Arts & Letters American Artists Features

Madama Butterfly

Maria Callas was of Greek decent, born in New York in December 1923. Just one year later, in 1924, Giacomo Puccini, who was from the small town of Lucca in Italy, died. They never met. They never even knew each other, and yet their lives will be forever entwined.

Maria Callas, of course, would come to know Puccini intimately through the miraculous beauty of his work. But it seems almost a tragedy that Giacomo Puccini would never know the woman, or hear the phenomenal voice, that would give such flight to his work.

It is almost inconceivable that Maria Callas, one of the most renowned and influential sopranos of the 20th century, detested her own voice. She thought it too nasal! The first time she listened to a recording of one of her performances, she broke down in tears. She had wanted to give up singing entirely. Though she later said she was able to accept her voice and be objective about it, it seems impossible that she might well have been the only person on earth left unmoved by the fluid power, that lilting delicacy and startling expression of authentic emotion, that brought audiences to their knees.

Given her tumultuous childhood, perhaps the very thing that gave her access to such raw emotion, it seems understandable that she might have viewed herself with a sense of remote disconnection. She commented often that “Callas,” the woman who went up on stage, was another person.

While the tone or quality of her voice might have been subjective—and there were detractors—through her style and phrasing, her voice came to be revered as the most telling, the most expressive and true voice of her time. With the fiery passion and theatricality she brought to each performance, she captured the hearts of audiences the world over.

But more: Victor de Sabata, the acclaimed conductor and composer, noted, “If the public could only understand, as we do, how deeply and utterly musical Callas is, they would be stunned.” Tullio Serafin, another conducting giant of the time, considered her musicality “extraordinary, almost frightening.” And indeed, Callas viewed herself foremost as a musician, the first instrument of the orchestra, though she never thought of herself as “good enough.”

Thirty-five years after her death, she was still one of classical music’s best-selling artists. While the press named her the first “diva” of the opera and concentrated on the drama and spectacle of her private life, those who actually listened to her voice were transported to another world: a world where each moment caught your breath, where each phrase, in the best tradition of opera, was love—life or death.

Maria Callas’ first performance in a leading role was that of Tosca, written, of course, by Giacomo Puccini. Callas went on to sing the arias from every one of Puccini’s most popular operas.

Maria Callas’ first leading role was in Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca. Cover of the libretto for Tosca, 1899, by Alfredo Montalti. (Public Domain)

Puccini came from a lineage of musicians who were well established in Italy. While they were certainly not wealthy, Puccini’s grandfather, after whom he was named, was the organ player and chief conductor at the Cathedral of St. Martin in Lucca. Members of the Puccini family had occupied that position going back to 1740!

After the death of his father, the family fell on difficult times. Giacomo was said to have been an unruly child, often playing truant from school, and at one point being accused of stealing the lead pipes from the church organ to buy cigarettes! Later on, he would actually elope to marry his wife, so it is clear he was not exactly a shrinking violet. There was a vibrancy to his personality, and it showed in the myriad colors of his work.

Composer Giacomo Puccini in a studio photograph. (US-PD)

At age 17, he literally walked from Lucca to Pisa to see a performance of Verdi’s latest opera, “Aida.” At that point, Verdi was the rock star of Italian opera. Apparently, Puccini had no money and no ticket, but that did not stop him. It would not be long before Verdi’s ardent fan would equal his fame.

It was expected that Giacomo would follow in the family’s musical tradition. He was sent to study at the Conservatory of Milan, where he lived the bohemian life of the starving artist. His adventures there would inspire his later opera,

Set Design for Giacomo Puccini’s opera “La Boheme,” 2010, by Reginald gray.

Apparently, apart from enjoying the nightlife of Milan, his schooling bored him to tears. But the Conservatory required he compose a piece as part of his thesis. Puccini responded with a composition for full orchestra entitled “Capriccio Sinfonico.” Writing for full orchestra, with just pen and paper, is an unfathomable skill. But Puccini’s remarkable symphonic talent and style were immediately clear.

It might have been expected that a man from such a background would become an excellent composer, but that doesn’t explain the incomparable genius that gave the world the operas “La Bohème,” “Tosca,” “Madama Butterfly,” and “Turandot.” It is an unparalleled contribution of such magnificence that words simply fail. To this day, these works still thrill audiences around the world.

Later in life. “Una fotografia del” compositore of Giacomo Puccini. (Public Domain)

As a musical dramatist, he was unequaled. As a writer of the most memorable arias, with melodies such as the impassioned “Nessun Dorma,” which became the theme for the 1990 soccer World Cup, he broke through the elitist notions of opera, bringing that magical world of imagination to the common people.

