Slang for the Sophisticate: Macbeth

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A bit verbose, perhaps, but “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” never sounded cooler.

I don’t believe it’s any secret that English as a whole has gone a bit downhill in the past century or so. As we descend into the cavernous Language Trench, monstrosities such as “yolo” and “on fleek” begin to be heard constantly and are even seen in professional writing. It’s almost enough to cause physical pain. I am not condemning slang by any means. I readily confess to using such terms such as “noob”, “legit” and “pwned” when the occasion calls for it. And as a child of two Californians, I have addressed practically everyone I know as “dude” at some point.

However, among these terms there is still room for the occasional classy one-liner to really make one’s statements pop. On Slang for the Sophisticate, you will learn expressive and amusing phrases from classic books, plays, poems and films that can be injected into any conversation. This segment is all about making speech classier and cooler at the same time.

As Shakespeare contributed so much to his own era’s slang, I thought we’d take a line from him first. Let’s start with a line from one of my aforementioned favorite works, Macbeth.

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Macbeth, your party’s lit, bro. But you like, killed me, man. Not cool. 

LADY MACBETH: …Are you a man?

MACBETH: Ay, and a bold one, that dare look on that
Which might appal the devil.

There’s bad, and then there’s ‘appall the devil’ bad. This line, used by Macbeth to describe the haunting, bloody vision of the man he has just had murdered, perfectly expresses a breathtaking horror which adjectives such as ‘ugly’ or ‘nasty’ simply leave lacking. Thrown into casual conversation, the line is sure to get amused laughs of just the right kind from Shakespeare Nerds and Shakespeare Noobs alike. Ugly shirt you found at the store? It would have appalled the devil. Grandma painted her bathroom in mustard yellow? That color would appall the devil, dude. Bonus points are awarded if you can manage to work in that you’re bold for looking upon the object in question.

There seems to be a surprisingly slim range of phrases to properly express horror and disgust in modern speech. You can say something is “horrible” or “terrible” and that is about where the average vocabulary seems to reach its limit. With this line from the classic tragedy, however, our troubles are over.

Examples:

I’ve seen the new modern sculpture they put up in the park, and I’m telling you, that brass atrocity would appall the devil.

I let my niece do my makeup for fun, and by the time she was finished, my face would have appalled the devil.

You saw my ex? Well, you’re a bold one, to look on that which might appall the devil.

Can you think of a recent conversation where this line might have been useful?

2017: The Renaissance Man Challenge

blog-picsThe New Year is almost upon us. Many (including myself) are going to start diets or go the gym as a resolution. That’s great, of course. Always good to be fit. But what about getting the Brain to hit the gym too?  Well, I have spent some time putting together a list of semi-resolutions for 2017. I call it the Renaissance Man Challenge.

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Hildegard von Bingen and Leonardo da Vinci, two of the most famous polymaths in history

Also known as a polymath, a Renaissance Man is a person who excels in the study and appreciation of many different subjects. They have a thirst for knowledge and a love of learning. For example, Hildegard von Bingen, a medieval German nun. She was well educated in and pioneered music, philosophy, writing, medicine and several sciences. There is also Leonardo da Vinci, who is famous for his work in subjects such as art, science, invention, astronomy, architecture and many others. Seriously, many others. Of course, we can’t all be Hildegards and Leonardos. But then again, why not? We may not be able to pioneer subjects, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn them and love them.

So, just for fun, I have composed a list of twenty five activities specifically designed to either find or develop new interests in diverse subjects. Some are quick and easy. Some will last a few months. Some take all year. I suggest picking at least three. Time to become a polymath!

Renaissance Man Challenge 2017

1.) Read one classic novel longer than 500 pages or three shorter classics. The only rule? Make sure they are all books you have never read before! Some great authors of long books are Dickens, Hugo, Dumas and Tolstoy.

2.) Become familiar with one of the main historical eras of music. For Western music, those are the Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, and Romantic. With YouTube and the rest of the internet, it is easy to listen and learn about these eras!

