Susan Benson, Madama Butterfly

Our dear friend Susan Benson designed the set and costumes for the revived production of Madama Butterfly now playing at the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto and invited us to opening night. I bought a new suit, Penny got out a longish frock, and we looked, I think, near-enough A-listers, or at least did not disgrace Susan, who was invited up to take bows with the cast at the conclusion. We were certainly proud of her.

Going to an opera inevitably makes me think of the Oliva brothers, bachelor Italian barbers, one fat and one skinny, who cut our hair when we were small at their barber shop on Seventh Avenue in Sunset Park in Brooklyn. Besides the big enamel and chrome chairs with leather headrest and the hot towel steamer they had an old console radio, a giant Spanish-Jacobean walnut-veneer horror with a glowing dial that played opera while they snipped and lathered and shaved the back of your neck and around your ears.

Thus it was, perhaps, that the first album I ever bought was highlights of Lucia di Lammermoor with Patrice Munsel, Robert Merrill and Jan Peerce, the second an extended-play 45 of Ezio Pinza singing “Dormirò sol nel manto mio regal” from Don Carlo, and the first stage performance of any kind I ever went to, apart from Sunday school pageants and the like, was an Aïda at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in which the dancers’ body paint ran under the hot lights and, afterwards, in the lobby, listening to working-class Italians from Bensonhurst, I first divined that a passion for an art form entails close critical attention and cold discriminations. These stern, brick-laying, bocce-playing critics thought Radames was not on form that night.

After the opera, we went along to a cast party at an Irish pub and Penny got to chat with the Butterfly, a famous soprano. Off next to Buenos Aires, she said.

The Oliva brothers would have loved it, the bocce-players maybe.