“Madame Butterfly”: The racial/sexual politics of cross-cultural concubinage

LOS ANGELES – First of all, LA Opera’s current production of Giacomo Puccini’s Madame Butterfly hits not only a homer, but a grand slam. The multi-culti cast and crew organically combine to present this lushly romantic mounting of the 1904 work, one of the most performed and beloved operas of all time.

Puccini adapted David Belasco’s 1900 Broadway play of the same name, set in contemporaneous Japan. The opera is the archetypal “East meets West” love story; its influence is stamped on works ranging from the Broadway stage to the Hollywood screen and beyond. The romance between that other Lieutenant – WWII Marine Joe Cable – and the “younger than springtime” Vietnamese beauty Liat he deflowers in the musical and movies based on James Michener’s 1947 Pulitzer Prize-winning Tales of the South Pacific is almost certainly derived from Butterfly. Miss Saigon (1989) is an adaptation of Butterfly wherein the titular Vietnamese bargirl replaced the Japanese geisha in what became the 13th-longest running musical on Broadway. Similar plot elements are afoot in David Henry Hwang’s 1988 Tony Award-winning play, the similarly-titled M. Butterfly and David Cronenberg’s 1993 film adaptation of it, which add a gender bender component to Puccini’s cross-cultural angle in a saga also suggested by the real-life affair between a French diplomat and a Peking opera singer.

In the current LA Opera production Puerto Rican soprano Ana María Martínez’ flawless performance as the title character, also known as Cio-Cio-San, is heart-melting, with an exquisite rendition of the immortal aria, Un bel di (One Fine Day). Set in the Land of the Rising Sun, Rick Fisher’s lighting in Act I, moving from daytime to nighttime during Butterfly and U.S. Naval Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton’s (Italian tenor Stefano Secco) wedding night, and in Act II, as Cio-Cio-San passes a sleepless night waiting for her feckless seducer to return to her, superbly evokes the passage of time. (No sexy silhouettes, however, projected upon the closed sliding shoji doors as Pinkerton removes Butterfly’s kimono and the marriage is consummated.)

Designer Jean-Marc Puissant’s stage is almost minimalist. In Act I the little Nagasaki hilltop traditional Japanese house which Pinkerton has opportunistically leased for 999 years, with a monthly option to break said lease, looks lovely and downright spiffy. But the abode expresses plot in the second act through its shockingly shabby appearance, denoting Pinkerton’s three-year absence, after he has shipped out of Japan aboard the gunboat Abraham Lincoln and forsaken poor, pregnant Cio-Cio-San.

In Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s costume design, the kimono Butterfly first appears in cleverly suggests wings, as if Cio-Cio-San might take flight. When Pinkerton returns in Act II he’s wearing a more ornate uniform than earlier, indicating his rise in the U.S. Navy ranks during those years when bellicose Pres. Teddy Roosevelt urged a newly imperial, ascendant America to “walk softly but carry a big stick.”

Bamboo fever

Puccini’s rendering of interracial romance is fraught with ethnic and sexual politics and appears to be a critique of then-emerging Yankee “gunboat diplomacy.” Puccini employs WASP-y American names and quotes “The Star-Spangled Banner” in the score. When we first meet Pinkerton, he seems to be gaga for Cio-Cio-San, but Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica’s libretto quickly reveals Pinkerton’s perfidious, opportunistic motivations. He likens the 999-year lease on his home – with its monthly annulment option – to his marital vows to Cio-Cio-San. He views this marriage of convenience – arranged by matrimonial broker Goro (tenor Keith Jameson) – as lasting only during his brief deployment to Japan, until he makes “real” nuptials with “one of his own kind.” (Mezzo-soprano Lacey Jo Benter plays Kate Pinkerton.)

The thoughtless, selfish Pinkerton confides in and confesses his treachery to U.S. Consul Sharpless (Korean baritone Kihun Yoon). The randy lieutenant refers to Butterfly as his “plaything”; smitten by her “exoticism” and beauty, he proceeds to seduce her  dishonorably, although Sharpless warns him about, and Cio-Cio-San sings of profound feelings for her white husband and believes their marriage to be real and lifelong. (Madame Butterfly is a supreme study in self-deception and denial.)

Ex-geisha Cio-Cio-San is only 15 years old, so by today’s standards, Pinkerton could be considered a pedophile, even if it seems consensual. Would audiences be outraged by or accept his seduction of a Caucasian female of that age?

In any case, Pinkerton and Butterfly enjoy what, to paraphrase Spike Lee, could be called “bamboo fever,” as East meets West in ecstatic sexual electricity. Pinkerton is clearly charmed by Cio-Cio-San and likens the kimono-clad beauty to art, flowers and insects; she refers to herself as a “goddess.” It never seems to occur to Pinkerton that Butterfly is a human being, flesh and blood, with heart, soul, psyche and intellect. Objectified as primarily a sex toy, Cio-Cio-San’s very humanity is denied. This child is arguably raped as a symbol of Western conquest.

