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Madame Butterfly — San Francisco Opera Performance — Review

Madame Butterfly

San Francisco Opera Performance

June 21, 2014

 

 

There are two ways of looking at this opera, and one of them makes sense and the other one doesn’t.  However the presentation favors the nonsense interpretation.  It’s the difference between a story from the Bible seen as a metaphor that has a moral lesson or a symbolic meaning, and taking it literally as a retelling of historical events.  Most of the time the literalist understanding is flawed and sometimes reduces to nonsense, but the moral message could still resonate and be comprehensible whether you agree with it or not.  Such is the case with Madame Butterfly.

This opera has some sophistication, in contrast to La Traviata, which I saw last night and dispatched to the ashcan.  Madame Butterfly is beautifully and imaginatively presented.  A special accolade should go to the production designer, Jun Kaneko.  His skillful use of lighting and special effects as well as colorful, attractive costumes created a marvelous visual spectacle.  The singers really put their hearts into this.  From the point of view of the performance and the staging it was truly world class.

It is the concept and interpretation of this opera that I have a problem with.  Lieutenant Pinkerton married Butterfly in Japan while he was there on assignment with the U.S. Navy.  Pinkerton is straightforwardly dishonest from the outset.  Even as he sets about to marry Butterfly, he explicitly states his anticipation of a “real wedding” with an American girl.  He does not take the Japanese girl or the wedding seriously and is quite frank about it.  So one might ask, “why is he doing this?”  Why does he need to marry Butterfly?  He could have her, or many other girls, on a short term basis for probably far less money than he paid to marry her.  Why is he saddling himself with a marriage in a foreign country that he does not take seriously, when he doesn’t really need to?  His behavior just doesn’t make sense.

They get married and the girl is crazy about him. By all measures she is highly motivated and devoted to him, and he seems pleased with her.  She wants to go to America and be his wife.  She renounces her religion, she wholeheartedly embraces American culture and the American way of life.  So why not keep her?  What more could a guy want in a wife?  Why not take her along when he leaves?  Why does he leave this wonderful young Japanese girl behind, when he just went to the trouble and expense to marry her?  It is left unexplained why he left Butterfly behind in Japan in the first place.  If he never wanted to keep her to begin with, it did not make sense to marry her.

Furthermore, Butterfly is a geisha.  Geishas were not prostitutes in the sense that we understand them.  They were entertainers, they were well trained for their role from an early age, and quite sophisticated.  They had social skills and acute perception of men and their needs.  But Butterfly is presented as an immature numbskull who lives in a cotton candy world of fantasy and self delusion — very unlike a geisha.  So Butterfly’s character lacks credibility from very early on.  She does not seem like a Japanese woman at all.  Pinkerton’s behavior also lacks credibility from the very beginning and throughout.  So I watched this whole opera in a state of profound skepticism about both of the lead characters.

So Pinkerton leaves and Butterfly stays in Japan.  He is gone three years.  During that three years’ time, he meets, courts, and marries and American woman whom he brings with him on his return to Japan.

Question:  At what point does Mrs. American Pinkerton find out about Mrs. Japanese Pinkerton?

Case 1:  Pinkerton tells her about his Japanese marriage before he marries her.

“Darling, I want to marry you.  But I think I should tell you something.”

“Sure, baby, what is it?”

“I’m already married.”

“You mean to another woman?”

“Right.  I married a Japanese woman in Japan less than three years ago.  But now I’m going to dump her and marry you.”

“That’s great.”

“So let’s go ahead and get married.”

“Sure, why not?  Oh, I’m so thrilled that you would dump another woman that you had just married and marry me!  I must be so powerfully appealing to you!”

“You are, indeed.  And there’s something else.”

“Oh?”

“I have a two year old son with my Japanese wife.”

“Really?”

“I want to go back to Japan with you in tow so you can meet my Japanese wife, I’m going to tell her I’m dumping her for you, and then we’re going to wrench my young son away from her and bring him home with us so that you can raise him as your own son.”

“Nothing could make me happier.  I’ll start packing.”

“Now I know why I married you.”

If that doesn’t seem real enough to you, then consider Case 2:  Mrs. American Pinkerton finds out about Mrs. Japanese Pinkerton after she is married to him.  Pinkerton courts her, proposes to her, and marries her without ever mentioning that he has another wife already in Japan.  They get married and the morning after their wedding they are having breakfast.  She serves him his pancakes and he says to her,

“Honey, I need to tell you something.”

“Sure, baby, you know you can tell me anything. I’m your beloved wife.”

“I’m already married, Sweetheart.  I have another wife.”

“Well, what about it?”

“I married her in Japan less than three years ago.  But I like you better.  I’m going to dump her and keep you instead.”

“I’m very touched.”

“There’s something else.”

“Don’t hold it back.  Share it with me, baby.  You know I’ll always be there for you.”

“I have a two year old son with her.”

“Big deal.”

“I want to go back to Japan.  I want you to go with me and meet my Japanese wife.  I’m going to let her know I’m dumping her once and for all, and we are going to take my son away from her and bring him back with us for you to raise as your own son.”

“That sounds awesome.”

“I’m glad you are so understanding.”

“Our love will conquer all, darling.”

I think either alternative is equally plausible.  But then, once we have the new Mrs. Pinkerton in Japan and the first Mrs. Pinkerton is enlightened as to what is going down, she is faced with several alternatives.  She could return to being a geisha, which would not be all that bad.  The production in its ignorance portrays this as “dishonorable,” but that is a very un-Japanese attitude.  In Japan geisha were, and still are for the few that are left, highly regarded.  The second alternative would have been to marry the wealthy Japanese man, Yamadori, who was very interested in her and wanted her.  That, of course, could have been a plus or a minus, you can never tell.  And the third alternative was to give up her child without an argument and kill herself, which is what she chose — totally ridiculous folly.  Why does she so willingly give up her child to this strange woman who shows up one day on her doorstep with the man she married just a few years ago?  She says that she must obey her husband and hand over the boy.  Why would she feel like she must obey a foreign man who deceived her, betrayed her, and now shows up with the woman he is dumping her for demanding the child that they had together.  Butterfly is not credible as a woman.

