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Opera News on the Air (1947)

Moderated by Boris Goldovsky

Source: Intermission feature during broadcast of Metropolitan Opera performance of Madame Butterfly, February 8, 1947
Transcribed from audiocassette held by the Weill-Lenya Research Center, Ser.114/24

Milton Cross: And now Boris Goldovsky brings us another “Opera News on the Air,” the weekly radio supplement to the illustrated opera magazine, Opera News, published by the Metropolitan Opera Guild. In his analysis of the music of today’s opera, Mr. Goldovsky will be joined by two guests who will bring differing points of view. One of these guests is a man who stands in the very front rank of composers for the theater–Kurt Weill. Mr. Weill has to his credit a large amount of music for the stage, including several successful musical plays such as Lady in the Dark and Knickerbocker Holiday. At the present time, one of the smash hits of Broadway is the “dramatic musical” Street Scene, with one of the most successful scores Mr. Weill has ever written. This musical version of the play Street Scene has caused a great deal of comment in both theatrical and musical circles, and has been hailed by many critics as a new form of American opera. Mr. Goldovsky’s other guest today is a young lady who is now in her first season as a singer at the Metropolitan–Irene Jordan, mezzo-soprano. The radio audience has already heard Miss Jordan in several roles during the Saturday broadcasts, including the part of Mallika in Lakmé and the young Czarevitch Feodor in the opera Boris Godunov. And now here is “Opera News on the Air.” Mr. Goldovsky!

Goldovsky: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Today we are hearing one of the great modern classics of opera–Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. The music of Puccini–particularly that of Butterfly and his other masterpieces, La bohème and Tosca–occupies a very special niche in the affections of twentieth-century operagoers, and Puccini without doubt is the most popular opera composer of our century–at least, up to date. We tend to think of the composers of operatic masterpieces as having lived long ago but as a matter of fact Puccini died less than twenty-five years ago–in 1924, to be exact. Here was a modernist, a man of our own century.

Weill: Mr. Goldovsky, it seems to me that that’s the explanation of the special charm that Puccini holds for us: He was a genius of our day, writing for us, in terms that we understand.

Goldovsky: Certainly his musical language seems to belong to our day, Mr. Weill.

Weill: And his whole sense of theatrical values is modern. I’d be inclined to call him the first operatic composer to reflect a modern understanding of the psychology of human relationships. His very choice of librettos indicates this: they’re modern, realistic–quite acceptable just as plays.

Jordan: Well, as a matter of fact, Madame Butterfly was a play, and a very successful play, dealing with contemporary twentieth-century people, too.

Weill: Yes, Miss Jordan. A far cry from the ancient Teutonic legends which fascinated Wagner, for instance.

Goldovsky: You know, it occurs to me, Mr. Weill, that your Street Scene is just the sort of play that would have appealed to Puccini if he were living and writing in America today.

Weill: I’m sure of it, Mr. Goldovsky. And I’m mighty glad that Puccini did not have a chance to see Street Scene when it was produced as a play almost twenty years ago. He might have beat me to it [laughter]. From the first time I read the play Street Scene I felt that this was the perfect vehicle for the sort of popular opera I wanted to write. After all, it’s a modern play, with the sort of modern, realistic characters that Puccini liked so much. Take Cio-Cio-San in today’s opera, for instance; she is a completely characterized and recognizable human being, with many facets to her personality.

Jordan: You know, Puccini seems to have had an especially deep understanding of his heroines. Most of the stories he chose revolve about a woman as the central character. And he certainly gave some of his loveliest music to the soprano!

Goldovsky: Yes, if you think of the musical highlights of the Butterfly score, you almost invariably settle on the passages that are associated with the heroine. Butterflyís first appearance, in the first act (plays musical illustration on the piano). Or her wonderful love duet with Pinkerton which we just heard at the conclusion of the first act–there are so many beautiful themes here (illustration). Or this one, for instance, which happens to be a great favorite with me (illustration). Not to forget the wonderful ending of the duet (illustration), which uses music which we have already heard in the beginning of the opera. Not to forget Butterfly’s famous second act aria, “One Fine Day” (illustration).

Jordan: Don’t leave out the glorious duet with Suzuki, where they decorate the house with flowers for Pinkerton’s arrival.

Goldovsky: I should say not, Miss Jordan! Some day I hope to hear you sing a Suzuki. So this is for you (illustration). And speaking of Butterfly’s beautiful music, we must not forget her death scene in the last act (illustration).

Jordan: For all her unhappiness, the lady does get the best of it musically!

Goldovsky: Thereís no doubt about it, Miss Jordan, it’s an enchanting score. But we’re so used to thinking of Puccini’s music as utterly sweet and melodious that it’s easy to overlook the fact that his scores contain some interesting examples of modern musical technique. For Puccini was a modernist, in the sense that he was always seeking new ways to say things in musical terms.

