HUM-ALONG WITH US: The Humming Chorus from Madama Butterfly
1 July 2011 at 5.45pm | Comment on this article
Do you love humming? Enjoy humming along to a popular opera tune in the shower? On Monday (4 July) there is a chance to hum out with everyone else across the UK and be part of the biggest (and possibly only) opera hum-along the Royal Opera House has ever conducted.
When? At 7pm on Monday 4 July we will be leading the BP Summer Big Screens Madama Butterfly National Hum-Along live from Trafalgar Square.
You will have the benefit of some expert Royal Opera House coaching to ensure that your voices soar when you’re humming along with fellow hummers across the rest of the UK.
Top humming tips
From Renato Balsadonna, The Royal Opera House Chorus Director
- Take a very deep breath before starting the phrase
- Try to push your voice through the top of the head, don’t bring it down into your throat
- Keep very smooth and free, don’t try to compress the sound, relax
- Enjoy, it’s a wonderful, wonderful chorus, and humming is something we all can do. In some ways, it’s easier than singing as it’s easier to keep the intonation when you don’t have to contend with vowels and consonants.
The Humming Chorus in context
Renato Balsadonna, Royal Opera Chorus Director, explains a little more about Puccini’s famous humming chorus:
What is the humming chorus? It’s the very famous end of Act II of Madama Butterfly when Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly) has heard that her errant American husband is to return to her after a three-year absence. She wears her wedding gown, and prepares herself and her house to welcome him. Unaware, of the shocking news that he is to bring. [Full synopsis]
What was the inspiration? Puccini was inspired by watching the original play by Broadway impresario and writer David Belasco in 1900. In Belasco’s play, there are no words at this stage in the action, the actors were silent as night turned to dusk and Butterfly awaited the arrival of Pinkerton. Puccini was so moved by this, he too wrote a chorus for no words (coro a bocca chiusa).
The melody? It picks up the same motif as in Sharpless’s and Butterfly’s duet earlier. Sharpless tries to read Pinkerton’s heartless letter to Butterfly, but she won’t accept what it is saying and keeps interrupting. This same hopeless hope that she has kept alive for three years is the theme that powers this melancholic tune.
Very high register? It’s a very high register which gets higher and higher, leading to a top B flat and its written just for the high-pitched voices of the chorus (ladies and tenors), accompanied by a solo viola d’amore off stage. This muted sound is almost like the human voice. So distinctive and poignant.
Easy to hum? Not really. It’s a challenge even for the Royal Opera House Chorus. They almost have to act like instruments, as if their voices are pure floating sound. They have to try and take their breaths at irregular intervals so you don’t hear any break in the music.
Are there any other famous humming moments in opera? Not really, this is fairly unique to Madama Butterfly and an example of Puccini’s genius for creating atmospheric affect.