Madame Butterfly: Program Notes
Puccini’s Madame Butterfly tells the story of a young naïve Japanese geisha who believes that her love for a handsome American naval officer is eternal. With its lush score and heartbreaking arias, it is a timeless tale that will stir your emotions.
Libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa
Sung in Italian with English Supertitles
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Preview Talk with Alan Chapman included.
This is the first in a series of three linked Notestreams on Madame Butterfly.
For the story of Madame Butterfly, please click here.
For more about tonight's performers, please click here.
To learn more about Music Director Carl St.Clair, please click here.
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Carl St.Clair, conductor
Eric Einhorn, stage director
Pacific Chorale — Robert Istad, Artistic Director
Cio-Cio-San: Yunah Lee, lyric soprano
B.F. Pinkerton: John Pickle, tenor
Suzuki: Sabina Kim, mezzo soprano
Goro: Joseph Hu, tenor
Sharpless: Luis Ledesma, baritone
Prince Yamadori: Yunpeng Wang, baritone
The Bonze: Hyung Yun, baritone
Cio-Cio-San’s Mother: Jane Shim, mezzo soprano
Kate Pinkerton: Karin Mushegain, mezzo soprano
Yakuside, Cio-Cio-San’s Uncle: Aram Barsamian, bass
The Imperial Commissioner: Randall Gremilion, bass
The Official Registrar: Matthew Kellaway, bass
The Aunt: Eleen Hsu-Wentlandt, soprano
The Cousin: Chelsea Chaves, soprano
Cio-Cio-San’s Child, Dolore (“Sorrow”): Annabella Chou
Supernumeraries: Yangguang Jin and Rouyou Lu
Cameron Anderson, scenic designer
Kathyrn Wilson, costume designer
Ora Jewell-Busche, wig and makeup designer
Kathy Pryzgoda, lighting designer
Dani Reynolds, properties coordinator
Libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa.
Sung in Italian with English Supertitles.
Throughout history, it has been the responsibility of the arts to reflect the most current world views and how, for that moment in time, society wants to be remembered by future generations. However, society and world views change. What was socially acceptable even just a few decades ago is now subject to a new rubric of ethics and behavior…and our art reflects those shifts.
What happens, though, when the most enlightened version of our society (i.e. the most contemporary) continues to perform the art of the past—the art of a time different than our own in its moral compass and beliefs. How do we (or, better still, can we) judge the work of our forbearers with our current eyes—blessed with the 20/20 vision of hindsight?
In recent years, the opera community (inclusive of producers, performers, and audiences) has been grappling with that question, especially as it relates to the core of the operatic canon.
The great “warhorses” of opera, the titles we all know and love, are thorny pieces of drama by today’s standards. Racism, misogyny, physical and emotional abuse, and (in the case of Madame Butterfly) pedophilia run rampant through musical scores we all hum along to thanks to our favorite cartoons and TV commercials.
So what do we do? Many would like to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Dispose of the entire standard repertoire in favor of more socially relevant subjects.
While the opera community is still in deliberations about the core repertoire’s ultimate fate, most would argue (myself included) that the complete eradication of these standard pieces is a punishment too severe for operas that were written to reflect their own time, not our own. These operas shouldn’t be banished from opera houses simply because they tell the stories we wouldn’t tell ourselves today.
At the same time, productions of these pieces shouldn’t remain untouched, mere museum curiosities from a bygone era. We also cannot ignore the fact that, underneath some of the more troublesome plot elements lies a wellspring of genius.
Geraldine Farrar in the role of Madame Butterfly, c 1908. Image from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
The standard repertoire operas have achieved and maintained that status because, at their core, they are timeless stories that speak to the universal human condition through a near-perfect marriage of words and music. Madame Butterfly is a perfect example of the difficult duality of standard rep operas.
Madame Butterfly, Puccini’s achingly beautiful 1904 score based on the novella by John Luther Long and play by David Belasco, is on its surface a piece that should no longer be relevant or acceptable. B.F. Pinkerton, a swaggering American naval officer, more in lust than in love, decides to marry the 15-year-old Cio-Cio-San on a whim.
Through a series of racist and misogynistic admissions, we learn very quickly that Pinkerton is most definitely someone “of his time.” The young Cio-Cio-San, believing this man to be her only path to true love and salvation, instantly puts all of her trust in him and what he is promising. In the end, though, we all know that Butterfly is deceived and Pinkerton, feeling remorse, runs away.
