Sunday, January 30, 2011

I'm sorry, but I really don't find it charming or funny

Yesterday afternoon I attended Lyric Opera of Chicago’s La Fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West), Puccini’s classical opera, his only (among Madama Butterfly, La Boehme, Tosca, and others) with a physically and morally strong female lead, many amusing touches, and with a happy ending.  Like that of many operas, the plot is light duty: it takes place during the gold rush of California’s Sierra Nevada, and, to make a long story short, involves the sole woman at the mining camp, the good-hearted Minnie, finding true love with a bandit that her golden devotion is sure to reform. As a fellow audience member quipped about this light drama, sung in Italian and written from the remove of early 20th century Europe, “It’s the original spaghetti western!

The lively production was directed by the renowned Harold Prince, with stage direction by Vincent Liotta; the evocative sets were designed by Eugene Lee, and the exquisite and convincing costumes were by Franne Lee. The vocal star was Deborah Voight, beautiful and believable in spite of her real-life maturity, among other well and lesser known performers, nearly all male. I also enjoyed the music–not just Puccini’s yummy score, but Lyric Opera orchestra’s performance, reliably and beautifully directed by Sir Andrew Davis.

There was, however, a blot on the afternoon’s fantasy, and one that might have been avoided. A minor character (though he stuck out for me like a sore thumb), Billy Jackrabbit, is described by Puccini as “a red Indian,” meaning, of course, a Native American. The first act takes place in the Polka, the bar and, and, as it were, community center of the mining camp. There, Billy’s role is to behave like a stereotypical drunken Indian, trying endlessly to swipe some whiskey, by the glass or by the bottle, for a little comic action; in a later setting, he has one more opportunity to celebrate alcohol, when he gives in to Minnie’s plea that he marry the Indian woman with whom he has a baby, and announces loudly, “After marrying, we get beads and whiskey!” He’s presented as a morally deficient drunk with laughably (literally) simplistic values.

The plot requires the miners to regularly voice their appreciation for whiskey as well, but alcohol addiction was not quite the problem for the miners of European heritage (“Anglos”) and their descendants, that it was, and still is, for those of American Indian ethnicity. Of all the stereotypes required to successfully mount an opera (or any stage drama for that matter), I wish the producers had had a bit more sensitivity to this particularly painful and destructive one. Alcohol use and abuse has devastated more than one Indian family, sometimes taking whole communities with it, and is a plague that was intentionally wreaked by the Anglos from the earliest colonial times to control the troublesome “redskins”who, it seems, may have widespread genetic susceptibility to alcohol addiction.

The producers of this opera could easily have played down the buffoonish portrayal of what is truly a sad, sick and unfunny stereotype without betraying Puccini’s plot or libretto. I rather wish they hadn’t missed the chance.

Full disclosure: One very old friend, of pure American Indian heritage, died in 2005 after a long, wasted life addicted to alcohol. And he is not the only one among friends I held dear who has died from drinking. Maybe my sensitivity is tuned too high. But it’s also the reason I understand how hellish an affliction alcoholism is.


  1. I agree. Having also lost a loved one to alcohol addiction, there's nothing funny about it. If I were you, I'd write a letter to the play's producers saying just what you said on this post. Once they realize they're offending paying customers, maybe they'll do something about it.

  2. I agree with you too. There is absolutely no need to portray the American Indian in this light or use alcohol addiction to score 'laughs'.

  3. Thanks for the tip. It's been 40+ years since I stepped into one of the highest balconies at the Lyric to see an opera. MARRIAGE OF FIGARO or FIDELIO. I'm not an opera goer, but I can say that I've been to a couple.

    I share your POV on making entertainment out of racial and ethnic stereotypes. Alcoholism is also not funny. I'm reviewing the film SKINS 2morrow at BITS which touches on alcohol addiction on the reservation.

    You've got me curious about the origin of the stereotype in pop culture. I'm reading early westerns (1900-1915), and while ethnic stereotypes are shamelessly played for laughs in them, I can't remember a single instance of that particular one.