But neither Giacomo Puccini nor Maria Callas were common people. They may have grown up on the same streets as the common people, but the miracle of their uncommon gift was to distill everything of the human experience, from our highest ideals to our lowest cravings—the fears and secrets hidden in the corners of our hearts, desires, heartbreaks, the sacred and the profane—and reflect every one of us back upon ourselves.

It is a rare gift—so rare, in fact, that we still know the names of those few who have been able to do it. Their lives and their work enrich us all with a greater sense of the meaning, the depth and width, of our existence.

Giacomo Puccini and Maria Callas were not alike in terms of their personalities, but in their work, they appear as almost the same person. Their brilliance, of both sheer technical skill and deep, human, expressive passion, is truly as one. It is as if Callas was born specifically to bring ultimate expression to Puccini’s work.

Screen set on Madame Butterfly. “Collina presso Nagasaki,” 1906, by Alexandre Bailly and Marcel Jambon. (Storico Ricordi, Collezione Digitale Ricordi, ICON000079 – Restoration. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

I mentioned that they never actually met. Puccini was leaving this world just as Callas was coming into it. But there is a song, “Un Bel Dì, Vedremo” (one fine day we will see). It is an aria for soprano from the second act of Puccini’s opera “Madama Butterfly.” If you never listen to another piece of opera in your life, just read the outline to the story of Cio Cio San, and then listen to Maria Callas perform it. It is a piece of such searing drama and delicate beauty that it leaves me speechless each time I hear it. And each time I hear it, I am more convinced that Giacomo Puccini must be standing right there in the wings, listening.

Pete McGrain is a professional writer, director, and composer best known for the film “Ethos,” which stars Woody Harrelson. Currently living in Los Angeles, Pete hails from Dublin, Ireland, where he studied at Trinity College.

American Artists Arts & Letters

A Time for the ‘Adagio’

As a teenager, I had little time for classical music. Opera just about made my hair stand on end. Choirs would send me running for the door. Orchestral music, in general, had been written for fuddy-duddies or nerds, I thought. It might not be too much of a generalization to say that most teenagers are drawn more toward hot dogs, fizzy drinks, and loud music than fine wine, nicely aged cheddar, and a prelude, but I have often wondered why. Is it perhaps simply a matter of waiting until we have matured and developed a more sophisticated sense of taste?

However, a dear friend of mine, an older composer, assured me it was otherwise. “One has to have suffered the slings and arrows of life, got some bangs and bruises, suffered unrequited love, lost a loved one or suffered a few failures, to appreciate the beauty of the finer arts,” he assured me. “Fine arts are a salve for the wounds, chicken soup for the soul. Teenagers have little use for salves. They are, after all, immortal, are they not?”

I couldn’t disagree. Indeed, in moments of doubt, I have clung to the arts, keeping my attention on the higher expressions of life and humanity, if only to maintain hope.

This last year has been difficult for us all, no doubt. Few have escaped unscathed, and yet somehow we seem to have made it through the slings and arrows. There seems to be light at the end of the tunnel, but I wonder how people have managed.

During my most difficult days, I had quite a few good friends I could turn to. Most of them died a hundred years ago or more, but their music is still very much with us. One of them left us just forty years ago, and yet his contribution stands with the greats of all time. His name is Samuel Osmond Barber II.

Barber was born in Pennsylvania in 1910. Music critic Donal Henahan said of him, “Probably no other American composer has ever enjoyed such early, such persistent and such long-lasting acclaim,” and yet, while I can almost guarantee you will at least have heard one of his compositions somewhere, few know his name.

You may have heard this particular piece in several movies, from David Lynch’s “The Elephant Man” to Oliver Stone’s Oscar-winning “Platoon.” There is even an electronic dance music cover by the famed DJ Tiësto, which, though it veers drastically from the original, is actually pretty great!

The composition I am referring to comes from the second movement of Barber’s String Quartet, Opus 11, the iconic “Adagio for Strings.” It is a composition of such lilting and yet uneasy and suspenseful beauty that most composers would wait an entire lifetime for such a piece to come from their pen, and yet Barber was just 26 years old when he wrote it.