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Japanese art is very beautiful and interesting to study

3.) Become familiar with the works and artists of one art period from any part of the world. You can choose a Western movement like Rococo or Renaissance or an Eastern movement, like the Tang Dynasty or Heian Period. There are so many books, websites and documentaries out there waiting for you.

4.) Take up a handcraft, such as knitting, wood-burning, sculpting, leather-work or jewelry making. There is nothing like being able to make something with your own hands. And if you work hard enough at it, you can even end up selling your work and making a few extra dollars!

5.) Read a book in a new language. Any difficulty or length, as long as you learn enough of the language to understand it.

6.) Read a book of the folk takes or mythology of a different culture. Preferably of another continent, so that you get to learn about a history and culture that is different than your own. Practically every culture has unique stories you can read. Some suggestions: Greek, Egyptian, Japanese, Hawaiian, Native American, Celtic, or Norse.

7.) Write a short story, at least 20-30k words. Write it about something you dreamed or always wanted to do. Write characters based on your friends, family or coworkers. Tip: You can kill off the characters based on people who drive you crazy!

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La bohème is an excellent place to start in the world of opera

8.) Watch five operas and/or ballets. Get in touch with the entertainments of history!

9.) Write an essay about the images, themes or characters of one of your favorite movies. This is a really cool exercise, as it helps you to understand exactly what it is you love in a story.

10.) Pick one Shakespeare play and hyper focus on it. Read the play, analyze the themes, characters and messages. Watch every filmed version of it you can find and discover in what ways you like the interpretations and what ways you don’t. It’s much better to do this with a tragedy than a comedy, and preferably one of his Big Four: Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear or Othello. These plays are exceptionally rich and you can practically feel your brain expanding as you study them.

11.) Learn about something new using only books, no internet. A period of History is especially good for this entry.

12.) Try a different country’s cuisine for one week. The more different from your usual, the better!

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Tolkien’s Tengwar alphabet is very elegant and is surprisingly easy to learn

13.) Learn to write one calligraphic script. Or learn to write with a new alphabet like Greek, Cyrillic, Chinese or even Elvish!

14.) Read an epic poem or a ballad. Ballads and epics can be some of the most exciting and moving forms of literature. A few of my favorites are the Illiad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, the Ballad of the White Horse, and the Ballad of Reading Gaol.

15.) Watch at least one historical or scientific documentary every month.

16.) Read three Greek Dramas, tragic or comedic. They are some of the finest and oldest dramas that the world possesses, and are really worth a read.

17.) Learn about the history of the city or town in which you live. Sometimes it’s more interesting than you think it is!

18.) Once a month, try making a food that you have never had before. If you have to go to a special store for the ingredients, that’s a good sign! And maybe invite friends over to try it with you. If you can get them in on it, you can have a multi-cultural potluck!

19.) Learn to read Music. This is an incredible thing to do. When you can read music, it’s like knowing another language.

20.) Read or watch three things geared towards a demographic to which you do not belong. For instance, read a Jane Austen novel if you’re a dude. Watch an old John Wayne Western if you’re a girly girl. Read a children’s’ book series. And always look for the artistic value. You might find you have interests you never thought you had!

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La donna è mobile is a fun and catchy aria to sing with

21.) Teach yourself to sing a classical aria or an art song. Switch up your commute sing-a-longs from Bruno Mars and Taylor Swift to Verdi and Mozart. And YouTube has orchestral backing tracks for countless operatic hits, so Classy Karaoke is possible!

22.) Memorize a poem at least a page long. It can be a whole poem, or part of one. Just push your memory to the maximum!

23.) Pick a science that interests you. Animal, astronomy, anatomy, physics, anything. Study it. Don’t just read about it a little. Dive into it, teaching yourself as best as you can. Be that cool person who knows those random facts!

24.) Find a type of math you were always really bad at and learn it all over again. Go, see, and conquer! Make Geometry and Calculus fear your name!

