Good morning. It’s Monday, Feb. 17, 2020. Happy Presidents Day. On this date in 1904, a new opera by composer Giacomo Puccini opened at La Scala in Milan. What does that have to with American history, you ask? Well, a great deal, actually.
The inspiration for “Madama Butterfly” was a popular London play, which had been adapted from a short story by a Philadelphia lawyer named John Luther Long. It’s about doomed love, as well as honor and a mother’s love (although today I suppose some would say it’s really about sexism and white supremacy).
The tragic tale concerns a United States Navy lieutenant named B.F. Pinkerton, who is stationed in Nagasaki harbor in the early 20th century. This is decades before Nagasaki and Pearl Harbor were place names bookmarking the end and beginning of U.S. involvement in World War II. Anyway, the heedless American officer marries — and then abandons — a young Japanese geisha named Cio-Cio-San. The result is heartbreak and tragedy.
It’s a powerful saga, and Butterfly’s aria is still one of the saddest and most recognizable songs in classical music. The story behind the story, however, is how genius in the performing arts turns out to be equal parts talent and perseverance. This lesson is not limited to classical music, either, as we’ll see in a moment. First I’d point you to RealClearPolitics’ front page, which presents our poll averages, videos, breaking news stories, and aggregated opinion pieces spanning the political spectrum. We also offer original material from our own reporters and contributors, including the following:
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A Father, a Son … and Our Bridgeable Divide. Tom Kavanagh pays tribute to his late father, and the changes in their relationship that may offer a lesson for our fractured politics.
How Biden and Warren Can Mount a Comeback. RCP columnist Bill Scher lays out potential paths forward for the two struggling candidates.
Democrats Join Ranks of Media Bashers. Mark Hemingway maintains it’s no longer just conservatives who slam the Fourth Estate as unfair and untrustworthy.
Sneaky Pete, Flimflam Graham, and the Sad State of Politics. Frank Miele suggests some new nicknames for the president to use on Twitter, and explains why they would be apt.
Buttigieg and the Dem Field of Abortion Extremists. Ashley McGuire accuses the candidate of falsely painting himself as a moderate on the hot-button issue.
Judy Shelton Could Counter Groupthink at the Fed. RealClearMarkets editor John Tamny throws his support behind the Federal Reserve board nominee.
Are Affordability Boards the Answer to High Drug Costs? In RealClearPolicy, Krisztina Pusok and Hanson Prieb assess state-level efforts to rein in medicine prices.
States Need to Answer for Stubbornly High Electricity Bills. In RealClearEnergy, Paul Steidler discusses the enigma of low fuel prices but high power rates.
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On Feb. 17, 1904, the crowd at La Scala didn’t much like Puccini’s new work. The composer had been inspired by Verdi’s masterpiece “Aida” as a young man and had already produced two works destined to become classics of their own, “La Boheme” and “Tosca.” Apparently, the discerning crowd of opera-goers at La Scala found the original score in “Butterfly” too similar to Puccini’s earlier works. Some in the audience hissed, while others yelled at the stage or left the theater early.
Horrified, Puccini pulled the opera and went back to work on it, retooling the staging, breaking one long act into two, improving the music. Three months later, he re-released it — to thunderous acclaim. In 1907, it opened at the New York Metropolitan Opera and has been a fan favorite ever since.
Six decades later, an American composer rolled the first tape for a song also destined to become a classic of its genre. The year was 1966 and on today’s date the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson was beginning work on “Good Vibrations.” In those days, the iconic California band had a mutually respectful rivalry with the Beatles. Only a small number of pioneering rock ’n’ insiders would have considered it much of a competition. But the Beatles did. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr all knew what they were up against in Brian Wilson.
For one, Wilson was a perfectionist. His new song was supposed to round out, and in some ways define, their cutting edge new album, “Pet Sounds.” But Wilson couldn’t get the new tune done to his satisfaction. Small wonder: No song had ever been recorded quite like it. He employed dozens of instruments, ranging from the cello and harpsichord to the electric theremin (an early synthesizer that had been used mainly to convey futuristic sounds in science fiction movies). Puccini had nothing on this man, as I learned only this year from watching “Echo in the Canyon,” Jakob Dylan’s extraordinary documentary about the evolution of the “California sound.” Brian Wilson had such a good ear, and was such a perfectionist, that he knew which recording studios in the Los Angeles area could best mix guitar, or bass, or drums — or drums of a specific type — and he recorded parts of his album at each of them.
Finally, after six months and 90 hours of tape, Wilson had the sound he wanted. The track itself is a veritable symphony in 3 minutes and 37 seconds. But if “Good Vibrations” was a new sound, it was about timeless themes: Love. Family. Home. Nostalgia. In his film, Jakob Dylan sang a version of “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” with none other than Brian Wilson, who still performs occasionally. The “Pet Sounds” album’s most romantic song is “God Only Knows,” which Paul McCartney loved. Perhaps the one that best stands the test of time is “Sloop John B,” and there’s a reason for that: It’s a Caribbean folk song more than a century old. It was transcribed by Carl Sandburg in his 1927 “The American Songbag” and recorded by the Kingston Trio in the late 1950s. The Beach Boys not only put the classic song to a more contemporary rock beat and added their signature harmonies, but in their 1966 video they trolled the Beatles by mimicking a dance routine the Fab Four had once used.
Come to think of it, the best remnants of the original Beach Boys — and by that I mainly mean Brian and Al Jardine — are still doing “Sloop John B.” But it’s the song that wasn’t on the album that is seared in the collective memory of music lovers. Brian’s mom, Audree Wilson (also the mother of Beach Boys Carl and Dennis Wilson), had told her boys that people gave off invisible “vibrations” — good or bad — which is why dogs bark at some people but not others.
As a boy, Brian found this idea frightening. As a man, he turned the concept into an upbeat song about the possibilities of hidden connections between people. In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine issued its list of the top 500 rock hits of all time. “Good Vibrations” came in at No. 6, two spots ahead of the highest-ranking Beatles song, and only three spots behind John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics