Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
9 - 15 September 1999
Issue No. 446
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

Geisha with wings

By David Blake

It's no use expecting any self-respecting operatic psychopath to go to a show with the word "butterfly" on the invitation. Whether gorgeous flying insect, drag queen or breakfast food, it will mean but one thing, the 1904 block busting, best-selling Madame Butterfly by Puccini. So what of Fly Butterfly, the Italian performance that opened this year's CIFET?

It proved to be a wise little flyer. Butterfly the opera is strongly feminist, like this small flying one was. As opera she is a dear little girl geisha who outrages God, family and the social establishment by marrying a US Navy heel -- and for her pains gets dumped by the lot of them as her lover sails out of Nagasaki harbour, leaving to the US and taking their tiny son with him.

The question: will the opera break through the beautifully constructed surface of this piece at the Cairo Opera House? Certainly it tells the story another way -- the struggle and strife of a living insect facing the torments of genuine creation in one of the magisterial arts, in this instance music. But we have to wait until the end to witness the final workout.

Every butterfly must fly. There are clues in the very brilliant musical score of the piece, which shows the operatic ghost haunting this tiny helpless Petrouschka-like creature in its effort to fly like the stupendous butterflies that opened the show. The large hall of the opera, in the interest of this production, was plunged into stygian darkness -- not a dead dark but very much alive and peopled.

For the opening of a theatre festival, Fly Butterfly is a good choice. Theatre after all is theatre. It lives by its magical projection -- and mystery. The camera with its deadly didacticism is no match for the capricious birthright the theatre exerts over an audience. And it is the birthright of Fly Butterfly that we wait for.

Far out in space it is -- a small tremulous square object wobbling and twisting, writhing like a grub, but luminous. The penetrable dark engulfs it, and out of this, on wings of quite heavenly music, come our first butterflies of the night. They open out like enormous fans in a sumptuous light, subtly not green or black but casting living shadows on the tiny butterfly who is in ecstasy at their beauty.

Larvaed in sound celestial, they give way like precipices cracking. And Butterfly is about to enter into its initiation towards flight. The tiny thing is lifted, flung and cruelly manhandled. But no go. Butterfly rests on the earth. It lacks motivation and sheer energy. So its Calvary has begun. There are fierce noises, obscene ones and also heavenly outbursts of requiem-like choirs. Sound floods in upon the little object from every angle.

The musical score of this Butterfly is a major part of its success. Richard Strauss-like waves of sound surge to its aid. The tiny thing remains earthbound, yet it still makes its tiny, immense Promethean struggle. It has begun to change its form, and it displays anger at failure. Its helpless small limbs and gestures take on thrusts, but in spite of the ghosts and musical sounds it cannot rise.

The music swoops through the blackened theatre -- surely the Cathy Berberian ridiculosity songs of Berio could help, or the Szmanowski-like songs of a Fairy Tale Princess, coloratura ridiculous or divine: no butterfly flies, though it quivers with effort and still cannot take off in one of the dives the high fliers make around it. It must be wonderful and dreadful to be a butterfly.

Finally the small thing faces what looks like the final torture. This is it: either flight or death. The big black powers around it toss it into the air, it stiffens and turns to bone before our astonished eyes. The big powers are sick of it. It crashes to earth, a pile of rags, a hapless defeated grub. There is a silence, a small pause, then the grub begins to crawl almost the entire depth of the stage -- it crawls, it divests itself gradually of the rags, reaches the bright light down front, it has become a very handsome young girl. It rears on its tummy and, with a knife, goes through the ritual of hara-kiri. It doesn't die, blood gushes from it, clothes appear, she bounds upwards to her full height, now resplendent in sumptuous shining colours -- then the coup de theâtre strikes the house.

Puccini's ending to the sad tale of another little butterfly -- proud, historic, ancient -- enacts the Butterfly's death in grand operatic style. There is the music -- we need Callas, but the girl will do. She's tall, beautiful and radiant.

So it happened. She flew at last, or did better. She's a living triumph. Out of the cave of darkness came the idea: good old butterfly, with the help of Puccini, has given us two butterflies, with the beneficence of Plato -- more than plenty for a single night. Bless the theatre. Only from behind the fourth wall could come the hand of authority that will take us over the rim of a trembling, uncertain world to something better beyond.

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