Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Madama Caterpillar

Another creative non-fiction piece..

Madama Caterpillar
In July 2004 I gave birth to my first child.
A boy.

I didn’t announce my pregnancy in my work places because there is a certain culture in the performing arts which says that you can’t mix vocations. The vocation to be a performer and the one to be a mother don’t jive. Now this “wisdom” is bunk and many mothers have managed to have multiple vocations and excelled at all of them. But since I’ve heard “If you can do something else, don’t be an actor/singer/musician” so many times in my life I wondered if my new status as a bi-vocationalist would be a hindrance to my employment.
Five months after my boy was born I started my contract with the Vancouver Opera Chorus for a new production of Madama Butterfly. A dozen years before, Madama Butterfly was the first opera I ever worked on and the fabulously tear-jerking soaring melodies and supremely tragic story had inspired my study of the art form and pursuit of an operatic career. I wept backstage. I wondered what it would be like to be mother who chose the ultimate self sacrifice for her child. I thought about how glamorous it would be to be singing the title role. I knew I would never sing a lead role in this particular opera but I loved it anyway.
Rehearsals for opera productions start about 2 months before the performances. Before my first born arrived I knew I was going to have the perfect child- I would be able pursue my career and my creative life and he would just tag along or perhaps be minded by caring friends or family members. I would be sleeping well and therefore be able to sing soon after he was born. I would practice while he napped.

I was so wrong.
My son hated when I sang anything other than children’s songs at home. I was too loud for his little ears. He had a terrible time going to sleep and staying asleep and preferred to be attached to my breast at all times. When he was actually napping I valued his sleeping so much that I would never jeopardize it by opening my mouth to sing! My son was not really interested in being with any one but me. I pumped like crazy to eek out 2 ounces. He refused to take a bottle.
Somehow I managed to leave him for the evenings I had rehearsals. It was great to be back as a professional singer- socializing with my colleagues and singing beautiful music.
During the early rehearsals I was chosen to be a part of the Geisha chorus. This meant that we would float onstage, setting the scene for the arrival of the Madama Butterfly. As a member of the Geisha chorus not only do you spend more time on-stage you also wear the fabulous silk kimonos, fancy sandals, fancy geisha wigs and makeup, plus you have the opportunity to display your flirtatious fan skills and mad parasol twirling techniques.
About 5 weeks prior to opening I was scheduled for a costume fitting. It was a daytime appointment and as I didn’t want to overtax my childcare peeps I brought along my baby. I knew that everyone in the costume shop would be delighted to meet my little one. I hauled my sleeping baby in his carseat (perhaps the most difficult way to transport 20 lbs of static weight). There I was, living my dream of mixing my vocations-  Hippy mother meets Opera professional. Indeed the wardrobe mistress very pleased to have a baby visit the costume shop and after some ogling we set to work making sure my costume would fit. I stepped into the change room and put on the undergarment (designed to be easy to launder and protect the Kimono) over my nursing bra. The undergarment- a Nagajuban- is designed to flatten breasts. This was the first time ever anyone considered flattening my wee girls but breastfeeding had provided cleavage I never thought possible. However, it was also clearly NOT designed to enable easy breastfeeding. Clearly Geishas are not bi-vocationalists. I then donned the blue and cream flowing silk of the kimono and the snap on Obi. As I was almost finished with the fitting my son woke up and then, he started to cry. I started to feel a familiar prickly feeling in my chest. I portent of doom. I had not even thought to use breastpads for my bivocational premiere. I tried to calm my baby and hoped that the feeling would go away. He continued to cry. Two round circles started to appear on the silk of the Kimono just above the rim of the Obi. First “The Provider” on the left and then “The Other Side” on the right. The costume mistress rushed to get the costume off but it was too late. Way too late.
I didn’t exactly get a pink slip but when I had my next costume fitting my beautiful kimono had turned into a burlap gunny-sack. No-one said why but I knew that there was no way they would risk putting a Kimono on a lactating mother again. Clearly I had been demoted. I was now a peasant relative. No wafting on stage. No fancy wig. No colourful fan. No parasol. I still got to sing the music but somehow it just wasn't the same. . .
My fears of being dismissed for being both an artist and a parent had come true.
Cio-Cio San (Madama Butterfly) named her child Trouble. I think she was not far from wrong.


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