I had an uneasy feeling leaving the theater following a performance of “Madama Butterfly” a few weeks ago. I’ve seen the opera several times, at many different stages of my life (watching a live, outdoor performance is one of my earliest memories) but I don’t remember ever coming away with this peculiar feeling of revulsion the way I did on that recent night.
I recognize that there are those unfamiliar with the story, so here’s an extremely brief rundown:
American sailor arranges meeting with Japanese geisha, marries and seduces her. Goes back to sea. She thinks marriage meant something. It didn’t. She has child. He comes back to get the child. She kills herself. The end.
What I worry about now is why I never adequately recognized just how messed up that was, is. Once that recognition kicked in it bothered me so much I didn’t want to think about it.
But those kinds of things have a way of walking back into your mind, and I found myself pondering it, over and over, on occasion.
The music is undeniably beautiful. That’s a given. It’s one of the reasons the opera is so famous. It’s one of the staples of the operatic world. Do we need to know how the composer, Giacomo Puccini, felt about it? I don’t know. That sounds like scholar stuff.
It is undeniably beautiful, but also almost unbearably cruel. Why do I see that cruelty so much more clearly now? To what could I attribute this newfound sensitivity?
I think it has something to do with #MeeToo — Madama Butterfly, it should be noted, is 15 years old. But I also think it has something to do with the climate — and I’m not talking about global warming. “Madama Butterfly” is the story of an honest, open, trusting person obliterated by a dishonest, lying cheat. Anything sound familiar?
If you’re unfamiliar with the opera, it may interest you to know that the composer weaves notes from “The Star-Spangled Banner” into the music at times during the opening act — you almost feel obliged to stand and put your hand over your heart — but it’s not patriotism but American hubris being depicted, American hubris being the tale’s central villain (“Miss Saigon” did the same thing, just transporting the affront to Vietnam as opposed to Japan). “Madama Butterfly” premiered in 1904, which shows that Americans strutting around the globe behaving without a clue is nothing new in the history of world affairs.
Some comfort can be gained from shared experience, so it was somewhat heartening to stumble into an article the other day from The Guardian. Provocatively headlined: “Sex, betrayal, suicide: is Madama Butterfly too sordid to stage today?” it mirrored some of the misgivings I’ve been feeling.
The article, from about a year and a half ago, is by Annilese Miskimmon, director of opera at Norwegian National Opera. Her production of “Madama Butterfly” was at Glyndebourne. “The near-mythic status this piece has in the operatic canon is due to its amazing combination of brutality and beauty, and that is both its strength and weakness,” she wrote.
It’s interesting how perception changes with the times. “Butterfly” was jeered on its opening night, but went on to become a classic. “Puccini’s opera joins the long list of works of art that after years of unquestioning admiration are now problematic in our more enlightened modern times,” writes Miskimmon.
My experience certainly backs up that observation, but it doesn’t mean the work should wind up in the dustbin of history.
It’s more than a century old, but in its warning about the tragic consequences of American exceptionalism, “Madama Butterfly” may be just the opera for our times.
Reach Jeffery Kurz at 203-317-2213, or firstname.lastname@example.org.