Weill: Not only new ways, but theatrically effective ways, wouldn’t you say, Mr. Goldovsky? I have the feeling that Puccini wasn’t particularly interested in musical experimentation for its own sake, but rather in the effect it would have on the audience in the opera house.

Goldovsky: Puccini never forgot he was writing music for the theater. Nevertheless, in his day–which wasn’t long ago, as we’ve pointed out–a good deal of the Butterfly music was considered pretty advanced, harsh, almost discordant. In fact, the first performance of Butterfly was laughed at.

Weill: But are you sure it was laughed at because of the extraordinary musical language? Don’t you think what was really unusual to an audience of 1904 was Puccini’s approach to the whole problem of combining a contemporary story with music. His audience had probably never heard a score which introduced present-day people, dressed in present-day clothes, and which translates a realistic story completely into music, so that the story moves along as swiftly as in a legitimate play.

Goldovsky: That is probably true, Mr. Weill, but I think you will admit that some of Puccini’s musical effects did take some getting used to.

Weill: Oh, surely. He would not have been the great composer that he was without a very decided musical individuality.

Jordan: It seems odd to think that listeners could ever have felt that Puccini’s music was harsh. The average opera lover of today certainly considers these same effects extremely pleasant and easy to listen to.

Goldovsky: Well, let’s look at some examples. A few of the very tunes with which we illustrated some of the most memorable moments in today’s score. Take the music announcing Butterfly’s arrival, for instance (brief illustration). Very possibly the main charm of this recurrent phrase lies in this one somewhat unusual chord, the third chord (illustration of augmented chord). Some people, when they first heard Butterfly, undoubtedly found it too strange, perhaps even ugly.

Jordan: But it has such a wonderful flavor. It adds a sort of a delicate spice to the phrase. And this chord is the very thing that makes it memorable.

Goldovsky: Indeed, Miss Jordan. The same melody with a more conventional chord at the end would seem completely dull and uninspired.

Jordan: You might say the same dish, but without seasoning.

Goldovsky: That’s right. Puccini does the same thing, incidentally, at the end of the “Flower Duet” . . .

Jordan: It’s a lovely phrase. Cio-Cio-San and her faithful Suzuki singing together– (illustration)

Goldovsky: Yes, and it ends with the same kind of dissonance– (illustration). See, the same chord again. Of course, Puccini could have again have written it this way– (illustration). But you can very well hear why he didn’t. Another interesting example is the section just after the flower duet, where Butterfly looks at herself in the mirror and wonders whether the passing of three years has robbed her of her beauty. “I have changed,” she says. “My lips have sighed too many sighs and my eyes have scanned the horizon too long.” Puccini introduces here a strange succession of apparently unrelated chords (illustration). And above these chords we hear Cio-Cio-San’s vocal line (illustration). You hear how perfectly this peculiar sound of these chords illuminates the mood of little Cio-Cio-San.

Jordan: And when she takes her final farewell of her baby just before the end of the opera, there is another series of strange harmonies.

Goldovsky: Very strange, yes, Miss Jordan, and doubtless they seemed like the very height of musical radicalism early in the century (illustration). Today, they sound perfectly beautiful–and very affecting.

Weill: I’m glad you added that, Mr. Goldovsky. I was about to raise my voice in mild protest!

Goldovsky: Well, do so anyway, Mr. Weill!

Weill: I just feel rather strongly that we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that all these musical devices are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. Puccini was a great master, not because he wrote unusual chords–anybody can do that–but because he used them with such extraordinary theatrical artistry and imagination. He gets his effect and the audience is moved. That’s the big thing, it seems to me. I don’t care much whether a composer for the theater writes in a fiercely modern, or what we call atonal style, or if he never leaves the key of C major, as long as he gets his emotional effect. And it’s in that sphere that Puccini is absolutely unrivaled.

Jordan: Do you yourself confess to be influenced by Puccini, Mr. Weill?

Weill: Well, you see, Miss Jordan, I think this whole question of who influences whom is greatly overrated today. I don’t think it offers any criterion for the judgment of the real values of music. Listening to the broadcast of Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet last week, for instance, I noticed how much Gounod was influenced by Mozart on the one hand, and certain Italian composers on the other. And yet, it was the personality of Gounod which came through in its full individuality. Just as Puccini learned from Verdi, and Verdi from Donizetti, and maybe in his later years from Wagner, I feel that a modern theater composer could do much worse than to learn a few things from Puccini.

Jordan: Well, I’m glad to hear you say that, Mr. Weill. I sometimes find myself very impatient with certain academic musicians who underestimate Puccini.

Goldovsky: Yes, Miss Jordan. Puccini’s musical genius, coupled with his wonderful instinct for the theater make him one of the outstanding composers in the whole history of opera. I personally am convinced that Bohème, Tosca and Butterfly will continue to be admired and loved as great operatic classics as long as opera lives. The fate of opera depends on composers whose theatrical and musical instincts blend as perfectly as they did with Giacomo Puccini.

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