Madame Butterfly, both the original french novel it was adapted from by Puccini and Puccini’s version, is a five handkerchief opera. But more than that, it’s an excellent study of perspective, perception and context, as the cultural and social landscape has changed quite drastically in the 120 years or so since brides like Butterfly were common.
For those unfamiliar with the story, In Japan and Hong Kong in the mid to late 1800’s, English and American sailors would often marry “little brides”–young girls from financially distressed families, whose parents would arrange for them to be temporary wives of convenience to keep the family from starving. In many cases, the “priest” at the wedding wasn’t even a real official. In the worst cases, the entire “wedding”, paperwork and all, was a sham, leaving behind a young girl in a house she got evicted from a few months later.
So Butterfly, at 15, married Pinkerton in the little house he bought for her (part of the arrangement). It wasn’t really “bought”, only leased for 999 years, but could be cancelled in a month. Just as Butterfly’s marriage could be in Japan, where there had been divorce laws since the time of the Shoguns. Pinkerton was in his mid to late thirties.
Puccini’s treatment of Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton in the opera, written in 1904, is quite interesting–whenever Pinkerton or the Ambassador is on the scene, the national anthem plays. The Ambassador tries to tell Pinkerton that he might not consider it a marriage, but Butterfly does. Pinkerton, being a shallow American, dismisses this entirely. On his wedding day to Butterfly, he toasts her, and his future American wife, whoever she may be.
After the wedding, Pinkerton soon leaves again, to continue his Naval career, leaving behind Butterfly, who has his son. Three years pass, and during that time, Butterfly learns English, lives as a Christian, fills the house with English furniture and sews American clothing in preparation for his return….
While the quality isn’t the greatest in this clip, it doesn’t have to be to see what we’re looking at today.
And here is the full opera that the clip came from, with subtitles. This is a “global effort”, an Italian opera filmed in Yokohama by a French film company, starring a Chinese opera singer (her first opera, as a matter of fact), subtitled in English.
One good day, we will see
Arising a strand of smoke
Over the far horizon on the sea
And then the ship appears
And then the ship is white
It enters into the port, it rumbles its salute.
Do you see it?
He is coming!
I don’t go down to meet him, not I.
I stay upon the edge of the hill
And I wait a long time
but I do not grow weary of the long wait.
And leaving from the crowded city,
A man, a little speck
Climbing the hill.
Who is it? Who is it?
And as he arrives
What will he say? What will he say?
He will call Butterfly from the distance
I without answering
A little to tease him,
A little as to not die.
At the first meeting,
And then a little troubled
He will call, he will call
“Little one, dear wife
Blossom of orange”
The names he called me at his last coming.
All this will happen,
I promise you this
Hold back your fears –
I with secure faith wait for him.
One Good Day….
Our perspective is is that of Butterfly’s maid, watching her silently from inside the house, as she tells us that he is coming, one good day. While everyone else has tried to tell her the marriage meant nothing, and tried to get her to marry someone else, She wouldn’t. She believes he will return, with all the faith of a young girl in love. And as we listen to this young girl, so hopeful, so faithful, we draw closer. The subject internalizes and personalizes Butterfly’s feelings, even if you don’t have subtitles, and don’t know Italian.
Though there are no subtitles in the song clip itself, we can see in Butterfly’s face the hope, the doubt, and then the resolute conviction as she tells her maid he will come back. But the look on her face at 4:10, the swallow, tells a different story….
One of the things that sets this particular portrayal of Madame Butterfly apart from the standard is the filming in context–in a real village, in a real house. The immersive context of the movie format rather than the traditional theater setting adds a layer of complexity and emotional impact that even the subtitles don’t detract from significantly.
In a theatrical production of any kind, one of the greatest challenges is creating immersive contexts; giving the audience a rich enough contextual reference to cancel out the rest of the theater, and bring the production to a point where it can be internalized and personalized. By adapting Butterfly to movie format, the French production team was more than able to overcome the few shortcomings in the opera itself, such as the 2 dimensional quality Pinkerton and the Ambassador had, and the shallow treatment of the Japanese culture as well.
When you contrast the movie version here with a top quality theater production, it is very easy to see for yourself just how much difference contextual framing can make in a narrative. Here is a clip of a theater performance of the same piece, sung by one of the finest Japanese opera singers, Hiromi Omura:
Note that in the theater production, the opera’s characters provide additional context through exaggerated hand movements, and facial expressions, and in this particular production, Butterfly is inside, obviously facing “the window” or “the porch”.
Context matters. This clip has changed our perspective as disinterested third parties–instead of being in the place of Butterfly’s maid, who knows the marriage is a sham and Butterfly’s heart will be broken, we’re now “peeping Toms”, removed from the story and watching. We have lost the contextual framework. All the relevant emotional context comes from the singer herself.
I’m not going to spoil it for those who haven’t seen it. But I will say this: the average person has a love/hate relationship with opera. It’s an art form that you either can’t stand, or you completely understand and love (with a few exceptions).
This particular use of contextual framing, taking what is normally a difficult form of theater to make immersive and transforming it into a five handkerchief experience may be one of the few examples of “opera” that even a hater can appreciate.