Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: The Case Against Madama Butterfly

Cover of the first edition of the score of Madama Butterfly, by Leopoldo Metlicovitz
Cover of the first edition of the score of Madama Butterfly, by Leopoldo Metlicovitz

We mark the world premiere performance on February 17, 1904 – 116 years ago today – of Giacomo Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly at the storied opera house of La Scala, in the Italian city of Milan.

I would tell you a story.

Some 34 years ago my first wife and I attended a performance of Madama Butterfly at the San Francisco Opera (I know it was that long ago because my wife was pregnant with our first child, my daughter Rachel. Having mentioned Rachel, or Rocqui as she is known to me, I would play the supreme bore and note that she and her husband Jon delivered up our first grandchild in December. Her name is Celeste Marigold Shahvar, and her royal adorableness is pictured below.)

My granddaughter Celeste
My granddaughter Celeste, born December 10, 2019

Pardon me my distraction. Back to where we were: some 34 years ago my first wife and I attended a performance of Madama Butterfly at the San Francisco Opera. Sitting behind us were four guys; my guess is that they were in their early-to-mid 40’s. We chatted a bit. They told us that they were something of an opera club, and that as their partners didn’t share their operatic passion, they attended with each other.

Madama Butterfly is an unabashed tearjerker. It’s about a 15-year-old Japanese geisha named Cio-Cio San who is “purchased”, sweet-talked, and then knocked-up by an American naval officer named “B. F. Pinkerton.” In the end, after promising her the Moon and Mars, Pinkerton abandons Cio-Cio San, only to return three years later with his “proper” American wife, a white chick named “Kate”. Pinkerton and Kate take Pinkerton’s and Cio-Cio’s now 3-year-old son from Cio-Cio San and return to America. The opera concludes with the brutalized and distraught Cio-Cio San committing seppuku (prompting the audience to conclude that the “B. F.” in “B. F. Pinkerton” stands for “Big F*ck”).

By the time the final notes sounded at that performance back in ‘86, the four guys behind us had been balling uncontrollably for a good ten minutes. Honestly, those of us sitting around them didn’t know what had been more entertaining: the conclusion of the opera itself or their reaction to it.

Giacomo Puccini in 1908
Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) in 1908 (a life-long chain-smoker, the cigarettes killed him; he died of throat cancer)

The tears are a common response. Puccini’s music can make basalt weep, and the story of Madama Butterfly resonates with anyone who has experienced heartbreak, loss, and grief, which means just about anyone over the age of 10. Whether or not you like Puccini, no one can deny that he was a brilliant dramatist, and Madama Butterfly, with its sex, betrayal, and suicideis superbly effective theater. 

Unfortunately, much eighteenth and nineteenth century opera – including Puccini’s Madama Butterfly – has run afoul of today’s gender and racial politicians, to the degree that no small number of otherwise semi-sane observers are demanding its removal from the repertoire entirely for what they claim are its racist stereotypes and cultural appropriation. A Google search of “racism in Madama Butterfly” will reveal numerous such articles, including ones from The Atlantic, The Telegraph, and the Seattle Times.

(Let’s make fast work of “cultural appropriation” in Madama Butterfly right now. Indeed, there are moments in his score during which Puccini evokes the Japanese locale of the opera by employing pentatonic scales and thus stereotypically evoking East Asian music. If this constitutes “cultural appropriation”, then so does every film score ever written that attempts to evoke location; so does Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, which features a “Turkish March” in its fourth movement; so does Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio, Ravel’s Bolero, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, Brahms’ Hungarian Dances, Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, and so forth, ad infinitum. Please: these are not instances of “cultural appropriation” but rather, of shared musical heritage employed to evoke associations through that shared heritage.)

