Yellow Belly Suit

The newt has a yellow belly. It’s not something you see very often. The newt saves its showy under parts to flash at would-be predators to scare the bejeezus out of them. Newts are toxic to many animals who might otherwise find them a tasty bite-sized morsel. When a newt rears up on its front legs and arches its back showing itself off in a most vulnerable position, it is best for the stalker to look elsewhere for lunch–and most of them know that.

I am curious, as a member of the greater animal kingdom that includes newts and ringneck snakes that flash brilliant warnings, as well as tree frogs and walking sticks that blend seamlessly into the landscape, about where we humans fit in. Not limited to simply parading around in nothing but our skin, the ability to change our outward appearance with the clothes we wear carries with it the burden of understanding the messages they send.

Just over a decade ago, when Opera San Jose began to charm locals with their accessible, affordable, brilliant performances, I attended my first opera, La Boheme, at the intimate Montgomery Theater. There, on the smallest of stages, the whole gamut of the human experience was played out. Poverty and plenty, mirth and despair, jubilation and loneliness were compressed into a few hours and couple of hundred square feet,. In the love affairs of Rudolfo and Mimi, Marcello and Musetta each of us in the audience could see vignettes of ourselves. Art was indeed imitating life superbly.

Not to be ignored in this brilliant reflection of us was the staging itself. The setting for each scene was bathed in light. Blue for the chill of the room occupied by the starving and struggling young artists, rose for the scenes of the party. And the costumes! Who does not respond to the drab tatters of the poor, the rich wine-colored velvet of the flirt, the long gray wool coat that must be sold to buy medicine for the dying Mimi? Our true colors were being paraded in front of our eyes by the larger-than-life figures that lived on the stage, blatantly exaggerated in a way that was both compelling and obvious. And we all loved it.

Last week I once again had another chance to see this lovely gem performed by the beloved Opera San Jose at the Montgomery–the last chance before they move to their new home at the Fox next year. This time, through an exchange of our usual Thursday night tickets, I attended my first opening night performance.

By tradition, opera opening nights are grand events. They reverse the usual role of the theater in our lives. On opening night, life imitates art–occasionally superbly.

This is the night that theatergoers show their true colors. A few men, and even one woman, brought out the tuxedos tucked away in their closets. (Th only noticeable difference was that the men’s all had long pants.) Black predominated on both sides of the gender line but served as a perfect background to exclamation points of color. There were bright cummerbunds and bow ties, grand dresses in rich hues, and shiny bugle beads in myriad colors sparkling among the somber shades. Others chose less strident attire, sporting rich brocades, deep velvets and satins, tasteful business suits and sensible shoes.

And then there were those of us whose attire was designed to blend in and not stand out as being too unworthy of such a gala event, hoping to pass muster with a tolerable imitation of glitz, or elegance, or understatement.

The beautiful monarch butterfly populates most of the country. It is known to nearly everyone and treasured by many. The word “butterfly” conjures a monarch look-alike in many minds. Like an actor in a play, it is a larger than life model of what the word butterfly means. It is the essence of butterfly. But it, like the newt, sends a message with its bright beauty. It too is toxic and nasty to those creatures that normally feed on butterflies.

Like those who normally attend opening nights, monarchs have their imitators. The viceroy can easily be mistaken for a monarch. It is slightly smaller, has slightly different markings and wings, but it is close enough in appearance to a monarch that it fools many. The purpose of this adaptation is to fool would-be predators, to send a message of false warning, to trade on the reputation of the monarch. And it seems to work–at least most of the time.

On opening night, among the crowd of people I didn’t know, I seized the only clues I had to learn something about them. I admired the beautiful rich colors in the brocade coat of the woman sitting in front of me. I stared at the woman across the aisle in the tight, short, low-cut shiny purple sheath. Was this a form of warning like the monarch’s or just an imitation like the viceroy’s? I smiled at the striped red and white socks sported by the gentleman next to me in a tuxedo. I felt a kinship with those whose attire was similar to mine. And on the stage the actors flung their cloaks, donned their berets of top hats, and revealed their lace petticoats.

Clothes may not make the man or woman, but there seems to be ample evidence that appearance counts for something. Just what that “something” is seems less clear. We are many centuries from the time when humans wore skins for warmth alone. Maybe there never was such a time. Even in countries where clothing is not needed for warmth, bodies have been decorated in one way or another.

What am I to do when faced with looking into my closet for something to wear to opening night at the opera, or to the grocery store, or to work, or to have lunch with a friend?

How lucky we are to be freed from the shackles of the newt that must always wear his brilliant belly.