by Cynthia Costain
My Father loved opera. Not light opera or, heaven forbid, Gilbert and Sullivan, but Grand Opera. He had a gramophone of which he was very proud. It was a handsome polished mahogany box and although it did not have a horn, as His Master’s Voice advertising showed, it was one of the earlier models. He also had records of some of the famous opera singers of his younger days: Caruso, Tetrazinni, GalliGurcci and others whom I have forgotten. They were of course 24 rpm and some only had a recording on one side.
There was also a Book which I imagine was produced by one of the record companies. It was a handsome hardcover book with a short synopsis of each well known opera and probably a list of the recordings available, but what fascinated me as a small child were the stories which were short and in simple language, so that a beginning reader could work her way through these tales of love, passion and tragedy without too much trouble. Then there were the pictures. These were photographs of wellknown artistes in costume. I remember Caruso as a clown in Pagliacci, and a very gorgeous lady decked in flowers whose name I have forgotten. But poor Tetrazzini who was rotund to put it kindly looked quite peculiar as Aida, and many of the other pictures looked grotesque even to my unsophisticated eyes. Trying to fit these people into the dramatic stories was quite a puzzle, but it remained one of my favourite storybooks.
Every winter the Carl Rosa Opera Company made a tour of the large provincial cities in Britain usually staying for two weeks in each place and presenting a selection of operas. My parents used to go each season but it was not until I was about eight or nine that my Father suddenly said one Saturday afternoon, “I think I’ll go to the matinee of “Madame Butterfly”. If you want to go shopping I might as well take Cynthia.”
I had once before been taken to see “The Tales of Hoffman” when a babysitter was not available but remembered nothing except a boat floating across the stage during “The Barcarolle”, and to an English child who saw two or three pantomimes each Christmas it did not seem unusual. But “Madame Butterfly”! I had read the story of course and had seen a photograph of a handsome man in uniform and a strange (but not fat) Japanese lady in a beautiful setting of flowering trees so I was all set to enjoy myself.
We had seats in the dress circle so I could see the stage very well, but the theatre was not full. All went well through the first and second acts as I raptly followed the story and even recognised some of the music from my Father’s records. However, the third act was TOO MUCH! As the gentleman produced a wife and the poor Japanese lady was left alone, tears poured down my cheeks and dripped on my dress. As she put a little American flag in the baby’s hand and drew the sword, I broke into loud heartfelt sobs. My Father didn’t waste time telling me to shut up! He unobtrusively moved along the row of vacant seats until he could disassociate himself from this disgraceful display of emotion. To his credit this did not stop him from taking me to many other operas but he waited until I was a bit older. I don’t think I was even scolded- maybe he felt like sobbing too!