Regarding racial stereotyping in Madama Butterfly, we are going to turn to a very recent article, one that appeared on the op-ed page of the New York Times on December 19, 2019. It was written by one Katherine Hu, a Junior at Yale. Ordinarily, like most cranky older people, I would reject the opinions of such a youngster as being half-formed at best. However, we will not hold Ms. Hu’s youth against her as her father is a professional opera singer and, as she points out: 

“I’ve been watching operas since I was a child. Our family vacations happened wherever my father was performing that year.”

Hu’s thesis is as follows:

“To survive, opera has to confront the depth of its racism and sexism point-blank, treating classic operas as historical artifacts instead of [as] dynamic cultural productions. Opera directors should approach the production of these classics as museum curators and professors — educating audiences about historical context and making stereotypes visible.”

The bulk of this comment could not be more wrong. Ms. Hu would have us condescend to ghettoize what she considers to be “offending operas”, sending them to their room and only letting them out when properly chaperoned by curators/professors who can explain their delinquency to modern, presumably enlightened audiences. 

Hu is correct about one thing, though, and that is that art, no matter how universal its message, must also be understood within the context of its time.

Ms. Hu has every right to be offended by what she perceives as Asian stereotypes in Madama Butterfly, should she so choose to be offended. However, one wonders if she is equally offended by the stereotype perpetrated by the Italian creators of the opera of an officer of the United States Navy: of Pinkerton as a typical, amoral sailor, with a “girlfriend in every port”, knocking up teenagers where ‘ere he goes, promising them everything only to walk out on them with nary a flip of his roguish eyebrows (and stealing their children from them, to boot)? I would ask the white, male, Navy or Merchant Marine veterans out there, is that an accurate appraisal of your actions while on shore leave? It certainly doesn’t describe my father who was a Chief Petty Officer in the United States Navy during World War Two. When his crew was on shore leave in Zamboanga (in the southern Philippines) after its liberation from the Japanese in early 1945, they helped rebuild schools and hospitals; my guess is that not a single one of them purchased and impregnated a 15-year-old girl. 

No doubt then, there’s lots of offense to go around. 

We will all acknowledge that this does not excuse the negative portrayals of Asians, Blacks, Africans, Hispanics, Jews, Arabs, and Native Americans (to name a few) in Western media over the centuries. Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi in the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), Sidney Toler’s portrayal of Charlie Chan in 22(!) movies made between 1939 and 1946, and Marlon Brando’s portrayal of the whacky Okinawan Sakini in the movie Teahouse of the August Moon (1956) are, for those disposed to be offended, offensive. But I will be forgiven for asking the obvious: what, in this often vile, crazy world isn’t offensive to someone? The titillation that is, by its very nature entertaining, is often entertaining because it is, in some way, offensive: it goes beyond the norms of decorum and sometimes even decency. 

Should we be so disposed, there are very few things out there that cannot, in some way, be construed as being offensive. In his attempt to define what is and what is not pornographic, the great Tom Lehrer put it this way:

“When correctly viewed, 
everything is lewd; 
I can tell you things about Peter Pan, 
and the Wizard of Oz: there’s a dirty old man!”

Not incidentally, we’d observe that Westerners have fared no better when portrayed in Japanese and Chinese art. For example, the famed Yokohama woodblock prints created between 1860 and the mid-1880s depict Westerners as perceived by Japanese artists in Yokohama. These depictions are not flattering: the Westerners are depicted as being hairy, lumpish, loutish and uncouth, as in the 1861 image below of a Sumo wrestler throwing a foreigner by the famed artist Utagawa Yoshifuji pictured below.

Sumo wrestler throwing a foreigner by Utagawa Yoshifuji
Sumo wrestler throwing a foreigner (1861) by Utagawa Yoshifuji (1828-1887)

Sadly, even despairingly, racism cuts to the very bone of human nature. And since art is the distillation and crystallization of human experience into literary, visual and sonic media, we cannot for a moment assume that art won’t on occasion employ controversial and potentially even offensive content.

Which brings us – me – to what I believe is the core of this matter. 

