Origin Stories – Howard Lieberman

Origin Stories
    A Butterfly in Odessa
    by Howard Lieberman

    The medium suits her, and she sings;
    she sings as if absolutely alone,
    Surrounded by simulations of grief:
    desertion, denial,
    umbrella’d by umbrage,
    eyes aflame with a kindle of tears.
    What is that for which she really weeps:
    this futile place, that distant, venal State,
    that flat, fatiguing mediocrity
    in which she lives?
    Around her here’s a shell,
    (call it opera declasse)
    once grand, its gold baroque, ablaze,
    its ornamentation
    now as discombobulated as some ancient ruin,
    mosaics chipped, (the style degenerate Byzantine)
    unreadable as a deeply buried book.
    As if to bemoan the scarcity of coal,
    a pervasive chill, the impossible plumbing
    in that echoing hall,
    the dismal lack of costumes, and a set
    that’s not even remotely Japanese,
    she opens her mouth in plaintive complaint
    that that American has not returned.
    Perhaps it was an errant translation that they used,
    but all of the other voices are out of sync.
    Hers rises, like a tremulous flower, from the dust
    Don’t you know me, she grieves, I’m the one who dies
    for what she believes. Though the world about her
    drifts like an unmanned ship, and Odessa lies drearily in mist,
    this love-torn fluttering phosphorescence
    adorns my consciousness like a perfect pearl.
    On any stage
    she’d be a prize , but here, lapped by
    the inland sea,
    she shines: Aurora of the Glorious Tones

Origin Stories – A Butterfly in Odessa

I did not know, at that time, that this was an earlier version of Madama Butterfly, in two acts, as compared to the fourth and fifth versions that are more common to us in the States. Nor was there any identification of any of the singers.

And only the glorious Butterfly stood out, perhaps even more so because of the banal remainder of the cast. She was, however, so fine, so delicate, so pure, that after completion of our cruise, I wrote to the Metropolitan Opera, suggesting that she be imported to New York. And later that night, back on the ship, I was aroused enough to write this poem. No reply, however, from the Met, but I still remember her voice, and the intensity, the depth, of her loss.

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Origin Stories