25.) Study the architecture of certain era or culture, historical or modern. It’s astounding how much artistry can be put into buildings.

You’ll have to forgive me that a lot of these are pretty Western-centric. I know unfortunately little about Eastern Culture. But that’s one of the things I’m planning to change this year! I’m picking Numbers 6 and 13 on my list, and reading about Japanese folklore and how to write some Japanese calligraphy. I’m also planning on 18! I want to try some of the tasty dishes that the world has to offer. And I’ve been meaning to read The Count of Monte Cristo, so I’ll be doing Number 1 as well.

Any other Hildegards and Leonardos out there to give this a try?

Music Magic: Concerning Hobbits

fantasy__038816_Life without music is like a book with no adjectives. Sure, all the basics are still there, but what of the beauty? The passion? The meaning? In my Music Magic serial, I’ll be talking about all the little bits of music in operas, films and other works and how they make a big difference. There will be lots of leitmotif here. The first piece I’ll be talking about is from The Lord of the Rings trilogy: Concerning Hobbits. Please, listen as you read!

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Howard Shore

Even from the most unbiased standpoint I can muster, Howard Shore’s music for the Lord of the Rings is a truly epic masterpiece. One of the greatest film scores in history and even a work of art in orchestral music as a whole. What is it, though, that makes this score so great? Well, one thing surely was Mr. Shore’s attention to the details of the story. I don’t know how carefully he read the books, but he clearly did. For many of the themes in the books which were not prominently featured in the films themselves are heard within the music. You see this particularly in the pieces he chose to represent the main protagonists of the films, the Hobbits.

The piece in question today is Concerning Hobbits, which contains the Shire Theme: one of the most important leitmotifs in the film (you can read what a leitmotif is in this previous article of mine). It’s the bit you hear from 0:05 to 0:27. This tune and its variations are heard throughout the films, and so skilfully did Howard Shore weave it into our minds from its first sounding that it’s impossible to hear it and not think of the Hobbits and their homeland.

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Tolkien’s very own illustration of Bag End

One of the literary themes which features heavily in most of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work is that of Wholesome Rusticity or, Connection to Nature. This theme is seen particularly in the peoples of the Shire and Rohan, where the cultures are unsophisticated and yet not uncivilized. They use no machines or other industrial tools. The Rohirrim do not even have an alphabet. The Hobbits are nearly catastrophically unaware of world events. And yet, there is something noble and idyllic in their provincial cultures. Having grown up at the tail end of the Industrial Revolution, a time where the black smokes and fumes of factories were choking the once beautiful English countrysides, the themes of Rusticity and Return to Nature were very important to Tolkien. Howard Shore paid close attention to what tunes and sounds were associated with what people in the trilogy, and I believe he understood Tolkien’s vision of the Shire very well and kept it before his mind’s eye when he composed Concerning Hobbits.

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Surely, a Hobbit dance if ever I saw one.

There is something about this music which cannot help but bring to mind the countryside and ‘good old times’, if you will. Even if you had no idea what the piece was from or about, you would probably imagine something like a country market, a farm or a picnic. But why? Listen carefully to the instruments, for they all have something in common. A tin whistle. A fiddle and violins. A drum. A guitar… They are all folk instruments. In the prologue of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien says “[Hobbits] do not and did not understand or like machines more complicated than a forge-bellows, a water-mill, or a hand-loom, though they were skillful with tools.” When he wrote this music, surely Howard Shore had this line in mind. No trumpets, no fancy oboes and clarinets. Not for the Shire. Here are sounds you might find playing in a country pub (The Green Dragon, perhaps?). They are simple instruments for simple living. Country life and people are so well painted with this piece that, even if we didn’t hear the description given by Bilbo and didn’t see the hobbits on the screen, somehow, we would know who they were and what they were like.

Not content with it merely being skillfully composed, however, Howard Shore made sure it was skillfully placed as well. While in the Shire, the music is charming and quaint. It is cozy and makes you think of only the best and simplest things the world. Warm fires, green hills, fresh baked bread, flowers, and good friends. All the things that we might take for granted.

