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Will Madama Butterfly Confuse the Next Generation?

Posted on March 15, 2016 at 5:20 PM

(photo credit: Tim Matheson)

You cheat yourself if you attend a Vancouver Opera performance without first taking in the pre-performance talk by Doug Tuck. Always insightful, the brief lectures are packed full of intriguing details about the performance, the history of the opera, the composer, and context in which the work was originally conceived. They offer thought provoking comments about details that might otherwise be missed as one gets caught up in the performance itself. On the evening I attended Madama Butterfly, it was Tuck’s comments about suicide and how attitudes toward it are shaped by cultural experience that first got the wheels turning. His explanation of the relationship between America and Japan at the time during which the story was set also may have planted a seed that impacted my view of the performance. I kept thinking throughout the evening, will the meaning of this opera be lost on future generations?


While his program notes point out Puccini likely did not view the story as an allegory about Yankee imperialism, and that the composer was rather more interested in the personal drama between the characters, one cannot help but wonder how the story of Madame Butterfly will be viewed by audiences in the future. It has been many years since I first saw Madame Butterfly performed, and in that time the mighty American empire has become a fraction of its former self; and in Canada assisted suicide has become legal. One cannot help but wonder if in a few years the pre-performance talk will need to explain that America had once been a world power we looked up to, and that suicide was once illegal and a subject of great controversy and pain. Pinkerton’s behavior toward Butterfly seems particularly despicable since he is from the land of the brave and the home of the free. Perhaps future generations will view Butterfly as silly for ever having believed the stories of the American. Should America one day find itself behind a wall, the once dramatic contrast with Imperial Japan might soon be lost, and Butterfly might be viewed as pathetic rather than tragic. Thankfully we are not there yet, and the story clearly still moved our present day audience.

Tuck’s comments about Butterfly’s suicide were framed through the eyes of a parent. He pointed out the anguish any parent would feel when witnessing the final scene of Butterfly with her son. While Butterfly clearly undertakes the act of suicide in order to restore her honour, her words also hint at the influence that her conversion to Christianity and the God of Pinkerton has had on her. It is as if she knows that her child’s views on suicide will be different than hers because he will be raised in a culture that traditionally has not associated suicide with bravery but rather with despair. She sings to her son:

Fairest flower of beauty.

Though you ne'er must know it

`Tis for you, my love, for you I'm dying,

Poor Butterfly

That you may go away

Beyond the ocean,

Never to feel the torment when you are older,

That your mother forsook you!

My son, sent to me from Heaven,

Straight from the throne of glory,

Take one last and careful look

At your poor mother's face!

That it's memory may linger,

One last look!

Farewell, beloved! Farewell, my dearest heart!

Go, play, play.

When she speaks of forsaking the child, it is unclear if she means forsaking him by abandoning him to Pinkerton and his wife, or by her taking her life. The Japanese attitude toward suicide would indicate that the death is meant to atone for giving the child up to Pinkerton; and for the shame she feels at having been abandoned by her own kin. That Butterfly intended to die honourably is unquestionable; it is an act similar to Hari-kari or Seppuku. That form of dying seems a type of self-imposed martyrdom. There is something sacrificial about it. The child, “Sorrow” played by Vera Frederickson remains innocent of the consequences his parents choices have had on his life. While Butterfly’s death is clearly intended as an act of love, I suspect many of us hoped the child would simply not remember his mother. Her memory would have brought up too many questions, none of which had easy answers. There is sometimes great comfort in forgetting.

Cio-Cio-San, played by Soprano Jee Hye Han, took the audience through the roller-coaster of emotions that Butterfly, experiences in her three years as Madam Pinkerton. Each piece was powerfully sung by this gifted performer from Seoul Korea. Her appearance on stage in Vancouver was supported by a gift from Drs. Leo and Flora Wong. Pinkerton’s character was played by Adam Luther, and his appearance was supported by a gift from Mrs. Irene McEwen. It was disappointing to hear Adam Luther booed by some audience members as he came out for his curtain call. They were of course not booing Luther, but rather Pinkerton for his terrible treatment of Butterfly; Luther played the role so well it seems people felt compelled to chastise him, they soon quickly realized that Luther himself was not to blame. I think it was one of those rare occasions where the booing was indeed intended as a compliment. His character was so believable that people got caught up in the emotions Pinkerton evoked. Opera is such an emotional art form!

The spilling of Butterfly’s blood was particularly well depicted. Kudos to the set and costume designers who helped bring every detail of that final scene together. Likewise, the lighting crew transitioned us naturally from one scene to the next with lighting that mimicked the various times of day and seasons of the year.

I cannot help by wonder if the poignancy of the final scene will be lost on audiences of future generations. Will the character of Suzuki be (played by Mezzo Soprano Allyson McHardy) be criticized by Canadian audiences for not helping Cio-Cio-San? Might Canadian audiences soon be conditioned to believe that suicide is an act that is normally assisted by others? Will suicide become so common that that the entire story of Madam Butterfly is lost in the process? Or perhaps might the story of Butterfly yet remind us that suicide impacts many people and those who create conditions which bring it about evoke strong negative feelings, like those that caused the audience to boo at the reappearance of Pinkerton on stage. Regardless of how future audience might view Puccini’s great work, I for one am glad that it was still well received by the present day audience and thankful that Vancouver Opera brought it to the stage once again at this critical time as Canadians struggle to define our collective views on suicide.

Katrina Boguski

(source for lyrics)

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