This is why I have concluded that looking at this opera as a story of interpersonal tragedy reduces it to total absurdity.  The presenting story simply lacks credibility.  But there is another way of looking at it that has much more plausibility.  If one looks at the story metaphorically, then it really does begin to make some sense.

This is the story of the rape of Japan by the western powers in the nineteenth century, and the United States in particular.  It is the story of ruthless colonial exploitation and the Japanese struggle to come to terms with it.  The United States did not send its warships into Japanese harbors in the nineteenth century as a gesture of friendship.  The object was to open it up to colonial exploitation as had happened to China and other Southeast Asian nations.  There was a great struggle in Japan over how to deal with this.  One strain of thinking was that Japan needed to modernize, to adopt western technology and culture or it would be inevitably subjugated.  But there was also resistance to this.  Many Japanese became enamored with western culture and fascinated with the United States.  To be sure Japan was a repressive, feudal society.  Westernization with its traditions of civil liberties and individual rights had a lot to offer ordinary Japanese.  This opera offers a verdict on that infatuation with the West and its likely outcome for the Japanese.

Butterfly should be seen as the simpleminded, superficial, trend in Japan to naively embrace western culture, values, religion, etc.  Butterfly represents the foolishness of this course and the disappointment and disaster it will inevitably lead to.  Taking the child away from Butterfly represents the younger generation of Japanese turning away from traditional Japanese values and culture and being wholeheartedly given over to westernization.  Butterfly’s embrace of all things Western is the instrument whereby the children are given away to the West — they follow her example.  Butterfly’s suicide should be understood as the outcome of that ill-considered embrace: the self-destruction of the Japanese as Japanese.  It is a much more profound tragedy than this preposterous love story that is only a facade.  This opera has promise and could be a great production if it could be directed to emphasize this clash of cultures and this imposition of imperial power upon Japan, rather than as a sorrowful tale of love gone wrong between two people who are both unconvincing on their own terms.

I think the opera makes this metaphorical intent very clear in the name of the American Lieutenant, “Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton,” and his ship’s name, the “Abraham Lincoln.”  He is clearly representing America, the historical power and cultural bellwether, and not just himself as a person.  His callous reprehensible behavior reflects the attitude of the American government toward Japan and serves as a warning to Japanese people enthused in their naive embrace of American culture.  This issue remains in play even today in Japan.

The problem with this opera is that it emphasizes the personal tragedy, which is kind of silly, really, and subordinates the symbolic clash between the intrusion of western imperial power and the relatively backward, technologically inferior Japan.  The story really does not work if it is conceived as a personal story of love and betrayal between two people.  But that is the way it seems to come out in the performance.  I don’t know if it could be directed and staged differently to bring out a more macroscopic interpretation, or if it is just badly written and can’t be fixed.  This story has to be seen symbolically, as a story of grand conflict between two civilizations of very different character.

I was surprised to see the director Nicola Luisotti make the remark in the program notes that “prostitution was illegal in Japan” (p.43) during the time of this story (the early 1900s).  Could it be that this man who says he has directed this opera 70 times, including twice in Japan, is so brazenly ignorant of its historical context?  Japan has had a thriving sex industry from time immemorial.1  Maybe it was a misprint in the program.  Prostitution was legal pretty much everywhere in the United States and everywhere else in the world around the time of this opera’s conception (very early 20th century).  It was only over the course of the first two decades of the twentieth century that commercial sex was suppressed in the United States.  In Japan prostitution continues to thrive, although the influence of the United States after World War 2, and pressure from Christian groups has steadily eroded the public acceptance it once enjoyed. (Bornoff, 1991, p. 331)  If Luisotti really thinks that prostitution was illegal in nineteenth century Japan, then he has no concept of this country at the time in which this opera is set.

The second act was excessively long and most of the time was spent simply waiting for Pinkerton to return to Japan.  Waiting for something to happen is not dramatically effective except for a short time to raise tension and expectancy.  If waiting becomes the dominant theme in a performance, it devolves into something akin to watching clothes tumble in a dryer.  Unless there is something else going on, waiting has to be kept within reasonable proportions.  In this opera there is nothing dramatic going on except the introduction of “Sorrow,” the toddler who is the son of Pinkerton and Butterfly.  He does take over the second act to a large extent.  That three year old boy, Miles Sperske, deserves a special award of merit for his demanding role.  He was on stage for most of the second act during which he was required to sit patiently, motionless, and silent in the midst of continuous ongoing drama and stimulation.  It was quite an achievement for a young toddler.

While this opera was staged and sung at a very high level of quality, it is a deeply flawed opera that is not well thought out and shows ignorance of Japanese culture and character.  It does at the same time present a telling lesson to the Japanese and to all nations and peoples around the world who thrall to America’s culture and its political and economic agenda.  Butterfly’s outcome could be you.  Think of Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Latin America, etc.  There are some universal themes here that it would pay to heed.  It would be a much better production if it emphasized those larger themes rather than this ill-conceived love story, which I don’t think was ever the primary intent of this opera.

 

 

 

1.  Bornoff, Nicholas (1991)  Pink Samurai:  Love, Marriage and Sex in Contemporary Japan.  New York, London:  Pocket Books.  See especially Chapter 11.

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