Is Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” a Misogynistic Masterpiece?

“Butterfly, rinnegata…” Rinnegata… e felice!

“Butterfly, renounced…” Renounced… and happy!

Cio Cio San (Puccini, “Madama Butterfly”)

Leopoldo Metlicovitz, 1904 - Madama Butterfly

The original poster

Leopoldo Metlicovitz, 1904 – Madama Butterfly (Wikimedia Commons)

Opera has endured many feminist attacks for depicting victimised women and usually murdering them or having them commit suicide – because of men. I have no intention of disputing the motives of these attacks. I’ve been a raging feminist for most of my adulthood. Almost as long as an opera fan.

I’ve seen at least six different stagings of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly”. (Admittedly, only one of them in full flesh and blood of a live performance – and not a very good one. The rest were top class.) So, in my humble opinion, there can be only one true answer to the question from the title.

Definitely not.

Is it not a masterpiece?

That’s not what I meant. Hey, go somewhere else for the dirty talk. Of course it is a masterpiece. It is just not misogynistic. Not that the feminist in me is being shushed by the opera’s beautiful loudness, as Catherine Clement would have me believe. The feminist in me goes bonkers many times while watching the opera. But her rage isn’t directed at the composer or his librettists. She realises they have sided with her.

For those who haven’t seen the opera, let’s quickly summarise it. A smug American naval lieutenant Pinkerton, screwing around Nagasaki, decides to marry a sweet and exotic Japanese geisha Cio Cio San for 999 years and lease a house because he’s bored (or was it the other way around?). All this for a very affordable price. She is a poor descendant of a noble family and, being only 15, a naive girl who takes this marriage very seriously and even renounces her faith to accept her husband’s. Naturally, she is publicly condemned and disowned by members of her family and the community. Having consummated the marriage, Pinkerton sails away, but not before promising he would return when the robins make their nest.

Three years later, the impoverished Butterfly is patiently waiting for the robins to nest. She stares at the horizon all the time, expecting the star-spangled banner to appear. This operatic Penelope even rejects a wealthy suitor of her own race, clinging to a hope that her husband would return. She has a little son, of whose existence Pinkerton has no knowledge because the boy was born after his father had left for America. Lo and behold, a ship with the American flag finally appears on the horizon. Alas, it brings not only Pinkerton, but also his “real”, American wife. They came to take the child to America and prevent him from having a shitty future with his mother. Butterfly has no choice but to give up the child. However, she can make a choice for herself and decides to commit suicide rather than live what she deems life without honour. She does that by carrying out a traditional Japanese seppuku ritual.

There you have it. A wealthy, powerful white man goes abroad and buys himself a wife. He impregnates her and leaves, and then returns a couple of years later to claim the child. She has to condescend. The child is father’s property, after all. This is a scenario that simply calls for a feminist reading, don’t you agree?

Yet another opera soaked in female blood

“Madama Butterfly” definitely fits into the genre which often treats women’s death as a kind of redemption. But let us look more closely at what becomes of this blood as it splatters on the audience.

During the first act, Cio Cio San is presented as an exotic Other who has been exposed and undressed before Pinkerton’s as well as our curious gaze. I want to argue that Pinkerton, repulsive as he is, actually represents me and you and Puccini and that obnoxious boy in the audience who texted someone all through the performance, as well as that bored woman who yawned at the beginning of the second act, with Butterfly singing her longings out loud on stage.

If we want to attack or defend Puccini, let’s put on the shoes of someone who was watching the opera at the beginning of the 20th century. The easy-going captain, lo Yankee vagabondo, is enchanted by cultural differences, but also by fragile, childlike ways of this stranger, and readily takes advantage of her youthful trust. His impressions about everything that is happening throughout the first act are similar to ours. He is an estranged sceptic who represents our own views, undermining the plot’s probability. Surrounded by a bunch of Japanese women and men wearing weird outfits and big wigs, he feels as if in a colourful dream of origami-like people made of paper. Nothing is real in that world, except for his lust for the girl. The rest is just ridiculous. Somewhere under those fans is my mother-in-law. That intoxicated fellow is her uncle, ponders Pinkerton with a sneer, waiting for the nuptials.

Indeed, for us spectators, the world of “Madama Butterfly” is not an authentic Japanese world, nor was it intended to be. It is colourful, that’s true. It has some recognisable traits of Japanese culture. With so many costumes and heavy make-up, it is far too theatrical. We like it, although we don’t believe it for a moment.

But it doesn’t even aim for the true-to-life kind of authenticity. After all, this opera enacts a bond between an American man and a Japanese woman, both of whom sing in Italian all the time (AmeRRica FoRRevahRR). There’s even an uncle Bonzo, a Shinto priest, who calls upon Kami Sarundasico, a god whose name Puccini’s librettists mispronounced. How’s that for authenticity. (Anyway, if we wanted authenticity, we would go to a museum or to Japan.)

