Saturday, November 26, 2011

A Wormhole in Brooklyn

Out for dinner once at an Irish pub in Boston, I excused myself and went to the men’s room. When I stepped out into the restaurant again, I found it transformed into a Tex-Mex grill. This was especially confusing with a couple of Irish lagers under my belt. Now the wall signs were offering me tequila.

The key to this time-space mystery lay in the restroom, shared by the two restaurants. I had exited a connecting foyer via the wrong door. All of this was good for a few laughs when I found my way back to my friends in Ireland.

I passed through another wormhole today, this one in Brooklyn. Our daughter’s boyfriend is an opera buff, and for our last full day in New York he bought tickets to the Regina Opera Company’s production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.

Regina is a local opera company in Bensonhurst, about five stops short of Coney Island on the N Line. It occupies an abandoned Catholic school auditorium next door to the still-active St. Rosalia Regina Pacis parish church. Regina Opera’s web site is candid about the company’s history. It began in 1970 with “a postage-stamp-sized stage in a church youth center, a tinny upright piano, and dedicated, opera-loving neighbors.” Mostly what has been added in the 41 years since then is a creditable 25-piece orchestra. The stage is still a postage stamp and neighborhood qualities were on display when a female staffer in kimono ran a raffle from the stage during the second intermission, including a meal for four at a local calamari emporium, while smiling ladies sold cookies and juice to either side of the hall.

I have seen maybe half a dozen operas in my entire life. Today’s production was the lowest-budget of the bunch, yet it moved me most. It turns out that what you most need for Madama Butterfly is a soprano who can make you bleed. Lara Michole Tillotson was all of that. Her supporting cast was mixed. Still, I was on the edge of my seat by the second of three acts as the American naval officer who married the Japanese Butterfly failed to return and our heroine waited for him with a faith bordering on holy.

Then I went to the bathroom.

As I exited the opera hall to the left, past one of the juice-and-cookie tables, and began moving down a narrow passage, following the Restroom signs, I began to hear horns. They had a vaguely oompahish sound, as in an Austrian biergarten. Drawn past the bathrooms and through another door, I suddenly found myself in a dazzling church overflowing with Mexican-American Catholics. Mass had just ended and the parishioners were processing out via the center aisle, hundreds and hundreds of them following a brass band and two banners honoring Santa Catalina.

I looked up to the ceiling and saw the awesome sight that illustrates the top of this post. And much much more. Built to serve immigrant communities, Regina Pacis (Queen of Peace) is a small-scale basilica. Gold glittered everywhere. Beautifully coiffed and beribboned girls clutched their happy parents’ hands, as Santa Catalina made her way out the door to Mexican folk music.

I had passed from a powerfully romantic opera about Japanese-American relations at the turn of the 20th-century to a full-blast ethnic faith experience. While the personal hopefulness of Butterfly was the most striking fact about the entire Regina production—a faith that, in the script, is disastrously disappointed—it was the joyful, zesty, rhythmic, loud, colorful, messy faith of a few hundred Mexican-Americans that made my heart sing at the highest pitch.

I returned to my family in the second row of the opera hall and thought to say, “You missed the best moment of the afternoon.” But they would have thought I was crazy.

For more information about Regina Pacis, check out this video.

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