Sunday, April 22, 2012

MN Opera: Madame Butterfly

For each new show it opens, the Minnesota Opera invites local bloggers to a full dress rehearsal.  The Black Hat Collective of cartoonists and I make it our mission to interpret each show in cartoons and drawings, then post them online.

Last Thursday's show was the immortal:
Madame Butterfly

Part of the reason I didn't do a blog for the MN Opera's last production, Lucia Di Lammermoore, is because I was often too interested in what was happening onstage to draw!  That's a good problem to have.  The same problem came up a lot on Madame Butterfly.  It has a very rich story, complex and expressive characters, and lots of background info to deal with.  I'll be walking you through Madame Butterfly in the most enlightening way I can  —with words, videos, jokes, drawings, and photos.

The Opera opens on B.F. Pinkerton, a selfish American Naval Lieutenant, who has rented a house in Nagasaki from a shifty marriage broker named Goro.  Pinkerton is amazed by the sliding doors and rice-paper walls.

Pinkerton's deal with Goro cost him 100 yen ($50 in 1905 and about $1300 today) for the next 999 years.  The deal also includes 3 servants, including a maid named Suzuki, and a beautiful geisha wife, named Cho-Cho-San —which means "Madame Butterfly."

One of the first things Pinkerton does is disrespect Suzuki and say that women talk too much.  Then he ignores Goro's warning that Cho-Cho-San has an uncle who opposes the wedding because he is a "Bonze" (AKA a Bhikkhu or Buddhist priest).

The American consul to Japan, Mr. Sharpless, visits Pinkerton.  While remaining friendly with his countryman, Sharpless tries to emphasize that this marriage is not a good idea.  Pinkerton retorts that he is allowed to cancel both the rental and the marriage at any time with 30 days notice.  This is great from Pinkerton's perspective because he can enjoy a short period of attachment-free romance and go on his merry way, and he remarks, "The contracts in this country are as flexible as the walls!"

Puccini uses The Star-Spangled Banner as a leitmotif for Pinkerton, and references to America in general.  His use of distinct cultural melodies is not subtle, it's awesome!

Sharpless tries to stress that Pinkerton's plan is wrong, saying that he's seen Cho-Cho-San around town and considers her a deep and sensitive person.  He warns, "Play this game and you'll break a trusting heart!"

Pinkerton's response is basically "shut up old man you don't know what love is."  Pinkerton exclaims, "I must possess her, even if her wings are torn and broken," before turning around to say, "Now let's toast to the day where I marry a REAL bride, in AMERICA!"

Cho-Cho-San finally arrives with her entourage - a whole extended family in beautiful Japanese formal kimonos.

Cho-Cho tells Pinkerton little bit about herself.

First of all, she's 15 YEARS OLD (an age that, even in 1905, Sharpless is shocked at and calls "an age for dolls!" though Pinkerton himself seems extra-aroused.)

She was born into a wealthy station, but her family lost its wealth and fell from grace, at which point her father committed obligatory seppuku and the women of the family became geisha entertainers.  (Since there can't be a married geisha, presumably the marriage was also important to her as a form of retirement.)

Cho-Cho-San shows Pinkerton her few possessions - a fan, some ribbon, her father's used wakizashi, and some figurines of her ancestors.  This scene, titled "Vieni amor mio" uses Sakura, Sakura as a leitmotif the way "America Forever" used The Star Spangled Banner, and is very beautiful.

Cho-Cho-San quietly informs Pinkerton that she has secretly converted to Christianity the night before.  Her marriage to him constitutes a full-on rejection of her old life and devotion to Pinkerton's way of life.  Where there had been "Cho-Cho," now there is "Butterfly," or better still, "Mrs. Pinkerton."  She even goes so far as to toss the figures of her ancestors away.

After the wedding ceremony has taken place, Cho-Cho-San's priestly uncle appears, reveals that he saw her in the Christian church the night before, and gets every last one of her relatives to denounce her and run off in a rage.  Pinkerton chases off her detractors.

That night, Butterfly and Pinkerton have a romantic romp in their nightgowns behind the ricepaper walls

This is when the opera breaks for intermission.

