Butterflies in New York

Hui He and Roberto Aronica in Madama Butterfly. (Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)Clive Owen and Jin Ha in M. Butterfly (Photo: Matthew Murphy) Hui He and Roberto Aronica in Madama Butterfly. (Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)
Clive Owen and Jin Ha in M. Butterfly (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

This November in New York has featured three different versions of the Madame Butterfly story on stage: the original at the Metropolitan Opera, a revival of the David Henry Hwang play M. Butterfly and a revival of the musical Miss Saigon. Of these, I managed Hwang and Puccini back-to-back.

The Metropolitan Opera showed the by now relatively venerable Anthony Minghella production: colorful, a mirrored ceiling, many moving parts and many people on stage to move them—and perhaps most notable, a puppet standing in for Butterfly and Pinkerton’s child. The production is so distinctive that it can at times overshadow the singing; these November performances were marked by the appearance of Chinese soprano He Hui, in a still relatively rare occurrence on a major stage of this Asian role being sung by an Asian.

At a recent interview at Hong Kong’s Foreign Correspondents Club, He Hui said, “I understand Madama Butterfly very well. Being Chinese, I can understand very deeply how to feel this role. My way of acting is very Asian, but my voice is totally Italian.” He Hui’s Butterfly is exactly that: Asian in gesture, posture and expression—perhaps one of the most committed attempts to portray a teenage Japanese girl on today’s opera stage—yet the singing is all Puccini. He Hui makes the role her own, transforming from girl to woman at the moment of fatal denouement.

The Minghella production, Act I (Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)
The Minghella production, Act I (Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

Every so often, Madama Butterfly is accused of being “orientalist”, of perpetuating (or perhaps, given the work’s age, creating) the stereotype of the docile, submissive Asian woman in thrall to the white foreigner. Whether phrased as observation or criticism, this has seemed to me to reflect more on the viewer than the work itself. Contrary to somewhat superficial outward appearances, the young geisha Cio-Cio-san is the only one of the three major characters with any self-awareness and, indeed, spine. She is perhaps naive, certainly trusting, but has convictions and sticks to them. The American naval captain Pinkerton is by contrast somewhere between self-centered and vile, while the American Consul Sharpless knows exactly what is going on, cautions Pinkerton, yet lets the seduction and fake marriage go head anyway—he is what today would be termed an “enabler”, a particularly hypocritical one since he reserves to himself the right to a final “I told you so”.

Madama Butterfly is set in Japan, but it isn’t about Japan.

Madama Butterfly is set in Japan, but it isn’t about Japan, any more than Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto is about Renaissance Mantua. Cio-Cio-san’s character is much like Gilda: both are, fatally, true to themselves. Butterfly’s core tragedy isn’t so much the romantic betrayal but the trauma of a young mother giving up her child, a theme Puccini returned to later in the one-act convent-set opera Suor Angelica. But consumers of artistic performances often see what they want to see, which is one of the several points being made by Hwang in M. Butterfly.

Hwang based his play on the true story of Bernard Boursicot, a French diplomat ensnared by a honeypot trap in 1960s China. The bizarre and more than a little prurient attraction of the story is that the seduction was carried out by a Peking opera singer, Shi Pei Pu, who happened to be male. He performed female roles; despite (some evidently inventive) intercourse, Boursicot believed him to be female.

M. Butterfly (Photo: Matthew Murphy)
M. Butterfly (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

Shi’s butterflies are the Chinese ones in Butterfly Lovers. But Hwang has his diplomat—here named Rene Gallimard and played by Clive Owen at New York’s Cort Theatre—encounter his opera singer Song Liling singing a rendition of “Un bel dì”, Cio-Cio-san’s show-stopping Act II aria, at an Embassy party. Gallimard had become entranced by Madama Butterfly at an early age, and was searching for his own “Butterfly” and in Song created what he wanted to find. Here, like in much of M. Butterfly, Hwang seems to be trying to do too many things as once: tell a story, engage the audience in a discussion of gender and sexuality, and comment on Western views of Asians by riffing on Puccini’s classic (quoted extensively using the recording by Jussi Bjorling and Victoria de los Angeles).

The result is something of a muddle: the characters stop and address the audience directly and argue among themselves about how the story should be told, and for a story with Chinese and French protagonists, there are some curious Americanisms. Song, in an exchange with Gallimard, makes an extremely unlikely reference to a “homecoming queen”.

The original M. Butterfly opened not long after Boursicot’s conviction in a French court; there must have been more than a frisson of voyeurism. But seen from a distance of thirty years, it feels—despite reportedly significant revisions and a sinuous and chameleon-like Jin Ha as Song—a little dated.

That being said, watching M. Butterfly the evening before Madama Butterfly was salutary. Hwang forces one to engage Puccini with the antenna up. Both works are replete with clichés. Puccini arguably uses the clichés to tell a story about something else. M. Butterfly, on the other hand, seems to be about the clichés themselves.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.