Opera: Madama Butterfly / Hungarian State Opera

Rummaging through my archives this week I rediscovered a post from my Budapest blog where I wrote about my first opera experience. In 2006. Some late bloomer! 

Since my writing from those times has been offline for many years it seems like a fit to reprint here.

Tonight marks my first time seeing a live operatic performance. I’m not an opera novice – I’ve been listening to operas for half my life – but I just haven’t ever had the money or the opportunity to attend live. I’m revved up about tonight, for many reasons not the least of which is that I have a third row seat in what I understand to be one of the two or three most beautiful opera houses in the world. 

Tonight’s program is Madama Butterfly. I like the fact that I have somehow escaped knowing the synopsis of the plot all these years, and so, in addition to thrilling to the atmosphere of the Hungarian State Opera House and luxuriating to Un Bel Di sung just 20 FEET AWAY FROM MY FACE, I will be on the edge of my seat not knowing how it’s all going to turn out. Should be one hell of a night! 

An hour before curtain I get slicked up and call a cab, and in 20 minutes I’m at the coat check with a program. Once inside the seating area I go to my place just so I can see the whole thing. It’s an amazing place, an orgy of frescos and crushed velvet and gilt-burnished hardwoods decorated further by Hungarian socialites in their jewels and elegant finery. My seat is as good as it gets, right behind the orchestra, all sight lines wide open. At 12,500 ft ($60), it was worth every forint. 

There is some time to go before the first act so I want to get a gander at the rest of the place. It’s too bad I’m here alone, it would be nice to share the spectacle with someone, but since that’s not on the card for tonight I take advantage of the perks of the lone wolf. Gliding up the staircase to the mezzanine I hit the bar and, finding it sparsely populated, order up a whiskey and take in the scene. 

Ceiling frescoes are detailed so as to make you dizzy and a little self-conscious as you stare straight up for 5 minutes at a stretch. Old-money Hungarian families are easy to spot – the patriarch in a low-key but tasteful business suit, his wife in a maroon gown with pearls and a pair of prep-school sons in coats and ties, their shirt collars two sizes too big and incorrigible cowlicks pointing in any old direction. A stunning 40-ish female tourist from Santa Cruz whispers to her college professor husband, I see them in the enormous mirrors as she points at the art. I know they must be from Santa Cruz because only UCSC alumni would wear tweed and walking shoes to the opera. A dark-featured man in an ascot and his wife in a cloud of aquamarine taffeta are holding twin Unicums. The 12 members of a tourist group from Lisbon hold onto the balustrades and compare notes in fast Portuguese. Over-solicitous barkeeps serve Ballantines – the scotch of choice here in Hungary, for some reason – to a tall Budapesti television station director and his fresh-faced mistress.

We twirl and whirl and excuse me around each other like the teacups at Disneyland as we make our way through the luminous foyer. Five minutes to curtain, the bell dings and narrow aisles fill up as we slowly make our way to our seats. 

As the curtain rises I see that the set is very nice, a minimal design with rice paper screens, Japanese bridges and cherry blossom trees. My hunch is that this set is traditional for Madama Butterfly, very Asian but nothing too avant-garde. I don’t think Hungarian tastes are calibrated for the extreme stylistic treatment this opera might receive in San Francisco or Amsterdam

The cast also seems very solid and very traditional. Pinkerton is played by Berkes János. János’ toupee is creepy and he looks doughy for the role, but as the character of Pinkerton is a schmucky American blowhard – I’m convinced. Bazsinka Zsuzsanna (Cio-Cio San) and Bokor Jutta (Suzuki) are the other main characters.

Second act: Un Bel Di gets a warm reception. The lighting in this production is very good, fiery lights and silhouettes of chorus members are an effective use of the sparse stage set. 

During the second intermission I get to the bar early, and give myself not just time for a Campari but to get some air on the balcony overlooking the Andrassy Utca’s Friday night crowds. Smokers wander about in the cool night breeze. A young dapper gay couple in matching tuxes takes photos of themselves against the half-drawn curtains. The traffic leisurely rumbles on in front of the restaurant across the narrow side street from the Opera house where I see waiters gearing up for the post-event crowd.

Contentedly leaning on the concrete and marble edifice of the stone balusters drinking and looking at Budapest’s beautiful main boulevard while reflecting on how amazing it is that I am here this night at this most lovely of Opera Houses. After a couple of tough years scrounging for work in the Pacific Northwest, a fine wind has sent me to Central Europe and I am feeling very much like a cat who jumped off the windowsill of a burning 5-story building and landed paws-first in a barrel full of cream. I lift my Campari: Egészségedre Magyar Állami Operaház!