But when we are no longer in the Shire, the music fills the heart with melancholy, almost nostalgia. With only a twenty second tune on a tiny flute, we the audience become homesick for a place where we have never been. Memory of life’s simple joys flood the mind, and the heart glows with the the strength and courage to continue. And as Frodo and Sam trek onward in the final frames of The Fellowship of the Ring, it’s easy to forget that it is the Hobbits who are making the journey, not you!

 

Music, folks. It’s magic. I’m telling you.

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Sam, I’m glad you’re with me. *sound of sobbing to tin whistle*

 

Classy Days in History: Happy 531st Birthday, Katherine of Aragon

There are important days in history. There are sad days in history. There are just plain cool days in history. But this is Mind Vitamins, so when I mark a day, it’s going to be because it is classy. Today is the birthday of several historically classy people, but my favorite one shall take precedence.

December 16th, 1485

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Katherine in her youth

Let us give a large slice of Historical Birthday Cake to a most impressive woman: Katherine of Aragon, Queen of England and first wife of Henry VIII. I confess that I am a bit of a fangirl for Queen Katherine, a historical hero of strong womanhood. While usually remembered as simply being the poor sap who got booted by Anne Boleyn, she was so much more.

In a time when ideal womanhood consisted of being blonde and shutting up, Queen Katherine stood apart. As the daughter of the powerful, though definitely controversial, Queen Isabella of Spain, Katherine had a strong female role model from the beginning. Differing from many of the European nobility of the day, she and her three sisters received just as excellent an education as their brother, John. From her childhood, Katherine was thoroughly educated in arithmetic, literature, philosophy, law, theology and more alongside the all of the domestic skills women learned in those days. Besides her native Spanish, she achieved mastery over French, Latin, Greek and eventually English. She was almost certainly one of the most educated and impressive people, especially women, in Europe at the time. Even without her title and position as a Princess of Spain, she was a fit spouse for a king.

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Katherine as Queen of England

At first, Katherine was married to Henry VIII’s older brother, Arthur. When Arthur died of an illness, they decided Katherine should marry Henry, next in line for the throne. This arrangement was a bit irregular, but Katherine gave her word that her marriage to Arthur had never been consummated, so they were able to receive a special dispensation to marry from the Pope.

Katherine proved to be an excellent queen. She was a patron of education and the arts, and was known for her charity to the poor and her mercy to the condemned. The English people adored her. Whenever her husband crossed metaphorical swords with her father, the King of Spain, she gave her allegiance to her husband and her new country of England. Several times, she even performed her husband’s duties for him. She once acted as regent for six months when Henry was in France. During this time, a very important battle took place, and rather than let down the troops, Katherine rode to the battlefield while pregnant and in full armor. There, she gave them a reportedly superlative and memorable speech, which spurred them to a great victory.

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Queen Katherine (detail from The Great Matterby  Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze

Then, in came the event for which Katherine was sadly best known: the infamous divorce. As a woman, I find complaining needlessly about sexism to be a sign of weakness. However, the treatment Katherine of Aragon received is a truly disgusting testament to the misogyny of the Tudor Era. Her protests of her royal validity meant nothing to the court of Henry VIII. Discounting all of her intelligence, accomplishments, virtue, and the decision of the church on the validity of her marriage, she was cast aside for the simple reason that she could not produce a male heir. Henry, now self-proclaimed leader of the English Church, declared that their marriage had never been valid. This proclamation now made the great Queen Katherine little more than a mistress and her daughter, Mary, a bastard. To make matters more humiliating, Katherine’s replacement would be Anne Boleyn, her lady in waiting:  inferior in rank, education and every other way besides.

