At Seattle Opera’s panel on race and representation in Madame Butterfly, one of the younger speakers asked why anyone would even bother trying to redeem such an opera. The obvious answer was, “The music!” but a part of me felt a little guilty for perpetuating one of those “classics” that should be allowed to die as its cultural relevance fades and its artistic merit is proven less significant than its novelty. I felt even more guilty that by taking my 13-year-old Asian daughter to see it, I could be inflicting harmful stereotypes on the very person they could most affect. I think those were legitimate fears, and could have been valid if Seattle Opera had presented Madame Butterfly without comment. But in the context of the local discussion they have started – wow! What an opera!
It’s amazing to me how hard people are willing to work to force evidence to match their assumptions. Tenors sing romantic leads and romantic leads are heroes. Therefore, Madame Butterfly is a tragic love story. Except it’s not. Not even close.
Puccini wrote Butterfly as a criticism of American imperialism in Asia at the turn of the 20th century. It wasn’t subtle. While he researched traditional Japanese folk music to create the character motifs for Japanese, he inserted the Star Spangled Banner for American characters and anything “American” that anyone does in the story. Even after he toned it down, in response to its catastrophic financial failure, it’s obvious that Pinkerton is a jackass. In the opening scene, he drinks half a decanter of whiskey in celebration of his “bride who came with the house” and toasts to the future day when he will get married for real to an American woman – as he is waiting for his Japanese bride to arrive at their wedding and as his older, wiser friend repeatedly tells him that actually his pending nuptials are real. Puccini unambiguously meant Pinkerton to be a dick, and if audiences have treated him like a tragic hero, it says more about their racism than Puccini’s.
I have never hated a fictional villain so intensely. And I have never loved a tenor so much as Dominick Chenes. No wonder he received both a standing ovation and boos from the crowd. Even knowing how vile his character is, and even having a personal preference for baritones, I was brought to tears by the duet he sings with Butterfly at the end of Act One. This really is some of Puccini’s most exquisite music.
And Oh. My. God. Can we talk about Yasko Sato for a minute? No matter where she takes her voice, it never sounds like she’s working. Sato sings with the same power and intensity as Mary Elizabeth Williams, and even when she’s walking around the stage carrying a kid, it’s as smooth and natural as speech. When she sang the opening line to “Un bel di” an audible gasp rippled through the audience.
This is her first time in the U.S., but she is bound to become a Seattle Opera regular, unless she continues to dedicate herself to this role. She is practically a professional Butterfly, having performed the role over 100 times since 2007.
But there is nothing rote about her performance. In fact, I can’t even imagine the lotus blossom stereotype for a character like Butterfly. Her voice has too much force, and Sato’s characterization is too much of a cross between Holly Golightly and Miss Haversham. Her glib description of her family’s poverty in her opening scene and her sassy put-downs of her rich suitor in Act Two (especially in the context of polite Japanese society) smack of Golightly’s “fou-er than anybody” bravado. While her insane insistence on Pinkerton’s loyalty during his three years of absence could be naivety, details like insisting people call her child Sorrow until his father returns, and Sato’s body language smack of the same deranged intelligence that led Haversham to wear her wedding dress every day while she raised a little girl to break hearts. The interpretation of the opera as a tragic love story has shifted from “culture clash” to “one-sided love.”
Butterfly obviously has deeper feelings than Pinkerton, but I don’t see her suicide as resulting from betrayed love. Butterfly had burned all her bridges. After suffering her family’s fall from imperial grace and working as a singer, she went all in for her Western marriage, regaining her pride by rejecting everything Japanese and identifying as a modern, Western woman. She alienated her family and snubbed potential patrons, and when Pinkerton’s ship returns, she is only days away from destitution. She even tells Sharpless that she would rather die than go back to performing. She doesn’t say she’d rather die than live without Pinkerton. I think that if she had lived a few days longer, she would have ended up hating Pinkerton as much as I do. (In fact, I spent much of Act Three mentally outlining the first-person memoir of Cio-Cio-san’s life after surviving her suicide attempt.)
I’ve seen Weston Hurt in several roles at Seattle Opera, but think he really stood out this time in the role of Pinkerton’s friend The Consul. Partly that’s because Butterfly just has the best music for everyone. Partly it’s because the Consul is the voice of reason in the opera. (I argued with my daughter on this, suggesting that Suzuki also understood what was going on and maintained a moral center. But she said Suzuki let her boss hit her, and so joined the ranks of the irredeemably stupid. Beautiful singing from Renee Rapier, though.)
Although Seattle Opera’s head-on acknowledgement of the controversial aspects of Butterfly almost scared me away from the opera, I’m so glad that I saw it, and I’m glad that I was able to see it through the lenses they provided. Media relations manager Gabrielle Nomura Gainor’s quote about Butterfly as a trafficked teenager was so powerful to me. In that context, her outlandish behavior starts to look a reasonable protection mechanism, and makes her a standout among Puccini’s many suicidal heroines, not for her conformation to Asian stereotypes, but for her ferocity. It also gave me a priceless teaching moment. Forevermore, “Beware the Pinkerton,” will be my family’s shorthand to warn my daughter about the jackasses like Pinkerton who still think of Asian women as toys.
I was also extremely glad that we went to the pre-performance talk. My daughter is usually anti-lecture, but I think she appreciated seeing an Asian woman, Judy Tsou, at the podium giving an academic analysis of the messages in the music itself. It was helpful to know that Puccini did as much research as was possible in his time and place to understand the music (if not the mores – Puccini was always a better musician than storyteller) of the cultures represented. Learning about the leitmotifs that he used deepened our understanding of what was happening on stage. And Tsou confirmed what the music would later tell me – that whatever mistakes he made in storytelling and characterization, Puccini gave the greatest complexity and depth to the character most often identified as a stereotype, the teenage girl called Butterfly.
Madame Butterfly runs through August 19 at McCaw Hall.