review as it’s only recently that I’ve had the opportunity to experience it live, so I’m very much a novice. I’m worried that it’ll be like one of those restaurant reviews from the local paper that is clearly written by someone who lives on Fray Bentos pies and thinks the only way to dine out in style is at a carvery. That said, I do love opera, and I like to think that what I lack in knowledge, I’ll make up for with enthusiasm.

I’ve made a few opera trips to the Swansea Grand Theatre now, with my family. The silent one (my husband) enjoys them but deep down I think he’ll always be an indie kid, and while bassoonboy (my son) loves all things Classical, Baroque and organ music are more his bag. However, it turns out that my ten year old daughter is also a big fan, so last weekend the two of us went to see ‘Madama Butterfly’.

Madama Butterfly, Puccini, Ellen Kent, Swansea Grand Theatre

Puccini’s inspiration for the opera came from seeing David Belasco’s play ‘Madame Butterfly’, in 1900, which was based on a short story by John Luther Long. The opera premiered in Milan’s La Scala in 1904, but received a poor reception. After some revisions, it received wide acclaim and has retained its popularity as one of Puccini’s most performed operas.

madame butterfly john luther long

We saw a production by Ellen Kent, a director renowned for her dramatic staging and she didn’t disappoint. As there were no set changes needed during the whole performance, the stage design could afford to be lavish and colourful. A traditional Japanese house spanned the back of the stage, complete with sliding screen doors, and steps leading down to an abundant garden filled with flowers. It looked absolutely exquisite, and the colourful blooms and symmetry of the house were an enchanting backdrop to the tragic beauty of Cio-Cio San with her embroidered silk kimonos.

Madama Butterfly Stage set Ellen Kent Swansea Grand Theatre

We were right up in the upper circle of the theatre, and apart from a woman with an annoyingly large head coiffed like a brunette candy floss in front of me, we had a good view of both the stage and the musicians in the pit. It was spectacular, and not just visually. The voices were all strong and, apart from a few occasions when a couple along the row from us decided to have a chat, it was easy to slip into the story and believe.

Remarkably, there was a small boy in the cast playing Cio-Cio San’s son, who couldn’t have been more than three and he had to be on the stage for much of the second half. He was brilliant – I don’t know how he coped in front of the lights and the audience.

There was one funny moment that TL and I laughed about a lot afterwards. When he was not in the scene, the little boy had to sit behind the house out of sight. Because of the angle of our seats, we could see him sitting there kicking his legs, and every now and then we’d catch sight of  his babysitter, or rather her backside, protruding through the bamboo screens, clad in a pair of Primark’s finest bright pink gingham capri pants and t-shirt. I can’t say it blended in with the serenity and calm of the 1900s Japanese house and garden, which was unfortunate, but hilarious.

I always start listening to the CDs a few weeks before going to an opera to become familiar with the music, and we read a synopsis of the story before we go, especially for my daughter’s sake as she’s still quite young. This time, we didn’t get round to reading the story before we went, although we knew to expect a body count, as all the operas we’ve seen thus far have ended in misery. However, the ending was so dramatic and unbearably tragic that we were both profusely shedding tears by the end. Despite the anguish, it was wonderful, and we’ll definitely be going back for more.

Here’s one of my favourite arias from Madama Butterfly sung by Maria Callas:

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