But it was done. How he could do this to a woman who had done so much for him is beyond comprehension, but Henry cast Katherine aside and took her daughter away from her. After all of the rejection and humiliation, she was exiled to an isolated home in the English countryside. She was offered better treatment and the ability to see her daughter Mary if only she would acknowledge Anne Boleyn as rightful Queen. But the truth and her dignity was more important to Katherine than her own comfort, and she never conceded her title and status as long as she lived. She died in banishment without any of her family. She had every reason to hate Henry and never wish to see or speak to him again. No one would have thought any less of her if it had been so. But, being a devout Catholic, Katherine chose to be “the bigger man” as it were and forgive him. This, her final letter to Henry, is witness to the nobility of her heart.

My most dear lord, king and husband,
The hour of my death now drawing on, the tender love I owe you forceth me, my case being such, to commend myself to you, and to put you in remembrance with a few words of the health and safeguard of your soul which you ought to prefer before all worldly matters, and before the care and pampering of your body, for the which you have cast me into many calamities and yourself into many troubles. For my part, I pardon you everything, and I wish to devoutly pray God that He will pardon you also. For the rest, I commend unto you our daughter Mary, beseeching you to be a good father unto her, as I have heretofore desired. I entreat you also, on behalf of my maids, to give them marriage portions, which is not much, they being but three. For all my other servants I solicit the wages due them, and a year more, lest they be unprovided for. Lastly, I make this vow, that mine eyes desire you above all things.
Katharine the Quene.

For a woman of such strong and bold character, this letter is surprisingly gentle. But all of the love, forgiveness and concern she expressed for Henry were lost on him. Both he and his new Queen, Anne Boleyn, were reported to have openly and callously celebrated her death and Henry would not give Katherine any funerary honors more than was due to a “Princess Dowager”, referring to her marriage to his brother Arthur.

It would have appeared that Katherine would be wronged forever. However, history has happily justified her. Although she was stripped of the title of Queen in life, in the 19th century, her grave was re-marked by the will of the people to read “Katharine, Queen of England” in golden letters. A historical jab if ever I heard one. And well-deserved. Katherine of Aragon was a pillar of strength and dignity. She was and is truly an inspirational figure of history. She was loved by her people and respected by all and is represented in books, plays and cinema almost always with grace and majesty. Even her enemy, Thomas Cromwell could not help but admire her, and said of her: “If not for her sex, she could have defied all the heroes of History.”

Happy Birthday, Queen Katherine! You will be remembered forever.

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Katherine’s grave at Peterborough Cathedral adorned with pomegranates, a symbol of power and sovereignty

Featured picture: Calendar by Johannes von Gmunden, 1496

Greek to Me: Gods of Olympus

olympus-greek-mythology-wallpaperAre Greek myths befuddling to you? Have trouble understanding scholarly references to people like Icarus and Pandora? Don’t know the difference between Epimetheus and Eurystheus? Well, you need fear the Minotaur of ignorance no longer: Welcome to Greek to Me, my blog segment where you will learn about some of the most important and complex myths in the history of Western literature, all accompanied with beautiful art for your visualization! I believe that, given the history and the artistic omnipresence of Greek mythological themes, that knowledge of them is essential for a rounded education on Western culture. In this article, we’ll start from the beginning and give a brief summary of the famous gods of Mount Olympus.

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The mythical home of the gods, Mt. Olympus

Each of the Greek gods and goddesses were very well developed characters, with distinct and unique personalities. For those who do not know, each god and goddess was the patron of an aspect of nature or humanity and had special symbols of these patronages which are often used to identify them in art. They are also known by different names to the Ancient Romans, who worshipped them as well. The focus today is on the twelve Olympian gods, those who were believed to dwell on Mount Olympus. These included Zeus, Hera, Hestia, Demeter Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Aphrodite, Hephaestus, Ares, Hermes and Dionysus. In today’s article, we’ll cover the first seven.

