Madame Butterfly

I’ve been away for a week while conflict heated up in the Middle East. But all week I’ve been thinking about a different form of grief, death and cultural conflict.

I spent the week in a summer community, a kind of Brigadoon called Chautauqua, in the western corner of New York State. Chautauqua in the summer is an intellectual community, an ecumenical religious community, even a sports community, but it is also an arts community.

The first night we were there, we went to see a performance of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly in the Chautauqua Amphithreater, for an audience of thousands. Here at WAMC especially at fund drives there is always the question whether the station should continue to broadcast opera. In Chautauqua, opera is often sung in English. Even in English, I am grateful for screens at the back of the stage which display the lyrics. Opera lovers call the lyrics the libretto. Librettos help whether in hand or on screen.

I remembered years before, in Cleveland, sitting down with my daughter to see the traveling company of Miss Saigon. Before it began, she turned to me and said, “you know, dad, this is Madame Butterfly.” Indeed it was a retelling. In Madame Butterfly, Lt. Pinkerton, an American officer, wins the heart of Butterfly, a Japanese girl, promising her he will return, though the American consul warns and tries to stop him. Inevitably, Butterfly bore his baby and was at the brink of total destitution – unable to care for herself or their child.

Eventually Pinkerton did return, with his American wife. In Madame Butterfly, the consequence of course was a mother’s suicide and plenty of grief – Butterfly killed herself and left their son to his father. I left the Amphitheatre swimming through a river of my own tears.

For this performance, Puccini’s revisions were restored. He had removed the fig leaves from his criticisms of American machismo culture, our don’t-cross-that-bridge-until-we-get-there-but-charge-ahead-and-damn-the-consequences attitude, an attitude that still complicates everything from our treatment of pipelines and global warming to medical care, infrastructure and education. It’s clear in the first act that this marriage will end poorly, that Pinkerton is thinking only of himself and not taking Butterfly’s love, and plight, seriously. At opera’s end, Pinkerton was booed by this American audience, as well he should have been.

Butterfly is, in essence, a feminist opera, as well as an attack on a strain of callowness in American behavior. It’s an uncomfortable message, made both powerful and palatable by Puccini’s wonderful music. The aria in which Butterfly sings of the fine day in which Lt. Pinkerton will return to her is, for me, the ultimate love song, the crux and climax of the opera that makes Butterfly’s plight and the opera’s message so powerful. Perhaps this is my love song to Butterfly.

Many operas, like Madame Butterfly, are highly political, delivering their message in the unforgettable form of high drama intensified by powerful music. Such opera gives meaning to much of the news. Puccini’s operas didn’t end war, and perhaps Italy would have united without Verdi’s operas. But the result can be unforgettable and deeply seared into our minds. Sometimes I feel as if, without the ability to bring the world to its senses, at least I can feel its grief.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, July 15, 2014.

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