Statement: the expressive power of opera is rooted in its ability, as a genre, to create simpatico with its audience through its presentation of myth and archetype.

Question: how should we to distinguish between archetype and stereotype? 

Definitions. Archetype: “a very typical example of a certain person or thing; types that fit fundamental human motifs.” Stereotype: “a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.”

Question: Had the poets Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa who wrote the libretto of Madama Butterfly (based on a short story by John Luther Long) ever met a 15-year-old Japanese Geisha? 

Answer: No, they had not. But they needed to evoke a stereotype in order to create an archetype. And there it is: Cio-Cio San is both a stereotype and an archetype. She is a stereotypical Asian female adolescent as perceived by Westerners in the late nineteenth century: a small, docile, sex object who is desperate to please. By invoking that stereotype, she becomes an archetype: a naïve and trusting innocent living in an elegant, refined environment that nevertheless exists within a cruel and unforgiving world, someone with whom we can all sympathize and identify with. 

The point: the stereotype of Cio-Cio San, irksome though it may be to some modern eyes and ears, is only a means to a dramatic end as embodied by the archetype she represents.

To those arbiters of moral rectitude who would claim that an opera like Madama Butterfly serves primarily to perpetuate racist tropes, I would say you are wrong: at its core, the opera is about innocence lost, betrayal, and soul-searing grief; loss, betrayal and grief with which we can all identify. Those guys sitting behind my wife and I weren’t weeping at a “Japanese stereotype”; they were weeping with and for a young woman who had lost everything, and for the parallels she represented in their own lives.

To our contemporaries who are offended by the depiction of Cio-Cio San, I feel your pain but believe it to be misplaced. Because whatever our sex or race, we all fall in love with the vulnerable Cio-Cio San and feel nothing but disgust for Pinkerton and everything he represents. In the end, Cio-Cio San’s pain is ours; she becomes us and we become her. 

What, in heaven’s name, can be more transcendent, more heart-rending, more extraordinary than an audience’s virtual melding with the now 18-year-old geisha at the end of Madama Butterfly? Excuse me, but such issues as stereotypes and cultural appropriation shrink to less than nothing in the face of the transformational power of the opera’s conclusion. This is the breath-taking, soul-changing power of opera. 

Here’s what should be done to contextualize such operas as Madama Butterfly for today’s audiences. 

One: educate. An essay should be provided to audiences that puts the opera within its historical context. Such an essay should be provided in a number of different formats: as a program note, as an on-line post, and as a podcast. 

Two: engage. An opera’s director can get up on stage for five minutes before the curtain and explain some of the challenges faced and solutions reached in staging the opera. Audiences love being so engaged, provided it is done clearly and with dispatch.

Three: cast accordingly. Whenever it is possible, have Asians sing Asian roles, blacks sing black roles, etc. Okay, no one can replace Placido Domingo singing Otello, but really: in this day and age, with great singers from everywhere, do we need to look at and listen to white singers made up in yellowface or blackface?

Four: innovate. Be bold in rethinking productions. Yes, like every operagoer I’ve seen a few disastrous restagings, but I’ve seen some brilliant ones to. The point: contrary to Katherine Hu’s assertion, an opera house cannot be treated likea museum or worse, a mausoleum. Rather, it is a virtual reality facility where we, the audience, leave our disbelief at the door and become fully engaged in what is, very nearly, a full-body experience. 

As for those who would actually ban certain operas because they do not live up to the ideals of today’s gender/racial politics, we rightly ask, what’s next? Should we sequester visual art not to our tastes and call it degenerate? Shall we start removing “inappropriate” books from our library shelves, or simply burn them? I’m not advocating we require middle-schoolers to read Mein Kampf, but ban Madama Butterfly? Insanity. 

For lots more on Puccini, I would direct your attention to my Great Courses/Teaching Company survey How to Listen to and Understand Great Opera. And encourage you to follow me on Patreon

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