It’s easy to get angry at Lt. Pinkerton for assuming that his and Butterfly’s child would be better off with his American wife and his American life; Butterfly gives up everything for him, and he takes every advantage of her. This theme, combined with Puccini’s gift for pulling our heartstrings, makes our tears flow freely at the end of the opera.
We wonder, in this modern age, whether the story of Madama Butterfly would make it past an initial idea session without criticisms about cultural appropriation and colonialism. That’s aside from the fact that the title character needs to be a mature soprano to sing the part, yet Butterfly is supposed to be 15 years old when she meets and marries Pinkerton. Then there’s the practice of casting non-Asians as Japanese people—it can be argued that opera companies do a better job of this today.
The fact remains that Puccini and his librettists Illica and Giacosa created an opera that grabs us and won’t let go; it’s compelling storytelling. Its source material, though, was created at a time when America and western Europe were utterly fascinated with all things “Oriental,” which for all practical purposes included objects, designs and ideas from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, China, Japan, and India. This fascination—and its manifestations in visual art, music, theater, furniture, and more—was less about learning about other cultures and more about owning other cultures, an extension of the rampant colonialism by France, The Netherlands, Japan, the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Tsarist Russia, starting in the mid-nineteenth century.
John Luther Long’s short story Madame Butterfly  and David Belasco’s play [Madame Butterfly – a Tragedy of Japan, 1900] tell us much more, today, about the American culture that produced them, than they do about actual life in Japan. In both, Butterfly herself is a caricature.
Long and Belasco depict Butterfly as a helpless, inarticulate victim; Paul Thomason gives some specific examples in the article featured here. Puccini and his librettists, on the other hand, made her a character that grows during the course of the opera, and give her an honorable death. Those changes probably weren’t due to an epiphany about colonialism or cultural appropriation; perhaps it was more about giving Butterfly a soaring aria like Un bel di, making her a much more interesting character than in the story and play, and creating an opera that is simply unforgettable—an enduring audience favorite.
Orientalism was the topic at the October 22 At Ease with Opera event. At Ease with Opera is free and open to everyone.
Paul Thomason is a writer, lecturer and teacher who has combined a lifelong passion for music with his decades of experience in publishing. He has given pre-concert talks at San Francisco Opera, San Francisco Symphony, and others, and his writing has appeared throughout the U.S., Europe and Australia in the programs of opera houses, symphony orchestras, and major music festivals. www.paulthomasonwriter.com