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Madame Butterfly's Good Vibrations

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Good morning. It’s February 17. And on this date in 1801 the deadlocked U.S. presidential election – only the fourth in the new nation’s history – was finally resolved in Thomas Jefferson’s favor. The messy process exposed the Framers’ fallibility and democracy’s inherent untidiness, something on display 200 years later when Al Gore and George W. Bush squared off.

Dedication is the theme of the music February 17 brings to mind. On this date in 1904, a new opera by composer Giacomo Puccini opened at La Scala in Milan. Called “Madame Butterfly,” it was taken from a popular London play, which in turn, was adapted from a short story by a Philadelphia lawyer named John Luther Long. It’s a tragedy about doomed love, as well as honor and a mother’s love (although today I suppose we would say it was about sexism and cultural bias).

The story concerns U.S. Navy Lt. B.F. Pinkerton, stationed in Nagasaki harbor before the turn of the century. The callow American marries – and then abandons - a young Japanese geisha, Cio-Cio-San. It’s a powerful story, and Butterfly’s aria is still one of the saddest and most recognizable songs in classical music.

But on Feb. 17, 1904, the crowd at La Scala didn’t much like it. Puccini 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 original score in “Butterfly” was too similar to those works. Many 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 a long act into two, tinkering with the music. Four months later, Puccini re-released it - to thunderous acclaim. In opened at "the Met" in New York three years later, in 1907, 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, the day was today’s date – February 17 – and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys was beginning work on “Good Vibrations.” The Californians were in a friendly, and to some degree, one-sided, competition with the Beatles. But in Brian Wilson, John Lennon and Paul McCartney knew what they were up against.

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 song done to his satisfaction. Small wonder: no song had ever been recorded quite like this one. He employed dozens of instruments, ranging from the cello and harpsichord to the electric theremin, an early synthesizer that had until that time mainly been used to convey futuristic sound in science fiction movies.

Six months and 90 hours of tape later, Wilson had the sound he wanted – a veritable symphony in 3 minutes and 39 seconds. But if “Good Vibrations” was a new sound, it was about an old theme: Love.

Audree Wilson, mother of future Beach Boys Brian, Carl, and Dennis, had told her boys that people gave off invisible “vibrations” – good or bad – and that this is why dogs would bark at some people, but not others.

As a boy, Brian found this concept frightening. As a man, who turned the concept into an upbeat song about the possibilities of hidden connections between people – and about love at first sight. 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.”

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