Author Alexander J. Morin said of the piece, “It was so full of passion and pathos that it seldom left a dry eye.” Right from its first gentle refrain, the mournful yet delicate strings begin an ascending melody that is passed like a holy grail from yearning cellos to violas and violins. With the end of each passage, the orchestra seems almost to pause for breath, or even to sigh, before continuing the melody’s upward progress, as if searching desperately for daylight through the clouds. Rising and falling in an arch-shaped progression, the ascent leads to a searing, breathtaking crescendo that could pierce the stoniest of hearts.

At a time when many composers had begun experimenting with curious scales and discordant musical arrangements—“modernism,” they called it—Barber shunned the trends, focusing on a lyrical use of classic tonal harmony that gave his work a singular and remarkable charm and beauty, catapulting it into the spotlight.

In 1938, Barber sent a copy of the orchestration for the “Adagio” to famed conductor Arturo Toscanini. Toscanini was one of the most acclaimed and influential musicians of the 20th century, renowned for his ear for orchestral detail and his notoriously fierce perfectionism. When Toscanini returned the pages without comment, Barber was understandably quite upset. But Toscanini sent word that he had returned the pages simply because he had already memorized the entire opus! It seems the maestro was impressed.

In November of 1938, Toscanini conducted the piece for radio broadcast from Studio 8H at Rockefeller Center in New York. Apparently, Toscanini hadn’t had to look at the music until the day before the performance! The rest, as they say, is history.

Barber went on to win two Pulitzers, with many of his compositions being adopted as part of the canon of orchestral performance. He earned a permanent place in the concert repertory, with all of the renowned orchestras around the world performing his works.

The “Adagio for Strings” was later adapted for choir and titled “Agnus Dei,” meaning Lamb of God, referring to Christ in the liturgical text. It is beyond sublime and equals, if not surpasses, the heartrending orchestral version. While Barber’s mother was an accomplished pianist, his maternal aunt, Louise Homer, was a leading contralto at the Metropolitan Opera. She is known to have influenced his interest in voice, and some of Barber’s most beloved pieces are written for choir. While it seems natural that the “Adagio” would be adapted, the result is almost too beautiful to bear.

It is often difficult to reconcile the worst expressions of the human race when one witnesses the finest. After all, one need only read the news to fall into despair. However, the great writers, poets, painters and composers not only reflect how incredible we actually are as a species, but they continue to both salve our wounds and point the way to our higher ideals. Perhaps it is right that we pay attention to world events, but that is all the more reason to pay attention to the miraculous beauty that surrounds us, too. And so, dear reader, in this time of healing, after having suffered the slings and arrows of this past year, I heartily recommend you take solace in Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.”

Pete McGrain is a professional writer/director/composer best known for the film “Ethos,” which stars Woody Harrelson. Currently living in Los Angeles, Pete hails from Dublin, Ireland, where he studied at Trinity College.

Arts & Letters Features

Why Music Reminds Us We Are Human, Even in the Darkest Places

There was a gang member who had been in prison all his life, who said he’d never once cried in all his years. He’d buried his mother, he’d buried his father, and he saw the door to his future close when he was sentenced to be locked up for decades, maybe the rest of his life. But then, in prison, he heard a chamber music concert, and he cried.

“This one man stood up after the show, covered in tattoos, the whole nine yards, and he said: ‘I’m overcome with emotion. I’ve had no control over my tears for the last two hours during the show. I’ve never cried in my life. Never. My mom died, my father died, I was sad but I never cried. What is it?'” said Eric Genuis, the composer of the music that man heard.

“I remember being really taken by this,” said Genuis, a pianist and composer. “Here’s a man who spent his whole life in prison, tried and convicted as a teen, and is now close to 60. Well, what is it? It’s the human heart.”

Genuis has seen countless such reactions. In Massachusetts, another prisoner said: “I’ve killed a lot of people in my life. After hearing this, I’ve had a higher encounter with my humanity. I’ll never hurt another person again.”

“Now, that was really beautiful, but why did a prisoner stand up in front of other prisoners and demonstrate a certain vulnerability? That’s a no-no, right? He comes up after the show and he starts talking about it: ‘This is how cold I became in life, I was able to do this and it didn’t affect me, I was able to do that,'” Genuis said.

“There was another man, 90 years old, in a walker. He said, ‘I’ve lived with the pain and suffering that I’ve caused when I was a 19-year-old man.”

“My concert invites deep emotion,” Genuis said. “But it’s the music that invites that. It’s not just me walking in and talking to them, and they feel comfortable with me. You’ve broken down a barrier—music is very disarming. It allows them to have an encounter with their own humanity, maybe things that have been buried forever that they’ve been invited to sort of resurrect and rethink and ponder and heal from.”