Interesting story:
Puccini based his opera on a play he saw in 1900, which was in turn based on the book which came out in 1898 (but more on that later).  The original stage play (which ran in London) featured the lead actress stepping out onto the stage when curtain fell and standing there, waiting, through the whole intermission.

This preview was special because at intermission, the chorus came out in
plain clothes to take notes from the conductor

When the curtain rises, three years have passed.  Butterfly is confused and worried, and Suzuki, in her wisdom, is sad to see that her mistress has obviously been ditched.

Suzuki is seen praying in front of a little Buddha
at the beginning of act 2
But Butterfly refuses to believe it.  She tells Suzuki never to doubt, because "on fine day, surely he'll come back to us"

And that's only, you know, one of the greatest opera arias of all time.

(you may also know it from Barney Gumble's short film, "Pukahontas" from the Simpsons episode, "A Star is Burns,")

Mr. Sharpless comes over to Butterfly's house.  This first half of act 2 is my favorite part, because it's got some of the best empathic moments.  Mr. Sharpless has a letter for Butterfly from Pinkerton, but he really, really doesn't want to read it to her, because its contents will be painful.
He comes into her house and they awkwardly shoot the breeze for a while.  Butterfly says all these obliviously optimistic things about Pinkerton while Sharpless winces the entire time.  

She even asks him, "What time do robins nest in America?"
"Robins?  Are you serious?  Why do you want to know?"
"Pinkerton said he'd come back when the robins nested and I just want to know if they nest at a different rate in your country."

"I Don't know.  I'm not an ornithologist."

If you've ever been in a situation where you know that somebody you care about is setting themselves up to get hurt, but you also know that they won't take your advice, you know why it sucks to be both Mr. Sharpless and Suzuki in this opera.

Music Note:  Puccini likes to use pentatonics in scenes where the conversation is controlled by Japanese characters, and "regular" western diatonics/heptatonics when the scene is controlled by Western characters.  Listen while you read to the next scene, in which an argument about cultural mores is backed up by Asian melodies battling western melodies.

Butterfly complains that Goro has started trying to set her up with new guys, like Yamadori, a wealthy military officer.  Goro and Yamadori then come over to the house to try their luck once more.

Yamadori resembles these turn-of-the-century Japanese Officers

While Yamadori has been pining after Cho-Cho-San for a while, he's probably not good husband material.  He's a fairly humorless and arrogant fellow.  His motto: "There's nothing more annoying than unrequited love."

Yamadori's been married and divorced three times, so there's no guarantee other than his word that he'll be a good mate for Cho-Cho-San, but he does provide her with a way out of her tragic situation that she doesn't take.

Goro asserts that according to Japanese law (of 1905) —if you're abandoned, it counts as a divorce, and you're free to remarry.  But Butterfly counters back, "That's the law of your country, but my country is THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.

You see, in America people don't just get divorced all willy-nilly! (this was before, you know, we started getting divorced all willy-nilly).  They need to go to court and have good reasons.
She digs into Yamadori, telling him, "In America, if a man like you told the judge, 'I'm bored and I want a new wife,' he'd be thrown in jail!"

Butterfly's tough attitude sends Yamadori and Goro packing.  She then has Sharpless read the letter he brought, which he can't bear to finish because it basically says "FYI I got a new wife and I'm bringing her to Japan for kicks."

Trying to gauge Butterfly's potential reaction to the news, Sharpless asks, "What would happen if Pinkerton never came back?"
Cho-Cho-San, very darkly, confides to Sharpless, "I would only have two options, to go back to being a geisha... or die."
Sharpless begs Butterfly to consider marrying Yamadori, to which butterfly takes a bitter, quiet offense.
She almost has Suzuki kick Sharpless out of her home, but changes her mind and holds him back to tell him that she didn't mean what she said about dying, because she has a reason to live.

Then she goes to get him.

Cho-Cho-San had given birth to Pinkerton's son, a blue-eyed boy whom she named "Sorrow."  His name will remain Sorrow until his father returns, and then his name will change to "Joy."  Sharpless is overwhelmed with emotion and promises Butterfly that he'll tell Pinkerton about his son.

