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Opinion
Charlie Goff
Charlie Goff Escorting Madama Butterfly Across the Border Two days before The Met's live broadcast of the classic opera, Charlie reflects on his tumultuous trip with Madama's wardrobe
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Imagine an Italian opera, set in Japan, performed in New York City, and watched by people in Mexican theaters. Pretty exciting, I’d say.

This Saturday, ‘Madama Butterfly’ performed by the New York Metropolitan Opera will be shown on two thousand movie screens in 70 countries. It’s part of ‘Live at the Met,’ a tradition started with radio broadcasts in 1931.

I have my own relationship with Madama Butterfly.

In the late 1990s I led a two week tour of Guatemala for the University of New Hampshire. I’d sent our 37 seat Mexican school bus driven by Marco Antonio Garcia to meet the group at the Guatemala City airport. It had been quite a process arranging to get the bus through Guatemalan customs.

As the tour was winding down, I received a call from the Guatemalan Embassy in Mexico City. I recognized the voice of the consular official who’d helped process the paperwork to get our bus into Guatemala. She said “Señora Paiz wants to send two boxes to Mexico City,” and asked if I would be willing to take them.

Check the live broadcast of NYC's 'Madama Butterfly' at a theater near you. Still via The Metropolitan Opera House

Check the live broadcast of NYC’s ‘Madama Butterfly’ — including its customs-challenging cache of outfits — at a theater near you. Still via The Metropolitan Opera House

There was no need to give me further information about Mrs. Paiz. Her surname is on grocery stores all over Guatemala City. Mrs. Paiz is a frequent sponsor of cultural events in Guatemala.

“I’ll be glad to transport the boxes on the bus. It will be returning to Mexico empty.” I suggested Mrs. Paiz have her driver meet me — with the boxes — at the airport where my group would be boarding its flight home. We went back and forth fine-tuning the pick up process and finally agreed that Marco and I would swing by the Paiz Stores headquarters in Guatemala City and pick up the two boxes.

No wonder picking up the boxes had been a negotiated logistical issue. They were wooden crates the size of refrigerators. Six men were required to carry each one. We had to load them through the emergency exit door after unbolting nine seats on the bus in order to make space.

It was there that I learned they contained a complete set of costumes for Madama Butterfly. The costumes had been borrowed from Mexico’s National Institute of Fine Arts (INBA) for a presentation of that opera in Guatemala’s National Theater.

Mrs. Paiz’s representative told met I’d have no trouble getting them across the border. “A Paiz Stores attorney will be waiting for you at the border. Just call and let us know when you’ll be arriving.”

It was late in the afternoon when Marco and I approached the border. No one answered any of the phone numbers I’d been given. I told Marco, “Let’s keep going. If we can’t get across the border we’ll come back and deal with this in the morning.”

We had no problem leaving Guatemala. On the Mexican side of the border I took the paperwork into the immigration office and got everything stamped. I showed our documents to the customs agent who boarded and walked through the bus. “What’s in these boxes?, ” he asked.

“Costumes for the opera ‘Madama Butterfly’” didn’t seem credible to him. He wanted me to open them.

“I don’t have the keys to the locks,” I replied.

Unloading the boxes into customs house storage was not an option for him. Making a u-turn and driving the bus and boxes back to Guatemala wasn’t either. His only concession was to allow us to park the bus in the customs pound, go to a hotel in Ciudad Hidalgo, and come back in the morning with the keys to the boxes.

Marco and I took a taxi to a hotel. I told the cab driver, “We want to go to the best hotel in town.”

Over dinner I told Marco “We’re transporting dozens of costumes. Each probably has pockets. We have no idea if actors have put something in a pocket in Guatemala City expecting to take it out of the pocket in Mexico City.”

Then I let him know my fear. “Look around. We’re in Ciudad Hidalgo’s best hotel. If it looks like this,” I asked, “can you imagine what Ciudad Hidalgo’s jail looks like?”

Photo via The Metropolitan Opera House

Experience it live (as it gets when you’re not in New York City). Photo via The Metropolitan Opera House

In the morning I called Mrs. Paiz’s assistant and told her no one was at the border to meet us and I would have the boxes unloaded from the bus and turned over to her representative.

There must have been a flurry of phone calls because soon we were in the Guatemalan Consul’s office in Ciudad Hidalgo where the two big crates — sight unseen — went through a transformation. They became diplomatic pouches!

Letters of introduction were issued for Marco. The consul accompanied us to the customs pound, glued the diplomatic pouch papers to the crates and we were on our way.

Marco dropped me off at the Tapachula airport. I wished him well. Not wanting to jinx him, I didn’t dare ask about the trip until he was back in Cuernavaca safe and sound. He reported that the diplomatic papers got him through all of the checkpoints on the highway. Upon arrival at the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City, “I was even welcomed with a bottle of fine cognac.”

I never saw the costumes I helped transport but I have seen photos of the New York cast on stage wearing the costumes in which they’ll be presenting on Saturday. It looks like a silk extravaganza.

The listing of theaters in your area is available on The Met’s website. Showtime is 11 a.m. in Mexico City (1 p.m. in New York) Saturday, April 2. See you there!

Anthropologist and longtime Cuernavaca resident Charlie Goff can be reached at <charlie@cemanahuac.com>. Carol Lamb Hopkins, Cuernavaca resident, former teacher and school administrator collaborates on this column. Previous Charlie’s Digs are posted at charliesdigs.com.

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