Early in his career, Genuis decided he would go wherever there was a demand for his music. He’s played private concerts for movie stars, and he’s played under a bridge for homeless veterans. His guiding philosophy is to write beautiful music, music that communicates hope, and he works tirelessly to bring it to other people because he has seen the need.

“There is something mysterious about beauty, and it’s why everybody should be immersed in beauty,” he said.

eric genuis
His guiding philosophy is to write beautiful music, music that communicates hope, and he works tirelessly to bring it to other people because he has seen the need. (Kirsten Butler Photography)

Starved of Beauty

For nearly three decades, Genuis brought his music to places without hope—rehab centers, prisons, inner-city schools—on his own time and out of his own pocket, using the proceeds from his regular concerts. A few years ago, Genuis realized that wouldn’t be enough and started his foundation Concerts for Hope to further the mission.

Genuis says he’s played nearly 1,000 concerts in prisons since he started. This meant he’s also played in hundreds of youth prisons.

In one room of 300 prisoners, all tried and convicted as teens with sentences of several decades, Genuis remembered a young gang leader who sat right up front. He wasn’t interested in being required to attend a classical concert, but when the music began, he became entranced by the violin.

“He put his hand over his heart, threw his head back, and said, ‘That is the most beautiful thing,'” Genuis said. “He said: ‘Why have I never heard that before?'”

“Now, we live in the age of the internet so this boy can hear anything he wants, whenever he wants. We as parents, and as adults, and as schoolteachers and educators, as church leaders—all the leaders of the community have access to this boy, and what did we give him? He knows everything about gangster rap,” he said. “But never did anyone introduce him to something that goes in and moves his heart and uplifts his humanity, and stirs the awe and wonder and creativity in life and elevates him, and realizes the beautiful dignity he has as a person. And that’s the effect of beauty.”

In the United States, there are about 2.3 million people in prison. Across the country, there are pockets of culture that revolve around prison. These young people tell Genuis no one would care if they went to prison; one told Genuis if he ever landed in prison, people would only ask him why it hadn’t happened earlier. He’s spoken to young adults about to get out of prison, asking about their plans, and they’ve told him that they’ll be back in prison in no time. And if they do some serious damage to a rival gang, maybe kill one of their members, it’ll elevate their status once they do get sent back to prison.

“They’re not cared for, nobody cares for this person,” Genuis said. “There’s this whole population that is forgotten, that is abandoned, that has no mentorship, no love, no guidance, nothing.”

He once met a 23-year-old who joked about getting sentenced to three lifetimes. Genuis asked, “Are you OK?” But the young man wasn’t at all bothered.

“It was so familiar to him, so non-devastating, so nonchalant, that I thought, a good part of the population doesn’t look at throwing their life away as devastating, because maybe emotionally and internally, they’ve thrown theirs away a long time ago,” he said. In these places of forgotten people and of no hope, people have forgotten their humanity, and it has little worth for them.

“So what I want to do is elevate, I want to go and bring them hope,” Genuis said. In December 2019, a young woman in South Carolina stood up after one of his prison concerts and said: ‘I’m at the lowest point in my life, I was here, I forgot what it was like to feel human. I feel human right now.’ So yes, beauty can uplift humanity.”

After she got out of prison, she wrote him a letter about her renewed hope and added, “This is a turning point.”

He said, “That’s what I want, I want to go and elevate people’s humanity, remind them of their humanity.”

After the pandemic, Genuis plans to focus more of his work on playing in schools and to set up a program called Project Detour for children, in hopes of changing the culture.

“I want to detour them from the idea that prison is just part of life,” Genuis said.

eric genuis
After the pandemic, Genuis plans to set up a program for children called Project Detour “to detour them from the idea that prison is just part of life,” he says.

To Elevate the Soul

Confucius said if one wants to know the morals of a nation, “the quality of its music will furnish the answer.” And Plato said, “Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.”

“I believe these men were right,” Genuis said. “I believe music is a language that speaks to the heart, mind, and soul in ways words will never touch. Music and beauty have the ability—it is a language, it communicates—to elevate the mystery behind the person, to elevate that essence, to elevate that which animates them—the soul, if you will—but to elevate them and move them.”

“Music can create such awe and wonder in the imagination of people, so I think it is critical in the formation of our young to immerse them in beauty,” he said. There’s a place for fun music, too, Genuis added, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of beauty, which so many in our civilization are starved for.

In another life, Genuis might have stayed a physics teacher, happily on his way to retirement with a good pension by now.