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Zeus and Hera, accompanied by their symbols, the eagle and the peacock

First on the list is the famous Zeus. He was the god of lightning and ruler of all. After being rescued from being eaten by his father Kronus by his mother Rhea, Zeus defeated his father, rescuing his siblings Hestia, Hades, Poseidon, Demeter and Hera. He took kingship of the heavens for himself and assigned the rule of the Sea and the Underworld to his brothers Poseidon and Hades respectively. He was famous for many great feats of power, but most myths featuring Zeus center on his unbelievably numerous love affairs. His romantic escapades and attempts to hide his paramours from his wife provided much amusement to the ancient Greeks in their stories and plays. Zeus’ symbols included the lightning bolt or the mighty eagle, and his name to the Romans was Jupiter

Second is Hera who was, awkwardly, both the sister and the wife of Zeus. She was Queen of the gods and the patron goddess of women, marriage, and childbirth. She was very beautiful and was portrayed with a fairly clever, but haughty and vengeful nature. Zeus’ constant affairs with other women, both mortal and divine, made her jealous and bitter and she often tried to take out her anger on Zeus’ many illegitimate children since she couldn’t punish him for it.  Hera was known to the Romans as Juno and her symbols are most commonly the cow and the peacock.

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Demeter and Hestia

Hestia was the virgin goddess of the hearth, her symbol. She attended the sacred fire of Olympus. She was known as Vesta to the Romans, whose ‘Vestal Virgins’ famously attended the sacred Roman fire. Her sister Demeter, was goddess of the harvest and mother of Persephone, goddess of spring and flowers. Demeter was a generous goddess, willingly sharing the fruit of the earth with mankind and ruling over the seasons. Her Roman name was Ceres, and her symbols were grain and a sickle. Hestia is not featured in many myths, but is usually portrayed with a calm and motherly demeanor. Demeter is similar, but has flashes of protective motherhood and can be quite passionate and dramatic.

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Athena

My personal favorite of the gods and goddesses is Athena. She was said to have been born directly from the head of Zeus. In fear that his child would be more powerful than he, Zeus had swallowed Athena’s mother Metis. But the child developed in Zeus’ head, and eventually burst forth from his cranium fully grown as Athena. She was another virgin goddess, and being the offspring of the mind of Zeus, she was the patroness of wisdom and learning, as well as skilled warfare and handcrafts such as weaving. She was always pictured with symbols of war, such as a helmet, spear or a shield bearing the symbol of Medusa’s head. Her other symbols were the Olive tree, whose creation was attributed to her, and the owl, whose symbolism of wisdom lives on even in modern culture. Athena is of an intelligent, witty and strong personality. While a goddess of war, she is dignified and sophisticated and only very rarely does she lose her temper. She often assists heroes such as Perseus, Odysseus and Jason. Her Roman name is Minerva.

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Apollo and Artemis

Apollo and Artemis were twin brother and sister, children of Zeus and the nymph Leto. Apollo, known as Phoebus to the Romans, was god of many things: light, art, music, poetry, prophecy, archery and medicine. His most famous symbols were the lyre and the laurel wreath. He is of an unsurprisingly artistic temperament, wise, poetic and intelligent. However, his passions, both angry and romantic, occasionally flare over his better judgement.

His sister Artemis, Roman name Diana, was goddess of the Moon, archery, hunting, woodlands, animals and chastity, being another virgin goddess. She was also occasionally associated with childbirth, as the legend went that, after being born, she immediately assisted her mother in the delivery of her twin brother. She is often portrayed with an energetic, youthful and independent temperament and occasionally waxes very headstrong and a little spiteful. Her most identifiable symbols were the deer, her bow and arrows and the crescent Moon.

And so, these are the first seven of the Greek’s Olympian deities. Next time, there will a second article for the rest of the Olympians as well as the lords of the Sea and the Underworld. You’re well on your way to becoming a Greek mythological expert!

Opera Highlight: Madama Butterfly

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Commemorative statue of Cio-Cio-san and her son in Nagasaki, Japan

One of my all time favorite operas and possibly the most heartbreaking thing one could ever either read, watch or listen to is Giacomo Puccini’s great masterpiece, Madama Butterfly. It is what could be called a ‘drawing room’ opera. There is no action or adventure. Everything, from the wedding to Butterfly’s death, takes place in and around a beautiful Japanese house on a hill. And yet, nowhere does the opera want for interest.

