Revisiting Madama Butterfly

December 11, 2011


As I compose my own opera, I am learning and revisiting the master operas. This week I’ve been studying Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.” Puccini did five revisions of the piece before he was satisfied. The press and audience were less than enthusiastic with the premiere, but its second performance was a success.

The opening of the opera is puzzling: we get a fugue. What does it mean?

I love Puccini’s treatment of his great melodies: they are shared by the orchestra and the voices, and when the singers need to take a breath, the tune keeps going in the strings. His sense of orchestral-doubling is marvelous: sometimes the whole orchestra will be playing the tune along with the singer, and sometimes the singer is unaccompanied. This dynamic is a fascinating one to watch in Puccini’s orchestration.

I still find operatic orchestration somewhat untruthful in what it asks for. In the conductor’s score, there are many places that ask the orchestra to play ff (fortissimo, or very loud), but we know that if they really play that loudly, you wouldn’t be able to hear the voices. So these dynamics are really for the benefit of the conductor. The performer may not really know how loud an ff is until s/he gets to the performance hall.

I like Puccini’s orchestration overall, but he has one annoying habit: having oboes play in unison. I am sensitive to this because a) Gunther Schuller taught me to avoid doing this; and b) because the oboe has such a rich array of overtones in its core sound, probably more than any other western orchestral instrument. So when two oboes play the “same” note, you hear that they really aren’t the same notes because the overtones clash. Most great orchestrators know that to create a core sound, you need at least three instruments. With two, you hear the differences — especially with the oboe — not as much of an issue with other instruments, but is still always a factor. I have found that most composers have avoided it over the centuries with the exception of loud passages — and Puccini. Perhaps, and most likely, he liked the sound.

One composer who obviously likes the sound of unison oboes is Thomas Newman–listen to the theme of the TV show, SIX FEET UNDER, where it sounds like a herd of oboes (they may be English horns) all crying out that unforgettable theme in unison.

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