The Seattle Opera is presenting Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, whose gorgeous music sits squarely in an operatic story built around white American condescension toward stereotypically subservient Asians. To the credit of the Opera company, they have fully addressed the difficult story line, inviting Asian American artists into conversation about Puccini’s work, attempting to cast as many Asian opera singers as possible in the cast, and developing a nuanced and thoughtful visual display in the lobby so that opera-goers can read and reflect. The picture below is from one of the gatherings sponsored by Seattle Opera, and is part of the display. The picture shows young Asian American women claiming who they are, and protesting who they are not.
If you don’t know the story, a young U.S. naval lieutenant, Pinkerton, buys a 15 year old Japanese woman to serve his sexual needs while he is in port. He marries her, a union he never plans to take seriously. But Madame Butterfly, CiaoCiao San, does. She gives up her religion, her family, for him. She endures in near destitution with their child for three years after he leaves, believing he’ll come back. He does — with his white American wife, who asks Madame Butterfly to surrender the child. Butterfly says she will, if Pinkerton himself comes to ask. The American wife goes off with the child, Pinkerton comes, and Butterfly has killed herself.
The opera was written in 1903, but the theme was little different from what I saw in Panama in the 1960’s, when an American Army base was just outside the village. A young girl, usually very young, would come up to me with a faded picture of a U.S. soldier, asking if I knew where the state of Veer-hin-ia might be. That’s where her soldier lived. He was coming back when he had enough money to bring her and their child to his country. She was waiting, because she believed. The child would be five or six years old, often named after his father, and called Yoon-ier in Spanish, or Junior. The young women all claimed to know someone whose soldier had come back, and taken her to America with him — saying that’s why they held on to their hope. I’m not sure. Maybe it was just part of the myth.
The Puccini music is simply gorgeous. And in the end, for me, this was CiaoCiao’s story, not Pinkerton’s story, which gave her a degree of dignity and power — even if the expression of that power was to surrender the child she could barely feed and then take her own life. It’s an incredibly sad story, with incredibly beautiful music. Quite the conundrum, which opera often is.