“But when I was in class, I’d often be writing melodies, and then after class, I’d be in the library listening to Beethoven,” he said. Genuis is a talented pianist, but unlike most musicians who pursue music, he was driven to compose.

“I would just write and write and write,” he said. “I never thought I’d do this for a living, or that anyone would ever hear a performance, I’d just write for the sheer love of writing music.”

Genuis knew it was a gift. He believed he had been given this great thing, and it was meant to be shared, so he followed the audience. He found there was such a need for beautiful music and felt compelled to do it full time.

“It’s not about fame or any of that, it’s just about connecting with people. I started to play everywhere,” he said. Then he got invited to a prison, and thought, why not?

“And then when I saw broken people react so strongly, I thought, wow.”

Genuis has gone through a lot of trouble to bring his music to people.

A day’s schedule might begin with packing up from the evening concert at midnight, driving three hours to the next city over, where a prison has invited Genuis to perform, taking a nap mid-trip at a rest stop, going through prison security early in the morning to get all of his equipment in, playing three concerts at the prison and wrapping up by late afternoon, and then getting prepared for his evening concert in that city almost straight away.

“I’m in a lot of dark places in the world,” he said. “It’s very tough, I cannot tell you how many times at 3 a.m. in the morning I’m driving from one location to another, and I’m exhausted, and I think: ‘What am I doing? I should be home sleeping!’ And you start questioning everything. Is there purpose? What is this?”

But Genuis is positive by intention, and he says it really does come down to the music. He believes in it wholly.

“This is the greatest thing I have to offer, and I am going to move mountains to offer it.”

“Through this music, I was able to live what I really believe,” he said. “I feel like it has been a gift to me and my humanity to provide this, I feel very lucky. Life is short, and for a short window, I can share this music.”

When Genuis composes, he reaches for hope. It’s this combination of awe and wonder, like a child picking up a block and seeing a castle, he explained. “That’s hope, because the awe and wonder for life, ‘Oh I wonder what I can build with this Lego,’ leads to ‘Oh, I wonder what life has in store for me.”

“All this awe and wonder and hope, it’s humanity, it’s life. When that gets squashed in someone at 10 years old and nothing matters, like this 23-year-old [talking about his three life sentences], his hope was dead a long time ago,” Genuis said. But if you can show people hope, you can remind them of their humanity, and music—just ephemeral wavelengths—does it in a way words can’t.

“You bring them hope and you help them realize, you are human,” he said. “And even if you have to spend the rest of your life in prison, you can read books, you can discover things, you can always elevate your humanity. It may not turn into a big paying job but it can challenge you intellectually, it can challenge you spiritually, emotionally.”

“We all recognize beauty when we see it, and it’s not something you can discuss or you can describe or you can comment on. Really it’s a language beyond,” he said. “A language beyond words that reaches and connects with us and we know it.”

“When we’re in a vulnerable situation like suffering and pain and we have an encounter with something beautiful, and we’re not distracted with other things—if we’re happy and joyful and running around busy with other things, maybe beauty doesn’t really knock us between the eyes—but when we’re poised and we’re reflective and it sort of elevates us, we know it, and it’s sort of involuntary,” he said. “It’s not even controllable.”

“Like this boy [moved by the violin], if he is starved for beauty so much, so is everybody else. The question is, why aren’t we giving it to them? I go in and play at universities, they don’t even know what a cello is,” he said. “[Music] has always had an entertainment quality but it’s never just been what it’s supposed to be.”

“There is this whole world, like a cave full of diamonds, a whole world that we’ve not explored, in our children’s education … and the result of that is this boy puts his hand over his heart and says, ‘Why have I never been exposed to that?’ It’s like he was begging for his humanity. ‘Why have I not been able to feel like who I am?'”

After a concert Genuis gave at a PTSD clinic, a man who went from running fearlessly into battle to not being able to even set foot in a drugstore came up to Genuis and hugged him fiercely.

“He said: ‘I’ve done a lot of terrible things in war that I fear I’m going to have to pay for. I don’t feel like I can ever be forgiven or I can forgive myself. I don’t even remember what it’s like to feel human or to feel myself,'” Genuis said. “And then he says: ‘I remember who I am right now. I don’t want to let go. I fear if I let go, I’ll forget who I am again.'”

“It’s a story of suffering, but it’s a story of redemption. And who’s not in need of redemption? We all are, and we all should seek truth to do all we can to bring hope and to bring redemption to other people’s lives,” Genuis said.

Pianist and composer Eric Genuis on his world tour.  (Courtesy of Eric Genuis)
(Kirsten Butler Photography)