Opera Review: Madame Butterfly

The Racial/Sexual Politics of Puccini’s Star-Crossed, Cross-Cultural Concubinage, Cuckolding and Cio-Cio-San

East Meets West Side Story: It’s Like Butter!

First of all, right off the bat, LA Opera’s current production of Madame Butterfly hits not only a homer, but a grand slam.  The multi-culti cast and crew organically combine to present this lushly romantic mounting of 1904’s Madame Butterfly, one of the best, most performed and beloved operas of all time.  This version does right by Giacomo Puccini, who was surely the commodore of composers.

Puccini adapted David Belasco’s 1900 Broadway play of the same name, which is set in Japan around the turn of the last century.  The opera is the archetypal “East meets West” love story and Madame Butterfly’s influence is clearly stamped on works ranging from the Broadway stage to the Hollywood screen and beyond.  The romance between that other Lieutenant – WWII Marine Joe Cable – and the “younger than springtime” Vietnamese beauty Liat he deflowers in the musical and movies based on James Michener’s 1947 Pulitzer Prize-winning Tales of the South Pacific is almost certainly derived from Butterfly.  Opening 1989 at London’s West End, Miss Saigon is an adaptation of Butterfly wherein the titular Vietnamese bargirl replaced the Japanese geisha in what became the 13th longest running musical in Broadway history.  Similar plot elements are afoot in David Henry Hwang’s 1988 Tony Award-winning play, the similarly-titled M. Butterfly and David Cronenberg’s 1993 film adaptation of it, which add a gender bender component to Puccini’s cross-cultural angle in this saga also suggested by the real life affair between a French diplomat and Peking opera singer.

In the current LA Opera production Puerto Rican soprano Ana Maria Martinez’s flawless performance as the title character, also known as Cio-Cio-San, would melt the heart of a Dick Cheney, while her exquisite rendition of Puccini’s immortal aria, Un bel di (One Fine Day), would make an android’s spine tingle.  Set in the Land of the Rising Sun, Rick Fisher’s lighting in Act I, moving from daytime to nighttime during Butterfly and U.S. Naval Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton’s (Italian tenor Stefano Secco) wedding night and in Act II, as Cio-Cio-San passes a sleepless night waiting for her feckless seducer to return to her, superbly evokes the passage of time.  (However, there’s a missed opportunity to project sexy silhouettes upon the closed sliding shoji doors as Pinkerton removes Butterfly’s kimono and the marriage is consummated.)

Speaking of the set, French designer Jean-Marc Puissant’s stage is almost minimalist and in Act I the little hilltop traditional Japanese house which Pinkerton has opportunistically leased for 999 years, with a monthly option to break said lease, looks lovely and downright spiffy.  But the abode expresses plot in the second act through its shockingly shabby appearance, denoting Pinkerton’s three year absence, after he has shipped out of Japan aboard the gunboat the Abraham Lincoln and forsaken poor, pregnant Cio-Cio-San.  (After all, one man’s chateau is another’s shack!)

I’d be remiss not to mention German costume designer Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s apparel.  The kimono Butterfly first appears in rather cleverly suggests wings, as if Cio-Cio-San might take flight.  When Pinkerton returns in Act II he’s wearing a more ornate uniform than he did in the first act, simply but clearly announcing that he has risen in the ranks of the U.S. Navy, during those years when bellicose President Teddy Roosevelt urged a newly imperial, ascendant America to “walk softly but carry a big stick.”  (The difference between now and then being that while Washington continues to “carry a big stick” it also treads noisily and cumbersomely astride a globe crisscrossed by U.S. military bases.)

Bamboo Fever

Puccini’s rendering of interracial romance is fraught with ethnic and sexual politics and appears to be a critique of then-emerging Yankee “gunboat diplomacy.”  The all-American names and musical quoting of “The Star-Spangled Banner” also clearly reference the USA.  When we first meet Lt. Pinkerton, he is, to paraphrase that old TV cereal ad, “cuckoo for Cio-Cio-San.”  But this impoverished noblewoman would have been far better off if Pinkerton had sated his hunger with Cocoa Puffs, instead of her.  The libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica quickly reveals Pinkerton’s perfidious, opportunistic motivations.  He likens the 999-year lease on his home – with his monthly annulment option — to his marital vows to Cio-Cio-San.  Like the shoji panels at his hilltop house overlooking the harbor, he views his cunning “marriage” of cunt-venience – arranged by matrimonial broker Goro (South Carolina tenor Keith Jameson) – as sliding, lasting only during his brief Naval deployment to Japan, until he makes “real” nuptials with, shall we say, “one of his own kind.”  (Mezzo-soprano Lacey Jo Benter, from – appropriately – Cedar Rapids, Iowa – plays Kate Pinkerton.)

