Mom and I went to the Kentucky Opera Association‘s production of MADAME BUTTERFLY. I’ve seen this opera several times, and looked forward to sinking into its beauty, but this
didn’t happen. This is not a bad thing.
It was as if I had never seen Butterfly before. Whenever I’ve seen it before, it was like a legend, like a beautiful European dream of a sad story in another land. The production I saw yesterday, though they played and sang the same notes and the words had the same meaning, the impact was totally different.
Pinkerton is always a stinkerton–no matter how hard the singer tries, I’ve never seen one succeed in making Pinkerton look like anything but an American of the ugliest kind. Cio-Cio-San (nicknamed Butterfly), the geisha Pinkerton “marries”, is only fifteen. Folks, let me repeat that: This American naval officer comes to Japan and buys a 15-year-old girl and marries her in a Japanese ceremony that is a cynical joke to him but a solemn reality to her. Guys, she’s just a kid, and she’s crazy about this big handsome man in a uniform who is promising to love her forever. He leases a house for 999 years, which sounds pretty serious to her, but the lease is only binding on him on a month-to-month basis.
For the first time, I felt like I was watching a real human drama, not an opera story. I could really see this thoughtless rat playing his way through another culture and another person’s life, taking advantage of both for his own careless pleasure.
Three years pass, and Pinkerton is three years gone, but Butterfly (now 18) refuses to admit herself abandoned, even though Pinkerton isn’t paying the rent or sending her anything to live on. For the first time, it was played as if her refusal to hear sense was a strength instead of a weakness. She isn’t meekly sitting around on her cushion awaiting the sound of her master’s voice. She is by God MARRIED, and nobody is going to tell her any different!! She abandoned her own religion for Pinkerton’s, and considers herself an American wife, bound by American marriage laws, and is certain that Pinkerton considers them married, too. He loves her, he married her, and he’ll come back to her. Period, paragraph. No, she won’t agree that she’s been abandoned and, by Japanese custom, she can accept the PRINCE who wants to marry her. American law doesn’t work like that. Got that, Buster?
Oh, guess what else? She has a three-year-old son, and Pinkerton is the baby-daddy. When Pinkerton’s ship comes back, he doesn’t want to see her until he hears about the boy. Then he comes WITH HIS “REAL” AMERICAN WIFE to claim him and take him back to America with him. It comes as quite a shock to him when he learns that Butterfly has kept faith with the American value of a wedding ceremony while he has considered the marriage as disposable as this opera claims the Japanese of the day did. He’s stunned–horrified–remorseful–but not enough to at least pay alimony and child support. No, he wants Butterfly to give him their son and have a nice life.
Why does she feel like she has to give in? Well, because her family renounced her when she turned Christian. Because she and her son would be beggars if she didn’t send him away
with Pinkerton and the other Mrs. Pinkerton. This was all very clear in this production, unlike the others I’ve seen, in which Butterfly gave the child up because she was told to. The Second Mrs. Pinkerton can be played as another ugly American who thinks “those people” don’t have real feelings, like “we” do, or as totally clueless, or as sympathetic. Yesterday’s came across as an empathetic Sister who suffered for Butterfly but, in the early days of the 20th century, had no more power in her marriage than Butterfly had in hers. All she can do is promise she’ll love the boy as if he were her own.
Do I need to put SPOILER ALERT before I talk about the ending? Consider it done. Butterfly’s suicide always struck me before as the last resort of a trapped and destroyed woman. True to the metaphorical warnings of the first act, her wings have been pulled off and she’s as good as dead, anyway. But check it out: She’s only 18, and she’s a trained geisha; she’s already said she could go back to that life. There’s a freakin’ PRINCE waiting in the wings to marry her, and you can bet he wouldn’t send her off without a penny in her pocket. Those aren’t options for this Butterfly because her honor has been outraged. If she accepted the insults Pinkerton’s treatment of her constitute, she would be less than she is.
Okay. Previous productions: Butterfly dies because she loves Pinkerton and he doesn’t love her. This production: Butterfly dies because it’s the only honorable course left to her. In this production–and, again, it’s as if I never saw or heard this opera before–Butterfly sits in front of her son and tells him that her father wanted to make them beggars; she tells him to look at her and remember her. Then she goes behind a screen and stabs herself. To keep the act from the child? No, to perform the sacred act in private. Because then she crawls out from behind the screen and clutches her wedding robe. When Pinkerton returns for his son, he finds the boy staring at him from across Butterfly’s dead body.
Oh, Mr. B. F. Pinkerton, it sucks to be you.
WRITING PROMPT: Go see an opera and view it as a writer. What motivations and circumstances need to be in place in order for the story to make realistic sense?
KK BreesNovember 22, 2010 at 6:45pm
And in the sequel, the son kills the father and –wait a minute. This is Hamlet with a twist. Or maybe Oedipus. Whatever. I sang Un Bel Di in a Jenny Lind contest early in the previous century. Only 16, I didn’t get the story line but I do now. What a conundrum. Thanks for a thoughtful post, Marian.
Leslie R. LeeNovember 23, 2010 at 7:24pm
Sounds like a very interesting production. If only opera didn’t make me want to stab myself ;-P Actually, I like the big songs and some of the drama. But I would prefer it be like a musical where the things in between the big songs were done just normally.
Marian AllenNovember 25, 2010 at 7:40am
Then you would like earlier operas, when they talked in between the big numbers instead of singing. My favorite part of this production was when Butterfly beat the snot out of the marriage broker with her fan.
DanielDecember 17, 2010 at 5:21am
great post, thanks for sharing