Also, the role of a 15-years old virgin bride was written for a dramatic soprano who is able to cut through the huge orchestra and is therefore usually sung by middle-aged singers. How’s that for credibility.

As if anybody asked for it.

Puccini takes some of the exotic features of Japanese culture and embeds them into an entirely European art form. He does with the opera “Madama Butterfly” the exact same thing that Pinkerton does with its heroine, Cio Cio San. If that isn’t a subversion of imperialism at its fullest, I don’t know what is. The libretto is cluttered with irony, which is heavily underlined and backed up by music. Notorious tones of The Star-Spangled Banner mingle with traditional Japanese melodies that Puccini had picked up God knows where. We have a colourful multilingual and multicultural, synesthetic soup, made from tragedy and ridicule. But it is boiling up. Hungry though we are, we have to sip carefully.

Oh, the guilty operatic pleasure…

I have trouble admitting that the true magic begins when Pinkerton invites his bride to join him on their first night. Mesmerising music of the love duet tricks me into believing she really is his love. In the bitterly romantic, moonlit night, I despair because I can’t defend her from her conqueror. But perversity has only just begun. While Pinkerton savours his little Japanese doll’s chastity, I am growing into a guilt-ridden spectator because she is my love too. I am a woman who sympathises with her female condition, and yet I too lust after her as a spectator. I too am seduced by her Otherness, delicate and dark and destructive at the same time.

At this moment Pinkerton overcomes his previous estrangement, plucks the flower of her innocence and then disappears for almost the entire second act, leaving us with Butterfly to bear the consequences together. Having pinned her to the board (a picturesque and very cruel metaphor, introduced by Butterfly herself), he left her to our gaze. She is not able to fly away from her condition, so her agony begins to unfold before our eyes, with us as spectators and accomplices.

But this time, she is not the delicate, otherworldly little flower she appeared to be. She now has a child who weighs her down to the ground. And she acts like it. At the beginning of the 2nd act, she inquires her maid Suzuki about money. A woman without possession of her own, she scrutinises the privileges of her man, who possesses not only her, the house and their debts but the child as well. The only thing she possessed when she got married were the statuettes representing the spirits of her ancestors. That was the first thing she showed Pinkerton on their wedding night. But for him, they were just funny little toys. The question is, does she really suffer because her man jilted her or because she is deprived of a social identity. She is neither Butterfly the geisha nor Madame Pinkerton. She is neither Japanese nor American. She is a wife who couldn’t keep her husband and a mother of a fatherless, therefore illegitimate son. Neither divorced nor married in the full sense, she is a true outcast.

Puccini shows the undoing of a woman who cast away her ancestors’ inheritance to accept her husband’s because she was taught that’s what you’re supposed to do when you get married. Trouble is, she has never been entitled to her own identity. Trapped between men, she has no choice but to passively wait for an outcome.

… Until she cuts herself with her father’s knife. This is her ultimate awakening. All of this exotic world was bound to be destroyed anyway. It reaches its annihilation, to our great anguish since we enjoyed it dearly. At the same time, the indecency of our enjoyment makes us feel relief when it finally ends. But Puccini wouldn’t be a great sadist artist that he was if he hadn’t opted for a cruel and bizarre end. Suicide alone isn’t enough. It has to be seppuku, the disembowelment that symbolically reconnects Butterfly’s shattered identity.

Yes, Butterfly is a victim. But she doesn’t go off the stage in a clear and humble way. She invites Pinkerton to come in half an hour, when the deed gets done. She chooses to transfigure. Her motherly guts, literally spilt all over the place, are to haunt him forever.

Who’s to blame for Madama Butterfly’s downfall?

Not Puccini, that’s for sure.

It would be equally wrong to blame Tolstoy for having his adulterous heroine Anna Karenina commit suicide. It wasn’t Tolstoy who drove her to that decision. It was the 19th-century society, which didn’t tolerate transgressions and had a thing for punishing women. Tolstoy merely analysed societal mechanisms of the age he was living in. And by doing so, he made Karenina one of the most powerful and willful heroines in the history of literature. (This is not to say Tolstoy was neutral towards the women’s question. He had his own problematic views about it. But great books reveal much more than their authors’ intentions.)

Furthermore, Tolstoy was a novelist who endeavoured to depict reality. (At the very moment he curses me from behind the grave for putting him in line with opera composers.) Puccini, as well as any other opera composer, had no such intention. He was accused by many a critic in his own time of being effeminate and weak because he portrayed women, sickness, and decadence of every kind. All he actually tried to do was to give us a chance to feel (not read, nor interpret, much as we enjoy doing so) the tragedy of a woman. A woman of a great personality, who suffers greatly, but does not suffer in silence. On the contrary, she has a big and beautiful voice.

If you’ve made it to the end of this lengthy text, add your own view in the Comments section. (I promise I will keep it shorter in the future.)