The thoughtless, selfish Pinkerton confides in and confesses his treachery to U.S. Consul Sharpless (Korean baritone Kihun Yoon).  The randy lieutenant refers to Butterfly as his “plaything”; smitten by her “exoticism” and beauty, he proceeds to seduce her.  It would be one thing if Cio-Cio-San was aware of this and, likewise, just wanted a fling and to get her rocks off, too.  But the problem is that the dishonorable Pinkerton is deceiving her – although Sharpless warns him about and Cio-Cio-San sings of profound feelings for her white “husband” and believes their marriage to be for real and lifelong.  (Psychologically, Madame Butterfly is one of the stage’s supreme studies in self-deception and denial.)

It turns out that ex-geisha Cio-Cio-San is only 15 years old, so by today’s standards, Pinkerton could be considered a pedophile.  Like those Westerners who travel abroad and indulge in sex tourism in Asia, by 2016 norms of behavior Pinkerton is having sex (even if it seems consensual) with an under-aged female.  Would audiences be outraged by or accept his making love with a Caucasian female younger than the age of consent (if not springtime)?

In any case, Pinkerton and Butterfly have what, to paraphrase Spike Lee, could be called “bamboo fever,” as East meets West in sexual ecstatic electricity.  Pinkerton is clearly charmed by Cio-Cio-San and likens the kimono-clad beauty to art, flowers and insects; she refers to herself as a “goddess.”  It never seems to occur to either of them (especially to Pinkerton) that this “Butterfly” is a human being, flesh and blood, with heart, soul, psyche and intellect.  Objectified as primarily a sex toy, Cio-Cio-San’s very humanity is denied, as this child is arguably raped by the white male , a symbol of Western conquest.  (BTW, the fact that this lieutenant had a relatively low rank may have appealed to Caucasian men seeking subservient females, the point being: You don’t have to be an admiral to be admired.)

Puccini is cannily commenting on international relations between imperial Washington and the Third World just as the Yankees spread their wings on the global scene, following the illegal 1893 overthrow and then illegal annexation of the independent Kingdom of Hawaii in 1898, the same year America conquered Spain’s empire, from the Caribbean (where they still run the world’s most notorious penal colony at Guantanamo) to the Pacific.  The U.S. invaded the Philippines, where it fought a very long war against Filipino independence and the USA still occupies one third of Guam with military installations.

Besides desire, what else motivates Cio-Cio-San?  The unfortunate teenager has had to support herself and her family since her nobleman father’s hara-kiri death (her revealing of the blade – given to the family by the Japanese emperor, or Mikado, himself – used for the suicidal deed early in Act I foreshadows what is to happen) by becoming a geisha.  Perhaps because of her father’s fate and the limited options available to a young lady in early 20th century Japan, she seeks to escape social restrictions by “marrying” an American and thus elevating her status.

Cio-Cio-San turns her back on her ancestral religion, incurring the wrath of the Bonze (Alabama-born bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee), who disrupts her “wedding” ceremony and casts a sort of fatwa upon the two star-crossed lovers.  He may not be cool like the Fonz, but the Bonze represents a sort of nationalistic response to Western imperialism in what are definitely not happy days.  Nevertheless, after his disruption of the nuptials, there’s no coitus interruptus and it’s bedtime without Bonze.  (One can’t help but wonder if the name Bonzo – the chimp who upstaged Ronald Reagan in a 1951 comedy – was derived from this character, implying that native nationalists perform monkey business?)

Let He Who Has Not Sinned Cast the First Stone: Cross-Cultural Casting

From our 21st century “post-racial” (as if!) perch it’s easy to get up on our high horses and dismiss this early stab (no pun intended) at depicting interracial romance as being stereotypical, even racist.  For instance, in commentary accompanying a Turner Classic Movies TV screening of Son of the Gods, Robert Osborne criticized this 1930 pre-Code film about racism – sexual and otherwise – against Asians in America as “cringe-worthy” and “creaky.”  The usually circumspect Osborne went on to disparage D.W. Griffith’s 1919 classic Broken Blossoms, which was actually a plea for understanding and tolerance that likewise starred Richard Barthelmess.

But as the 2016 Cloroxed Oscars – widely denounced for its lack of nominations for Black thesps and films – demonstrates when it comes to casting, America isn’t so enlightened nowadays, either.  In the same vein some may deride Ukrainian soprano Oksana Dyka’s 2012 turn and Puerto Rican soprano Martinez’s LA Opera performances as the title character in Madame Butterfly as “Yellowface” – a white or Latina impersonating a character of Asian ancestry through cosmetics, costuming, mannerisms, etc.  This is also so for other “Oriental” roles performed by Caucasians in this production.  Such as Texan baritone Daniel Armstrong, who plays Yamadori, plus Serbian mezzo-soprano Milena Kitic, who depicts Butterfly’s attendant, Suzuki.  (BTW, Hispanics such as Ramon Novarro, Maria Montez, Dolores del Rio, Rita Moreno, etc., have often “passed” onscreen as Tinseltown “Polynesians.” Call it the “If-you’ve-seen-one-‘exotic’-person-you’ve- seen-’em-all” rule.)

