Let me start with the particulars. Last night, Hui He gave a performance of astonishing beauty as Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly. Her voice, a vibrant, full bodied soprano, never faltered—so sure and clean was its production: expressive, flexible, athletic, and elegant. A single criticism I might offer is that sometimes her singing sounded almost too healthy. She never seemed to push; she never screamed. She lacked imprudent abandon, at times necessary for the role’s drama. This was only noticeable during the climactic end of Act I, and the final note of the famous aria, “Un bel dì vedremo.” In both instances, she probably did what was practical. But still, I wanted a sense of recklessness and mania.
Roberto Aronica, as Pinkerton, could not keep up. His tenor was reedy and fragile; there was nothing special about his performance. He went out of tune. His singing was neither beautiful nor artful. Granted, Pinkerton is, in a way, a thankless role—a wrecking ball of a human being who crashes into people and places, leaving chaos in his wake.
And with David Bizic hanging around Nagasaki as Sharpless, one wonders at Cio-Cio-San’s indefatigable preoccupation with Pinkerton. Bizic’s rich, substantial baritone contrasted sharply with Aronica’s deficient singing. And his presence was a warm, charismatic anchor within the chaos.
Similarly, Maria Zifchak was a stalwart Suzuki: reliable, hearty singing and excellent dramatic work. And Tony Stevenson, as Goro, had a fine, capable tenor. He left a memorable impression despite his role’s ill-defined quality.
Jader Bignamini’s conducting brought a great deal of chutzpah to the score, never stinting on drama and fervor (it was the conductor’s house debut; hopefully we’ll see more of him in New York City). It was a pleasure to hear the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in full force, risking indelicacy when necessary, like a Ferrari revving it’s world-class engine.
And then there’s Anthony Minghella’s production, the crown jewel of Peter Gelb’s incumbency at the Met, back before things began to sour. Indeed, his work is a beautiful rendering of culturally delicate subject matter, with psychedelic kimonos and falling flower petals to boot. It has aged well in the 11 years since it appeared at the Met for the first time.
In a world that is becoming increasingly globalized, Puccini’s opera about the disastrous marriage between an American sailor and a fifteen-year-old Japanese girl is still remarkably topical. One need only look to the current Broadway marquees to get a sense of the narrative’s currency.
Both Miss Saigon and M. Butterfly traffic in similar themes, and they derive their inspiration and structure from Puccini’s opera, which was itself based on a play by David Belasco.
Madama Butterfly remains fascinating because of its complexity. Cio-Cio-San, in her vulnerability, fragility, delusion, and faith manages to be paradoxically bewildering and all too familiar. Her naïve trust of western, imperialist forces, her willingness to abandon her own family, religion, and culture—these characteristics and choices are simultaneously beautiful in their bravery, and pathetic in their inevitable consequences.
As has already been discussed at length, one sees within the opera’s dramatic structure the fraught entanglements of two different cultures. Where Pinkerton is careless, arrogant, and capricious, Cio-Cio-San is guileless, imprudent, and diligent.
Her reasons for trusting Pinkerton are hard to understand, and Cio-Cio-San’s rapid character development in the first act is difficult to follow. Why does she fall in love with Pinkerton so quickly? Why does she abandon her culture and family in favor of his? Why does this make her happy?
In her famous essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak answers the title question with an empathic no. And her ideas offer a useful theoretical framework for thinking of Cio-Cio-San’s subjectivity and suicide. Through the complicated discourse of post-colonialism, Spivak argues that “the subaltern cannot speak. There is no virtue in global laundry lists with ‘women’ as a pious item.”
While Spivak’s contexts are different, they are still non-western; they illuminate the impossibility of Cio-Cio-San’s representation within the western discourse of Italian opera. If we take her claim seriously, we can acknowledge the impossibility of Puccini’s project; or, perhaps more specifically, we can clarify the futility of positioning Puccini’s characterization of Cio-Cio-San as a kind of cultural knowledge production.
In other words, Puccini’s invocation of female, nonwestern suffering cannot give voice to Cio-Cio-San’s (gendered and racialized) reality. The western, male gaze mediates it. And so the opera, which has often been understood as a matter of race, cannot, due to its epistemology, really say anything about race—at least it can’t articulate anything outside the purview of western imperialism.
These complex, tangled ideas become even trickier through the casting of Hui He, the Chinese soprano, in the role of Cio-Cio-San. No, not Japanese—but even so, she is Asian. What does her identity bring to the role? What kind of agency does her placement within the project bring to the figure of Cio-Cio-San?
A performer is surely more than a puppet for the agenda of a composer and lyricist—her enactment of Cio-Cio-San, must, to some degree, deepen and authenticate the character. Does she flesh her out and offer the figure veracity and legitimacy? And is this even possible from the temporal position of modern feminism and race theory?
Moreover, in Minghella’s production, a distinctly Japanese theater practice called Bunraku puppetry is deployed. While some might consider this a gross appropriation, in the ongoing effort to explore other cultures, to investigate different perspectives, does the use of the Bunraku practice recuperate some displacement of identity?
I ask these questions not to discount the power and beauty of Puccini’s score, or the sickening dread the narrative generates. While it feels almost impossible to discuss this opera without discussing race, it might be argued that the opera’s more productive and salient discourse circles around themes of loneliness, betrayal, and humiliation.
In other words, is it possible for some experiences to transcend race, gender, and identity? I am willing to say yes, though I know that such a claim opens myself up to all kinds of gnarly, uncomfortable counterclaims—Spivak’s essay being one of the highest order. But I do believe all humans, fundamentally, share some experiences.
For example: heartache, Eros, a love for one’s child, and humiliation. These are basic, human experiences. And despite what one may say of Cio-Cio-San’s veracity as a racialized subject, her heartache, her erotic fulfillment, her loneliness and humiliation, are all, surely, human and universal. For this, Puccini deserves a great deal of credit as an artist and thinker.
Furthermore, Spivak’s claim regarding the subaltern allows us to read an element of agency into Cio-Cio-San’s final act of Seppuku—an extreme means of maintaining honor. While western, liberal audiences might clutch their pearls at Cio-Cio-San’s suicide, I think that from a nonwestern, post-colonial context, Butterfly’s death might be understood as a final, triumphant gesture toward empowerment and self-fulfillment.
With no other recourse beyond passive suffering, Cio-Cio-San’s act is, on some level, a refusal of the exploitive role she has been boxed into. She will not go along with business as usual—she pushes back against the expectations set upon her, and finds a way to upset a narrative of extraction.
Yes, her son may be taken from her (in Minghella’s production, Dolore is objectified to the point of being rendered as an explicit object—a puppet), but she will not have her honor undone by the process. She maintains her dignity until the last moments of her life.
Furthermore, as my friend pointed out as we left the opera house, Seppuku is an act reserved for samurai, and Cio-Cio-San uses her father’s blade to kill herself. This gendered use of the knife undermines her subject position as a passive victim even more.
Not only is she refusing to go along with business as usual, she is stepping into the position of the male father figure through the manner of her death. This compounds the complications already regarding her image as passive sufferer.
In the end, I find it much more interesting to reject a notion of Cio-Cio-San as pathetic victim. I find it more productive to think of her suicide within a broader context of female agency—her denial of abandonment is in fact a move toward empowerment, despite the violence it renders on the female body.
However, these questions are far too tricky to answer in a single review. But I find them fun to tease out, to consider, especially within the context of identity politics, and the more knotty concerns of responsible artistic practices. I love Puccini; I love his music; consequently, I find it of extreme importance to probe, analyze, and critique the cultural and hegemonic forces surrounding his art.