Saturday, October 11, 2008

Madama Butterfly and Multiculturalism

We went to see Puccini's Madama Butterfly last night.  DH and I both like opera and we've talked a couple of dear friends into season tickets with us.  Last night was our first night of the season. This darn social/cultural differences class that I'm taking got me thinking about this opera in a way I would have never thought before...

First, wow, Americans sure don't come off very well. Or, one American, Lt. Pinkerton, the man who "marries" Cio-Cio San (with the option to renew every month). Pinkerton is shallow, swaggering, eager only for adventure and conquest of any sort. Turns out that Puccini wrote this during the Spanish-American war.  I thought the European snobbery regarding us Americans was a much younger phenomenon than that. Sharpless, on the other hand, is a good American and could have been written to be the real hero in the show.  That he wasn't just reinforces Puccini's apparent disdain for Yankees.

Then, Japanese culture doesn't come off very well, either.  Apparently some critics think that it is patently racist to even stage a traditional show of MB. The culture does come off as weak and feminized, even in the men's roles.  Problem is, maybe that's how I've always thought of Japanese culture.  Except for the samurai stuff.  Anyway, the other part of this is how Cio-Cio San commits suicide at the end of the story.  She does this to preserve her honor, and uses the same knife her own father had used on himself years before, to avoid dishonoring his family.  I don't know what to make of a culture that sees the honorable thing as the quick exit, rather than hanging in there and doing all of the hard stuff. That seems so utterly foreign to my way of thinking that I can hardly wrap my head around it.

So, neither the Americans nor the Japanese really come off very well. What in the world did Italians make of this when it debuted (other than it tanked the first time it was staged)? What did this tell us about how we all related a hundred years ago, and what about now?  The most bizarre part of this is really that I would probably not have considered these questions before my class. My world is getting bigger in spite of myself.


Dave Sanders said...

First, KPS and I really enjoyed dinner and the opera with you two. Although it was a great evening, I'll be honest, the company was better than the opera. We're pretty sure the other shows will be more entertaining.

I'd love to see a modern version of Madame Butterfly written to reflect today's culture. In this, I envision Bill Clinton playing Pinkerton's character, only as a horny old diplomat rather than a naval officer. Use your imagination for the rest.

We look forward to the next one! Maybe we can plan a little more time for dinner so we can order and enjoy dessert!

Dave Sanders said...

By the way, how severely do you think Bill Clinton dishonored his family (and extended family- U.S.) with his antics while in office? I can't even imagine how this must have been perceived in other cultures. Or maybe they're just used to this crap coming from us Americans.