Riccardo Martin as Pinkerton, 1917
It should be noted that the inclusion of remorse in Pinkerton’s character was not instinctively created by Puccini. Pinkerton’s remorse was only added to the opera after Puccini’s inner circle begged him to add it, citing that, without that side of Pinkerton’s character, no one would ever want to perform the role.
With all of these things stacked against Butterfly, what is the value in telling this story today?
Producing this opera in 2019 allows us not to judge the creation and creators, but to use the piece as a tool to examine who we were and who we strive to become. The darker parts of our cultural history should not be ignored because they are difficult to confront.
On the contrary, we should use our modern lens to explore the beauty, pain, discomfort and pathos of Madame Butterfly. My goal with this production is to honor those timeless, universal elements of the story while digging a little deeper (maybe even uncomfortably so) into the darker recesses of the drama. I look forward to going on that journey with you.
Opera in three acts by Giacomo Puccini (1858—1924)
Libretto by Luigi Illica (1857—1919) and Giuseppe Giacosa (1847—1906)
Based upon the play by David Belasco (1853—1931)
East Is East and West Is West, and…
…The twain met on July 8, 1853, when Commodore Matthew C. Perry led a contingent of four U.S. Navy vessels into the harbor of Uraga, Japan. The following year, the signing of the treaty of Kanagawa put an end to two centuries of isolation by the island nation. International trade and diplomacy now extended to Japan.
Half a century after NASA’s moon landing, it’s interesting to compare Perry’s voyage to NASA’s; the cultural cataclysms unleashed by the opening of Japan to the West had, if anything, a greater impact upon everyday life around the world.
In the West, the aesthetics of Asian art became the consuming preoccupation of every serious artist, whether painter, sculptor, writer or musician. In opera, Japonisme—that’s how this aesthetics mania was known after Japanese art and artifacts went on view at Paris’ Exposition Universelle in 1867—was the motive force in operas such as Delibes’ Lakme, Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers and Verdi’s Aida. Never mind that their settings were nowhere near Japan; Japonisme became the touchstone for all things exotically different and vaguely Eastern.
David Belasco, 1873. Image courtesy Seattle Opera and Wikimedia.
The dramatist who put Cio-Cio- San on the stage, David Belasco, was born the year that Commodore Perry sailed into Uraga harbor. Belasco was a veritable dynamo of the theater who helped shape Broadway as we know it.
When he began his career, the American taste in narrative entertainment ran to the lurid melodramas presented in small-town music halls and the mass- market serials known as dime novels. Adapted as “penny dreadfuls” in England, these cheap books established early stereotypes of the Old West in formulaic yarns such as the Jesse James stories.
Belasco’s realistic depictions of character and culture, naturalistic acting styles and technologically advanced theatrical effects were unprecedented on the American stage, and they galvanized audiences with their combination of stylistic naturalism and true-to-life passion.
Belasco had a keen eye for dramatic concepts with “legs,” and he found one in John Luther Long’s 1898 novella Madame Butterfly, an example of the popular “Japanese fiction” genre. In The Japan Magazine, Long’s sister, Jennie Correll, who had lived as a missionary’s wife in Japan, had already published an affecting account of an American sailor’s “temporary wife.” This common arrangement, which fostered dependency and abandonment, was routine among Japanese women and girls of the time.
Puccini, who once described himself as “a hunter of big game, beautiful women and opera librettos,” recognized an ideal quarry in 1900 when he saw David Belasco’s one-act play Madame Butterfly in London in 1900.
Butterfly takes her place in a succession of magnetic, strong Puccini heroines whose assertiveness belies the operatic tradition of wilting women. There’s Tosca, the fiery diva; Manon Lescaut, flirtatiously manipulative; Minnie of La fanciulla del West, a seasoned saloonkeeper who can hold her own with the boys; Turandot, the implacable empress bent on revenge. Even La Boheme’s frail Mimi is smarter and more mature than the men around her.
Although she is demure and reticent, Cio-Cio-San, too, fits this mold, ultimately revealing a will of iron beneath the softness.
To capture her in music, Puccini explored Japanese culture with the Japanese ambassador to Rome and pored over published transcriptions of Japanese music. The result is one of opera’s most memorable women, and a tragedy of misaligned cultures that is both mythic and human.
Michael Clive is a cultural reporter living in the Litchfield Hills of Connecticut. He is program annotator for Pacific Symphony and Louisiana Philharmonic, and editor‑in‑chief for The Santa Fe Opera.
Continue here for The Story of Madame Butterfly.
To learn more about tonight's performers, please click here.