Don Smith: A Night at the Opera as a Pandemic Ends

Opera music

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Once news of the armistice ending the Great War reached Calgary, the mayor temporarily relaxed anti-contagion rules and declared a half-day holiday, even allowing a victory parade .

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It began this afternoon at the Central Fire Station on 6th Avenue, just two blocks from the Lougheed Building and the Grand Theater, and continued through the central part of town, ending at the Calgary City Hall at 3:30 p.m.

The parade ended with the hanging of two effigies of the Kaiser and the German Crown Prince in front of City Hall in what is now the Olympic Plaza. Five hours later, the effigies were removed from the scaffold and burned. Calgarians flooded the streets from all directions. The city of 60,000 celebrated in a state of ecstasy, momentarily putting aside concerns about the global pandemic, known as the Spanish flu.

The Grand Theatre’s Opera Festival in late January marked theater director Jeff Lydiatt’s gift to Calgary to celebrate the end of the war. The visiting San Carlo Opera Company enjoyed a worldwide reputation. The decline of the flu, which claimed the lives of 341 Calgarians at the end of 1918, added to the joy of the five operas.

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Flu cases fell from 938 in December to 13 in January. No one had to wear a flu mask anymore. With great anticipation, the public came to see and hear Aida, Rigoletto, Tales of Hoffman, Il Trovatore and the opera company’s piece de resistance, Madama Butterfly.

On the evening of Friday, January 24, Haru Onuki, the Japanese prima donna, captivated her audience in Madama Butterfly, the tragic story of Cio-Cio-San and her ill-fated love for an American naval officer.

Madama Butterfly, Puccini’s masterpiece, has wonderful music, especially the beautiful love duet that closes the first act and Cio-Cio-San’s famous aria, “One Fine Day”, at the start of the second.

But Grace, the four-year-old daughter of Jeff Lydiatt and his wife, Clara Lydiatt, stole the show at the very end of the show. She performed “Trouble”, Cio-Cio-San’s and Lieut. BF Pinkerton’s child. The San Carlo Opera traveled without children. When asked, Jeff and Clara agreed that their youngest daughter could play the part if she wanted. She did it.

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In the opera, to revisit the story, Pinkerton had left many years before, promising to return when the cherry trees were in bloom. Cio-Cio-San’s (whom everyone called Butterfly) faith in her husband, whom she married in a Christian ceremony – who ostracized himself from his own people – remained unwavering. For years she waited.

Finally, one day, she saw an American ship in the port of Nagasaki. Cio-Cio-San’s joy was complete when she saw him, until she noticed that beside him walked a foreign woman – his American wife. She saw that they were approaching the port. Abandoned, she placed a small American flag in their child’s hand to wave.

At this point, as the opera came to its powerful and tragic conclusion, Haru Onuki, who played Madama Butterfly, sat Grace in front of the headlights. The child was supposed to be a boy, but Grace had her hair cut in the Dutch style, and that’s how she died. The betrayed Cio-Cio-San takes out her father’s sword on which she reads the inscription: “Die with honor when you can no longer live with honor.” She then places herself behind a screen, takes the blade and mortally wounds herself.

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As her final contribution to the play approached, Grace was utterly exhausted. It was at least 11 p.m. when the sword fell on the stage and her “mother” hit the ground behind her. She yawned. The child’s yawn, so understandable in the light of the hour, caused the shack to capsize.

(I am very grateful to Grace Lydiatt Shaw for her comments in an email from Vancouver on October 7, 2004, about her appearance in Madama Butterfly 85 years after her performance on the Grand Theater stage.)

Don Smith, professor emeritus of history at the University of Calgary, adapted this article from his 2005 book Calgary’s Grand Story: The making of a prairie metropolis from the view of two heritage building (University of Calgary Press)

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