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The Pledge (誓), by Hirezaki Eiho

The story begins with an American naval lieutenant, B.F. Pinkerton, who has been stationed in Nagasaki for a time. While handsome and charming, he is a scoundrel, and has arranged for a temporary marriage to take place to ‘keep him entertained’ until he ships out again. This marriage is to a delicate and gentle Japanese girl, aptly named Cio-Cio, meaning ‘Butterfly’. Unaware of Pinkerton’s true intentions, she believes he genuinely cares for her and falls desperately in love with him. She renounces her religion and is disowned by her whole family. When Pinkerton is eventually reassigned, he tells her he will return. The poor girl believes him and patiently waits for him for three years. During this time, she bears his child, lives in poverty and rejects all handsome offers of marriage made to her on the grounds that she is already married. One day, Pinkerton does return, but to Butterfly’s horror, it is with a new, “real” American wife. In a sort of twisted attempt at reparation, they are there to take away Butterfly’s child and give him a good life in America. Knowing that she will never be able to properly support him, Butterfly does indeed give up her child. But she decides as her father did, that ‘It is better to die with honor than to live with dishonor’. She takes her own life just as Pinkerton, for whom she waited so faithfully, arrives calling out her name.

Written out, the story seems very sad. But listening? I can honestly say that I have never encountered any work of art, visual, literary or musical which so touched my soul as Madama Butterfly. The story is heart-rending, the libretto (script) wonderfully crafted, and the music could draw tears from a stone.

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Giacomo Puccini

This opera is partially the result of the Orientalist movement. This was a popular movement in Europe for a long time, especially during the historically terrible Imperialist Era. The ‘exotic’ and ‘foreign’ view that the West had of the East was big money in entertainment, and plenty of musicians and artists made a quick buck by giving Europeans a cheap imitation of the East. Our composer Giacomo Puccini, however, stands apart. Rather than give the people their “fix of exoticism”, as it could be called, he strove for an authenticity that most artists of his time never even bothered with. Fascinatingly, his Madama Butterfly is filled with authentic Japanese folk tunes, which he studied in great detail to give a genuine Japanese flavor to his music. Despite limited knowledge and access to knowledge of it, Puccini did his very best to stay true to Japanese culture in his opera. Of course, not living in a very informed era on this subject, he got many things wrong. He did try, however, and many of his mistakes (such as a mildly inaccurate depiction of jigai) are easily corrected by modern productions.

What also sets Madama Butterfly apart is its shocking anti-Imperialist message. Similar to an earlier opera by Délibes, LakméMadama Butterfly tells the story of a wronged and abused woman in a wronged and abused culture. Butterfly seems to represent more than just one woman, but the entire culture of Japan, or even the whole of Asia. The abuse of the West towards its colonized lands is a black mark on Western history and one which found a sharp reproach in a work like Madama Butterfly. Who knows, but perhaps more than one person left the theater after this opera with a very different view on the East than he had when he entered.

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Maria Callas as Cio-Cio-san

Many people take Madama Butterfly in the wrong way, however, deeming it racist and filled with stereotypes. While I acknowledge the presence of the stereotypes, I respectfully disagree that the work is racist. While such a piece composed now would certainly be problematic, one has to consider the time that it came from. In such a time as the early 20th century, Madama Butterfly bordered on a slap in the face to Westerners for their haughty, imperialistic views of different cultures. Much like a butterfly, the important image of the opera, Westerners treated other cultures as nothing more than something you capture, kill and pin to a card as a decoration. This well delivered message is why I am at a loss when people pour hatred on this beautiful opera for racism. It seems to me the equivalent of condemning Uncle Tom’s Cabin for its obvious racial stereotypes while ignoring the anti-slavery themes and the effect it had on society’s conscience. In the end, I believe it comes down to what I said in a previous article; that in many stories, accuracy is not the point. The message is.

