“Madama Butterfly” – Cultural Lessons on Respect for Women


Last night, Ledcat and I were guests of the Pittsburgh Opera for the performance of  Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.” Congrats to Tiffany who won the two tickets (and brought her friend Becky along.)

Cio-Cio San’s open heart and trusting nature are the reasons that Pinkerton should love her, and the reasons that we weep at the end of the opera. 
We’re introduced to the lopsided love between a young Japanese woman and Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, a U.S. Naval officer. The young woman, nicknamed Butterfly, gives up her family and her religion to be with Pinkerton. Pinkerton gives up nothing, and promptly leaves for nearly three years. He eventually returns, with his American wife, and the young Butterfly is mortally devastated. 

Madama Butterfly
Madama Butterfly

The performances were wonderful, especially Maria Luigia Borsi as Cio-Cio San (Butterfly) and Mika Shigematsu as Suzuki. As with all good art, I was swept away into the tragic love story.

But not swept away enough to avoid some curious parallels with the situation in Steubenville. Pinkerton – the undeserved object of Butterfly’s love and faithfulness – had every intention of using and discarding her simply to sate his sexual appetite. He makes that clear to the American consul, Sharpless. This was not a two-sided love story succumbing to cultural pressure. This was a predatory man who had no concern for the destructive consequences on the life of Cio-Cio San, even when he witnessed her family disowning her and her own sacrifice of her religion for him.

Was Cio-Cio San foolish? Yes, but took no action to harm anyone – she loved and she was not the architect in her own tragedy. Yes, she takes her life at the end – an outcome we must all workl  to prevent for women victimized by sexual assault. Rather than have compassion and do the right thing, Pinkerton hides behind others who do his dirty work – rather than call him out. Pinkerton then want custody of his child with Cio-Cio San and everyone agrees that the child will have a better life. Well, I don’t think Suzuki agrees.

Then there are the others. Cio-Cio San’s family witnesses a foolish move on her part and rather than take steps to help or protect her, they abandon her. Sharpless knows damn well what Pinkerton has in mind and doesn’t do anything to put a stop to it except make some mild protests. He’s evidently wracked with guilt but not enough to put an end to the tragedy. The marriage broker tries to pawn her off to the next rich man.

Suzuki is the only character who loves Cio-Cio San and tries to help her. The others – the powerful, the family, the community – turn their back on her and the message is clear – she DESERVES what she gets. She deserves to be betrayed by her husband and live in poverty and lose her son. The shame is on her and she internalizes that shame by taking her own life. And there’s the underlying message that Cio-Cio San deserves her fate because she was a *geisha* and can only return to a life of shame (in her own words) after being so cruelly used.

There’s nothing noble or beautiful or just about Madama Butterfly. Cio-Cio San’s love and loyalty are sad to witness, but she is guilty of no crime. Foolishness does not warrant the fate she experiences. And the guilt and anguish of the men – Pinkerton and Sharpless – is overwrought and generated not the least bit sympathy from me. Sadly this story echoes heavily in our hearts to this very day. Pinkerton is a terrible human being who viewed Cio-Cio San as a sexual toy to be trifled with and cast aside at his convenience. There’s nothing redeeming about him. Much like the male predators in Steubenville – his amends and redemption have not yet played out.

If anything, Madama Butterfly reminds me that the timeless themes in opera do resonate today and speak to our lives. I look forward to my next performance.

Madama Butterfly continues through this weekend. It is sung in Italian with English captions projected above the screen so you can follow the storyline.

This is a video of Maria Luigia Borsi performing the most famous aria from Butterfly “Un bel di” (One Beautiful Day.) This performance was recorded in 2011 but it gives you a sense of how wonderful she is.




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