In ironic turn-around-fair-play, Seoul-born Kihun Yoon portrays the white American consul Sharpless.  And New Yorker Patrick Blackwell, an African American bass-baritone, plays the Imperial Commissioner.  It’s a small role but surely circa 1900, a Yankee of such a high ranking overseas would have been Caucasian.

What is one to make of this show’s multi-culti thespianism?  Is it a case of forward thinking “nontraditional casting” which, among other things, gives often underrepresented minorities roles, and thereby work and representation to often neglected actors?  But what happens when parts specifically designated for one nationality go to performers from the dominant majority culture (or other ethnic groups), thus depriving, say, Asians, of one of a handful of roles (let alone leads) set aside for them?  (Indeed, from 1915 to 1920 Japanese opera singer Tamaki Miura played Butterfly in America and Europe.)

Inquiring minds want to know: Is this cultural correctness gone berserk?  Especially since acting is, by its very nature, about pretending and play-acting?  And is this all the more true in opera, where voice triumphs over every other consideration and talent – not ethnicity, not body size, not looks, not age, etc. – is the determining (if not the sole) factor in who incarnates what persona?  The fact is that Martinez is sizzling and stunning as Butterfly and the entire cast acquits itself well.  This reviewer doesn’t pretend to have all of the answers – but he does have lots of questions (especially given the brouhaha caused by this year’s whitewashed Academy Awards).

Of Race, Sex, Class and Lepidopterology

What was Puccini getting at 112 years ago? Madame Butterfly is much more than a mere Mikado minstrel show.  Pinkerton’s rank is relatively low; he’s only a lieutenant, after all.  It’s as if the color of his skin and racial pedigree was such that it bestowed a social status that outshone that of another suitor, the wealthier aristocrat, Prince Yamadori, who tries to woo Butterfly while her unfaithful “husband” sails the seven seas.  His American-ness seems to be the allure for the outcast geisha Cio-Cio-San, who has been spurned by her own people and their cultural codes.  Madame Butterfly is subject to interpretation, but I suspect Puccini, who so sympathized with countercultural artistes in La Boheme and political prisoners in Tosca, was criticizing racial intolerance – and not interracial love.

But alas, as Rudyard Kipling put it, “never the twain shall meet.”  Act II greatly encapsulates the action, as Pinkerton ships out, leaving behind Cio-Cio-San and, unbeknownst to Pinkerton, a love child.  And unbeknownst to Butterfly, her American has flitted away and wed a fellow Yankee Doodle Dandy.  As Butterfly pines away for her feckless gaijin (Caucasian), she sings the breathtakingly beautiful aria Un bel di.  But when that not so mighty fine day does arrive – and with it, Mrs. Pinkerton – it’s “ciao,” Cio-Cio-San. Sayonara sex toy!

Englishman Lee Blakeley deftly directs the production and James Conlon wields his baton with all the finesse of a musical samurai, conducting Puccini’s effervescent score.  The final scene seems embellished: Butterfly and Pinkerton’s love child (who is, tellingly, referred to as “Trouble” in the original libretto, but apparently not in this production) is wrapped in Old Glory and after his mother commits suicide with the same dagger her father sliced and diced himself – and which the Mikado had given the once noble family – the boy (alternately played by Nicholas Cuenca Terry and Michael Alspaugh) brandishes the blade at his birth father.

This does not seem to be in the original libretto and if this knife-wielding has been added by those behind this production, what are they getting at?  That just as Washington’s contemporary drone warfare supposedly generates terrorism, American fecklessness in foreign affairs produces enemies?

And now, the ultimate irony of this misbegotten amour between the Japanese female and an American military officer: The story is set in none other than Nagasaki.  As Oliver Stone convincingly argued in his 2012 Showtime documentary series and companion book The Untold History of the United States, the U.S. did not need to nuke Hiroshima and Nagasaki, massacring mostly (nonwhite) civilians, to bring World War II to a close.  The Enola Gay’s radioman Abe Spitzer described the result of that B-29’s dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima:

“As I watched, hypnotized by what I saw, the column of smoke changed its color, from a grey-white to brown, then amber, then all three colors at once, mingled into a bright, boiling rainbow.  For a second it looked as though its fury might be ending, but almost immediately a kind of mushroom spurted out of the top and traveled up, up to what some say was a distance of 60,000 or 70,000 feet…. Some said it was 80,000 feet, some 85,000 feet, some even more…. After that, another mushroom, somewhat smaller, boiled up out of the pillar…”  According to the book, Spitzer heard someone say, “I wonder if maybe we’re not monkeying around with things that are none of our business.”

And perhaps that quintessential ugly American, Pinkerton (in recognition of his villainy, Secco was good-naturedly booed during the curtain calls), should not have monkeyed around and toyed with Madame Butterfly, using white supremacy and deception to court then abandon the trusting child Cio-Cio-San, who was so cruelly caught between two worlds that ultimately crushed her wings.

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