Madama Butterfly was not immediately successful. People said that the music was too similar to some of Puccini’s earlier works, especially La Boheme. This is rather bewildering to me, as I have yet to find a single place where the scores are noticeably similar. The fact remained, however, that the opera had to be revised and re-released before it was given the success it deserved. In my opinion, this is fortunate, as the first version contains bits in the libretto which are vastly inferior and, indeed, trite compared to the later (and now standard) 1914 version. Nowadays, Butterfly is one of the most popular and commonly performed operas in the world.

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Yin Huang and Richard Troxell in Scorsese’s beautiful film version

While many operas do not have any really perfect recordings,  Madama Butterfly is fortunate to possess some of the very finest versions in all of recorded opera. Many of the most talented singers and conductors have recorded this opera and there are plenty of versions to choose from. However, my recommendation can only go to the 1974 recording magnificently conducted by Herbert von Karajan. Never will you find a more tender and haunting Butterfly than Mirella Freni, nor a more magnificently voiced and characterized Pinkerton than Luciano Pavarotti. The supporting cast is just as good, and I consider this to be one of the best opera recordings of all time. You can listen to the entire thing on YouTube in Parts I, II and III.

But it is always best to start off by watching an opera before you merely listen to it. And here, Butterfly is in luck again, as Martin Scorsese himself put out a filmed version of the opera in 1995, filmed on location in Japan. This version can also be watched on YouTube, complete with subtitles.

So enjoy! This is an exquisite opera and well worth the watch. If you need to be convinced, however, give a listen to some of the snippets from the opera. They should leave you entranced.

(Featured Image: Peonies and Butterflies, by Ito Jakuchu)

The Description Confectionery: Hound of the Baskervilles

blog-picsTime for another Description Confection! This time, we are going to go to one of the greatest and most famous mystery stories of all time: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fantastic The Hound of the BaskervillesThis extract comes from the moment Dr. Watson is coming upon Baskerville Hall, a very old manor in the desolately beautiful northern English moors.

We had left the fertile country behind and beneath us. We looked back on it now, the slanting rays of a low sun turning the streams to threads of gold and glowing on the red earth new turned by the plough and the broad tangle of the woodlands. The road in front of us grew bleaker and wilder over huge russet and olive slopes, sprinkled with giant boulders. Now and then we passed a moorland cottage, walled and roofed with stone, with no creeper to break its harsh outline. Suddenly we looked down into a cuplike depression, patched with stunted oaks and firs which had been twisted and bent by the fury of years of storm.

                                          ~Chapter 6, Baskerville Hall

200px-cover_28hound_of_baskervilles2c_190229First, notice the words Watson uses to describe the land which they left behind; fertile land, threads of gold sunlight, and red earth. You can almost feel the warmth of the sunshine peeking through the clouds.

But when Watson turns back to the direction in which he and the driver are bound, the description dramatically shifts. The welcoming words such as fertile and glowing are sharply replaced by words like bleak and harsh. Instead of the fertile red earth, there is now a stone cottage, so inhospitable that a vine cannot even cling to its walls. The colors, which before were warm and pleasant ones like red and gold now turn to the tones of russet and olive, both colors having distinctly cool, dreary undertones. Without Sir Arthur even mentioning a change of light, the reader sees the land before Watson as gray, dark and eerie, sapped of color and life. The description is capped off with the addition of storm-gnarled trees, giving the land an unmistakably wicked and spooky atmosphere.

The entirety of this book is filled with marvelous descriptions, but I particularly love this one. It introduces a sinister, foreboding feeling to the reader, perfect for this book which emphasizes the battle of logic and knowledge over the terror of the unknown. This short but masterful paragraph wonderfully sets the tone in only a few sentences. Indeed, one can almost hear the feral baying of the Hound itself, echoing across the land to fill the hearer with a nameless fear.

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