Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Madame Butterfly

The Dallas Opera performed one of the most beloved operas of all, Madame Butterfly, this May. The performances (with one exception) were exemplary, the singing glorious, and the sets and costumes very well done. I was impressed and enjoyed the opera.

I hope never to see it again.

The problem with Madame Butterfly is the story. An American naval officer named Pinkerton marries Madame Butterfly while he is stationed in Japan. To him, the marriage is a meaningless sham; it means no more to him than the house he rents. To her, it is everything. She changes her religion and is estranged from her family. When his ship goes to sea, Pinkerton largely forgets her and marries an American wife.

Madame Butterfly waits loyally for him with his son (born after he leaves for sea). Pinkerton returns to claim his son and, after much beautiful singing, she kills herself.

I think the problem is not only that Pinkerton acts so horribly but also that he is the character with whom it is easiest for us to identify. He is the American. I don’t know if Italian (the opera is by Puccini) or other audiences would face the same problem, but for me I can hardly stand to watch this dashing American naval officer act in so despicable a fashion.

I don’t know how the opera could be saved for me. I don’t see the opera as melodrama, where we know who the villain is and expect no more from him than evil. Melodrama makes the moral choices easy. Perhaps a different staging, where Pinkerton is less attractive—or more so—either simpler or more complex could make the opera appealing again to me.

For now, however, like The Merchant of Venice I think Madame Butterfly is a work that is now culturally inappropriate. Until someone works out a way of treating the characters differently, I really would rather not see it again. It doesn’t matter how beautifully it is presented.

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