On the Beat

On the Beat

Ya got Trouble: David Rain's compelling novel, The Heat of the Sun; a new documentary about music legend David Amram.

On the Beat Heat of the Sun Cover 413
Cover design Rebecca Seltzer, cover courtesy Henry Holt and Company

IN THE STANDARD OPERA REPERTORY, we aren't encouraged to think much about the lives of the characters past the final curtain; usually, the opera's climax is so dramatic or violent that there is little point in fantasizing about what may have happened to them later on. Some years ago, however, DAVID RAIN, an Australian writer who has taught literature in Ireland and England, found himself musing on the possible fate of Trouble, the child in Madama Butterfly. "This question of what happened to the boy lodged in my mind," says Rain. "I was sufficiently interested to read the libretto of Madama Butterfly, and the short story by John Luther Long, and the text of David Belasco's play. I also managed to dig up a copy of Pierre Loti's book Madame Chrysanthemum, from which Long seems to have plundered quite a lot of his story."

The result of Rain's musing is a novel, The Heat of the Sun, originally published in England and recently brought out in North America by Henry Holt. It's a wildly audacious and compellingly written book that traces Trouble's ostracization in an exclusive Vermont boarding school, his work for the WPA during the Great Depression, his involvement with the development of the atomic bomb and his fractured relationship with his father, Senator Benjamin Pinkerton, and his mother, a tormented, cruel and ambitious senator's wife. Reading The Heat of the Sun is like watching an author keep daring himself to take higher and higher hurdles and clearing them every time; he creates dizzying effects, both in his web of plot twists and in the prism of twentieth-century history through which he tells his story. 

"What brought my novel together is the fact that Madama Butterfly is set in Nagasaki," says Rain. "When most Western people say 'Nagasaki,' we think, 'atomic bomb.' I thought about Madama Butterfly's libretto and how her father is supposed to have killed himself after the rebellion in 1877, and she is supposed to be about fifteen. That would put the date around 1892. But I thought, let's take the opera's date of 1904 literally. I used the libretto as an urtext and assumed that everything in it was true. So if we assume that it's the very early twentieth century, a lot of these characters would still be alive during World War II, and I knew I had to link up Madama Butterfly and the atomic bombing during the war. That inspired a lot of things, like the idea of Lieutenant Pinkerton becoming a leading politician who is actually involved in the whole run-up to World War II."

All of the characters in Madama Butterfly turn up in The Heat of the Sun. There's a chilling sequence depicting Suzuki, still camped out at the house on the hill. And Yamadori is cleverly reimagined as a kind of international gadfly, who spouts off marathon speeches about Japanese–American relations and provides some welcome historical context. "Yamadori troubled me," says Rain. "I suppose he's essentially a buffoon in the original, introduced simply to be this sort of classic inadequate suitor, but I tried to develop him as a parallel figure to Pinkerton, so that Yamadori is as important in Japan as Pinkerton is in America."

Prior to researching his novel, Rain had little interest in or knowledge of Japanese history. He was, however, surprised by Loti's Madame Chrysanthemum. "It's a book of genuine literary merit," he says. "It's a very delicate, languorous, sad kind of book. It's fascinating, in that it shows the difference between French and Anglo culture. Madame Chrysanthemum is not a tragedy. The girl in the story, instead of committing ritual suicide, laughs it off as another affair and bites down on the coin her lover has given her to see if it's real. When John Luther Long got his hands on the material and wrote his short story, which Belasco adapted and Puccini saw, it turned into a sort of a fallen woman story. I suppose you could argue that it's not particularly realistic that a girl in that position would really take seriously the promise of a Western man who gave her lots of money for a few months and then went off. I think what we need to remember about Madama Butterfly is that it is a Western story, not a Japanese story." 

DAVID AMRAM 's life sounds like the synopsis of some wonderful picaresque novel: "Beat" buddy of JACK KEROUAC, Amram has a resumé that includes stints as a sideman for the likes of THELONIUS MONK, LIONEL HAMPTON and SONNY ROLLINS, opera composer (Twelfth Night), world-music pioneer, film-score composer (Splendor in the Grass, The Manchurian Candidate) and Village cultural hero, earning the sobriquet "The King of Bleecker Street." Amram, who has created dozens of chamber and orchestral works, is the subject of a documentary film, David Amram: The First Eighty Years, produced and directed by LAWRENCE KRAMAN, written by music critic (and OPERA NEWS contributor) DAVID PATRICK STEARNS and edited by DILLON POOLE. Scheduled for release this summer by Newport Classic (once it has finished making the rounds of film and music festivals), it's an evocative and remarkably comprehensive record of a life richly lived. 

The film's chief revelation is that Amram, eighty at the time of filming, has retained the questing spirit that has marked his entire life. Toward the end of the documentary, he tells Stearns, "Our job is to provide what all these young people don't have, which is some kind of a higher ideal that it's worth pursuing what you love to do, being better than is expected and try to follow your dreams, pursue excellence and not get discouraged by the struggle — and hopefully that can give them the picture that if people as old as we are are still trying to do it and grateful that we can do it, grateful to be there with them and hope that we can make a contribution, they might not just give up and feel that, my gosh, I'm approaching thirty, and I'm not a superstar, I'm a disgrace to my family — and remember that there's something beyond all that." spacer 

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