Puccini is cannily commenting on international relations between imperial Washington and the Third World just as the Yankees spread their wings on the global scene, following the illegal 1893 overthrow and then annexation of the independent Kingdom of Hawaii in 1898, the same year America conquered Spain’s empire, from the Caribbean (where it still runs the world’s most notorious penal colony at Guantánamo) to the Pacific. The U.S. invaded the Philippines, where it fought a long war against Filipino independence, and the U.S. still occupies one-third of Guam with military installations.

Besides desire, what else motivates Cio-Cio-San? The unfortunate teenager has had to support herself and her family by becoming a geisha since her nobleman father’s hara-kiri death: Her early Act I revealing of the blade used for the suicidal deed – given to the family by the Japanese emperor, or Mikado, himself – foreshadows what is to happen. Because of her father’s fate and the limited options available to a young lady in early 20th-century Japan, she seeks to escape social restrictions by marrying and becoming an American, thus elevating her status.

Cio-Cio-San turns her back on her ancestral religion, incurring the wrath of the Bonze (bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee), who disrupts her wedding ceremony and casts a curse upon the star-crossed lovers. The Bonze represents a sort of nationalistic response to Western imperialism in what are definitely not happy days.

Cross-cultural casting

From our 21st-century “post-racial” (as if!) perch it’s easy to get up on our high horses and dismiss this early depiction of interracial romance as stereotypical, even racist. But as the 2016 Cloroxed Oscars – widely denounced for its lack of nominations for Black actors and films – demonstrates when it comes to casting, America isn’t so enlightened nowadays either. Is it correct to deride Ukrainian soprano Oksana Dyka’s 2012 turn and Puerto Rican soprano Martínez’s LA Opera Butterfly performances as “Yellowface” – a non-Asian impersonating a character of Asian ancestry through cosmetics, costuming, mannerisms, etc.? And also other “Oriental” roles performed by Caucasians in this production? Such as Texan baritone Daniel Armstrong, who plays Yamadori, plus Serbian mezzo Milena Kitic, who depicts Butterfly’s attendant, Suzuki. (Historically, Hispanics such as Ramón Novarro, María Montez, Dolores del Río, Rita Moreno, etc., have often “passed” onscreen as Tinseltown “Polynesians,” following the “If-you’ve-seen-one-‘exotic’-person-you’ve- seen-’em-all” rule.)

In ironic turn-around fair play, Seoul-born Kihun Yoon portrays the white American consul Sharpless. And Patrick Blackwell, an African American bass-baritone, plays the Imperial Commissioner.

What is one to make of this show’s multi-culti thespianism? Is it a case of forward thinking “nontraditional casting” which, among other things, gives often underrepresented minorities roles, and thereby work and representation? But what happens when major parts specifically designated for one nationality go to performers from the dominant majority culture (or other ethnic groups), thus depriving, say, Asians, of one of a handful of roles (let alone leads) that portray them? (Indeed, from 1915-20 Japanese opera singer Tamaki Miura played Butterfly in America and Europe.)

Is this cultural correctness gone berserk? Especially since acting is, by its very nature, about pretense and play? And is this all the more true in opera, where voice triumphs over every other consideration, and talent – not ethnicity, nor body size, looks, age, etc. – is the determining (perhaps the sole) factor in who incarnates what persona? The fact is that Martínez is sizzling and stunning as Butterfly, and the entire cast acquits itself well. I don’t pretend to have answers – but I do have lots of questions, especially given the brouhaha surrounding this year’s whitewashed Academy Awards.

Of race, sex, and class

What was Puccini getting at 112 years ago? Pinkerton’s rank is relatively low; he’s only a lieutenant, after all. But his skin color and racial pedigree bestowed a social status that outshone that of another suitor, the wealthier aristocrat, Prince Yamadori, who tries to woo Butterfly while her unfaithful “husband” sails the seven seas. His American-ness is the allure for the outcast Cio-Cio-San, who has been spurned by her own people and culture. The opera is subject to interpretation, but I suspect Puccini, who so sympathized with countercultural artistes in La Bohème and political prisoners in Tosca, was criticizing racial superiority, and not interracial love.

Lee Blakeley deftly directs the production, and James Conlon wields his baton with all the finesse of a musical samurai. The final scene seems embellished: Butterfly and Pinkerton’s love child (named “Trouble” in the original libretto, but apparently not in this production) is wrapped in Old Glory, and after his mother commits suicide with the same dagger her father used, the boy (alternately played by Nicholas Cuenca Terry and Michael Alspaugh) brandishes the blade at his birth father.

This gesture is not in the original libretto, so if this knife-wielding has been added by those behind this production, what are they getting at? That American recklessness in foreign affairs produces enemies? Secco was good-naturedly booed during the curtain calls as the quintessential ugly American in recognition of his villainy. But without his deception in courting, then abandoning the trusting child Cio-Cio-San, so cruelly caught between two worlds that ultimately crushed her wings, there’d be no story. 

Madame Butterfly is being performed Thurs., March 31 at 7:30 pm and Sun., April 3 at 2:00 pm. Another Puccini favorite, La Bohème, is being performed May 14-June 12 at LA Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave. For more info: (213) 972-8001; www.laopera.com.

Photo: LA Opera


Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.