After a brief conflict with Goro, whom Suzuki caught spreading rumors, Suzuki and Butterfly hear cannons in the harbor which mean that Pinkerton's ship (The USS Abraham Lincoln) has arrived.

Butterfly orders Suzuki to shake all the cherry blossoms from the trees to cover the floor with flowers for when he returns, and they gleefully prepare.

Unfortunately, Pinkerton never shows up, and Butterfly waits all night (standing on stage through a scene change, which echoes the original play's use of the intermission).

However, when Butterfly gets tired and goes to bed, Pinkerton sneaks up to the house.  Pinkerton, Sharpless and Suzuki have a scene together.  The two sympathetic characters basically take the time to explain that Pinkerton has a giant penis for a head.  It becomes clear that Pinkerton has brought his new wife, Kate, TO the house with him, with the intent of taking Cho-Cho-San's child.  Sharpless, believing that the boy would be better off in the United States (perhaps because he's less likely to be stigmatized or harassed by people like Goro as he grows up), convinces Suzuki to go call Butterfly downstairs, while Pinkerton wanders off to get a grip on his remorse.

Butterfly comes down and sees Kate Pinkerton and basically has a "Who the hell is this strange white lady in my house?" moment.

Then she gets a look on her face like this:
"I see how it is."

She accepts the completely unreasonable terms of the agreement, lets Kate take her son, makes everybody leave, dismisses Suzuki and then slits her own throat with her father's wakizashi while looking longingly at her baby.

Pinkerton and Sharpless discover the body, Pinkerton falls to his knees as an emotionally destroyed person and Sharpless escapes, sobbing, with the baby.


Madame Butterfly was developed at a time in history when intercontinental travel had just become more feasible.  Westerners have always had a sort of fascination with Asia/Japan (which survives in the weeaboos of today) but Puccini was actually able to do real research by going to Japan and living there for a while to learn about Japanese music.  He transcribed the folk songs he heard and learned about unique Asian instruments, so that he knew what to use when he got back to Italy.  He took special care to use strong, distinct regional melodies to identify cultural voices in this multicultural opera.  He wasn't afraid to lay it on thick while applying his research and dial up the musical style shifts.  That's a kind of trick I can really get behind.

Madame Butterfly premiered in 1904, but Puccini spent three years revising and rewriting the opera to make it the best it could be.  The "final" version wasn't finished until 1907.  Puccini was cool because he applied, or at least accepted, what he heard from critics and wasn't too proud to admit that his work could improve.

Puccini was inspired by a play he saw in London in 1900.  That play was itself based on Madame Butterfly, the SHORT STORY.  For the most part, it's the same story with minor dramatic differences.  The big difference is that the short story has a HAPPY ENDING.  At the end of the book, just as Butterfly is about to kill herself, Suzuki bursts into the room holding the child, the sight of which causes Butterfly to stop what she's doing and realize her mistake.  Then the story says something like, "Pinkerton and his wife did return to the house, but when they did, they found it quite empty."

It's interesting to consider that while we usually imagine adaptors lightening the source material, Puccini (or maybe the authors of the stage play) decided to darken the mood to make the tale a tragedy.

It's also worth noting that the book was supposedly based on a true story that the author, a missionary's wife, encountered while living in Japan.

Some member of the Black Hat collective were afraid that Madame Butterfly would be a distortion, a sort of Fu-Manchu kind of "Asianish" story lacking facticity.  It's important to dispel that fear!  It seems like an exceptionally well-researched story for 1905.  In many dramatic respects, it actually feels very modern.

Issues in this play that are ripe for discussion include:  Western understanding/misunderstanding of Japanese culture and vice-versa.  The ethics involved in the story.  Whether as a female lead, Cho-Cho-San is strong, weak, or a combination of multiple traits.  The tragic form, and what flaws and mistakes led to the outcome that occurred.  The transformations of a thrice-adapted story.  The effect of appropriating national anthems and other stereotyped sounds in a piece of music.  And more.

I invite anybody with further interest after reading this article to chat about it in the comments, and to go out and see Madame Butterfly —whether that means going to the opera or renting the 1995 film on dvd.

1 comment:

  1. Who is the designer of the B&W cherry branch on your blospot for the 2012 Minneapolis produciton of Madama Butterfly, please?
    Thank you.