A Lacquered Otherness: The Origins of Madame Butterfly

Madame Butterfly offers a tantalizing glimpse into another time and place: a Europe under the spell of the East, a moment of mutual fascination and mutual misunderstanding. Although Puccini wove scraps of exotica—an American anthem, a Japanese prayer—into his score, the opera is as Italian as it gets. The composer, having written Manon Lescaut, La bohème, and Tosca, was by then a master of the coloristic possibilities of both the Western orchestra and the operatic voice. While Butterfly’s soundscape may not be authentically Japanese, the emotional life Puccini conjures for his heroine has extraordinary power and depth—a surface delicacy that belies tremendous personal strength.

The story of one man’s encounter with the East via a temporary “marriage”—a transaction at once intimate and distant—can be traced to a semi-autobiographical novel penned by a French naval officer known as Pierre Loti in 1887. The Japan he describes is picturesque and charming—a porcelain tableau that never quite feels real.

At this moment, my impressions of Japan are charming enough; I feel myself fairly launched upon this tiny, artificial, fictitious world, which I felt I knew already from the paintings of lacquer and porcelains. It is so exact a representation! The three little squatting women, graceful and dainty, with their narrow slits of eyes, their magnificent chignons in huge bows, smooth and shining as boot-polish, and the little tea-service on the floor, the landscape seen through the verandah, the pagoda perched among the clouds; and over all the same affectation everywhere, every detail… Long before I came to it, I had perfectly pictured this Japan to myself. Nevertheless in the reality it almost seems to be smaller, more finicking than I had imagined it, and also much more mournful, no doubt by reason of that great pall of black clouds hanging over us and the incessant rain.

—Pierre Loti, Madame Chrysantheme

In Loti’s story, the narrator’s marriage to a Japanese “wife” is understood by both parties to be a temporary arrangement; when officer and geisha part, amicably, we see the title character testing the authenticity of the coins she has received. But if the human relationship was rather cold, Loti’s feeling for the exotic landscape was more than enough to carry the work to success; within five years, Madame Chrysantheme had been published in some 25 editions and translated into several languages, including English.

The episode was then taken up by the American writer John Luther Long, who published the novella Madame Butterfly in 1898. Here is the origin of the story opera lovers have come to know, a story in which bride and groom mean something very different when they profess their love. Pinkerton is genuinely overwhelmed with feelings for Butterfly, even as he knows he will eventually leave her. Later, when the young officer returns to Japan with his new American wife, Cio-Cio-San contemplates suicide, but then changes her mind, disappearing with her servant and child.

The director and producer David Belasco, recognizing the theatrical possibilities of Long’s story, adapted it for the stage in 1900. In Belasco’s version, the abandoned heroine follows her late father’s example, choosing to “die with honor.” This dramatic coup, retained by Puccini, not only forces Butterfly’s so-called husband to grapple with the effects of his actions, it also implicates all of us who have shared in Pinkerton’s captivation as the story unfolds. As the London Times put it, “in any other than an exotic setting, the dramatic episode would be intolerably painful.”

Belasco—and Puccini—rely on Japan’s “otherness” to draw us into what is, otherwise, a fairly grim story. But their vision of the geisha erases any distance between her heart and ours. In Belasco’s staged version of Madame Butterfly, Kate Pinkerton, as enchanted with Butterfly as her now-husband once was, attempts to take Butterfly into her arms, calling her a “poor little thing…pretty little plaything.” Butterfly rejects her label, then rises and asks, impassively, how long Kate and Pinkerton have been married. This a woman who will have the last word—who will die with honor as she makes all others question their own.

—Kelley Rourke is dramaturg of Washington National Opera

Director Francesca Zambello on Don Giovanni

For this season’s showcase of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists, WNO presents a staged performance of Mozart’s timeless drama Don Giovanni featuring engaging set and costume design elements–with the WNO Orchestra conducted by Michael Christie and direction by WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello. Join us for the performance on March 17 in the Opera House.

There was a time when people used the term “Don Juan” to refer to a kind of charming rogue. Today, we see nothing charming about a man who won’t take no for an answer. How do we approach a character like Don Giovanni in 2017?

No one was giving workshops on consent when Mozart and Da Ponte wrote Don Giovanni, but that doesn’t mean the creators of the opera condoned Giovanni’s actions. The complete title of the opera is Il dissoluto punito, ossia il Don Giovanni (“The debauched punished, or Don Giovanni”). This is an opera about a bad guy who gets what he deserves.

It’s true that we can get overly comfortable with some of the great, standard operas. We bask in Mozart’s beautiful melodies, we compare interpretations, we marvel at modern stagecraft. But I don’t think that’s what the creators ever intended for this piece. We should be disturbed by the events that unfold. This is a drama with serious consequences.

I’ve directed Don Giovanni many times, but I don’t think I have ever chosen to make it so clear that the opening scene between Don Giovanni and Donna Anna is an attempted rape. I have always struggled with it, as there is textual uncertainty in the libretto, but this time I made a conscious choice with the artists. It really seemed so clear to me, directing this piece immediately after Dead Man Walking, which begins with a violent rape. I want the audience to understand from the beginning what kind of man we are dealing with.

So why spend an evening with these characters? Why put a man like Don Giovanni at the center of an opera?

Look, if you’re going to the opera to find characters to model your behavior after, you might want to reconsider. That said, I do think the great operas teach us a lot about life. I think that’s especially true of the three operas that Mozart and Da Ponte wrote together (the other two being The Marriage of Figaro and Così fan tutte). Those two didn’t just give us good guys and bad guys—they gave us an array of complicated human beings.

We opened our season with The Marriage of Figaro. The Count is a character who has some things in common with Giovanni. But everyone in that opera has some less-than-enlightened moments—as do we all. In Figaro, the Count eventually finds redemption when he admits his wrongs and asks forgiveness. It is one of the most moving moments in all of opera. Giovanni, on the other hand, refuses the Commedatore’s call for repentance. Again, it is interesting for me to consider themes that resonate across our season. In Dead Man Walking, Sister Helen pours all of her energy into getting De Rocher to confess and confront his crimes before he dies, which he ultimately does.

I believe we go to the theater to hold up a mirror to our own lives. Maybe a piece like Don Giovanni can help us recognize moments, hopefully at a less significant scale, when our desires become more important than other people’s feelings; when we enable a predator; when we are tempted to stray from a relationship; when we fail to comprehend the depth of a friend’s suffering; when we behave like victims. And with any luck, we’ll be able recognize our own failings before we get to the point where we, like Don Giovanni, are pulled down to hell.

What can you tell us about this production?

Mozart and Da Ponte’s opera is so character-driven, the words and music—in the hands of great performers—are practically enough to create the world. We are keeping it simple in terms of staging so that the focus can be on the complex psychology.

It has been a joyous and fulfilling process to work on this piece with our amazing Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists. They have really dug into their roles, and I have had a blast working on the characters with them. I cannot say enough about this group of singers. Not only am I looking forward to their WNO performances, I am looking forward to watching their interpretations of these fascinating characters evolve as they go forth to continue their careers around the world.