Butterfly director: This opera is repulsive

Annilese Miskimmon, who is staging Madama Butterfly at Glyndebourne, has written a piece in the Guardian, explaining why all modern women and left-thinking people should recoil from ‘the most sordid story in the operatic canon’.

She goes on:

How do we as a modern audience of the #MeToo era experience this musical masterpiece, written by a white European man about the sexual exploitation and death of an Asian woman? How do we reconcile our enjoyment of this opera while acknowledging that it is an iconic example of Orientalism by a composer who never set foot in Japan? And how do we honour a desire to be true to the realities of the story when the Japanese characters are so often performed by western singers, an issue in an industry that must now confront its notable lack of diversity? 

How, indeed?

By having our cake and eating it, perhaps?

Read on here.

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  • Well, Mascagni’s Iris is worse, though rarely done. To be fair to Puccini, his intentions were anti-American but more generally anti-Imperialist. That he obviously like to write operas where women suffer and die is another problem, culminating in Liu in Turandot, an opera I really can’t abide.

    • Puccini did probably not prefer suffering women because he wholeheartedly disliked them (according to the biographical material, he was quite fond of them), but because at the time, suffering women could provide the strongest emotional / sentimental effects, which were always in the front of his musical intentions.

      • Agree completely. And audiences still go for it, “suffering women” for “the strongest emotional / sentimental effects,” males and females alike — we are a cruel and vicious species.

        Do today’s audiences really need the education and protection suggested here? This director writes: “The near-mythic status this piece has in the operatic canon is due to its amazing combination of brutality and beauty, and that is both its strength and its weakness. This musical allure must never dull the unpleasantness of the story…”

        I wasn’t aware that it does.

        (BTW I think it is more effective when the Japanese parts are acted and sung by Japanese, as in Frederic Mitterrand’s beautiful film production. How practical this is in western stagings I dunno.)

    • Mascagni’s Iris is in no way worse. Quite the contrary – he was challenging his audience. Iris does not fall in love with her abuser as Cio Cio San does. That love makes us accept Puccini’s opera as a love story. Mascagni thought it repulsive we should pardon such behaviour when clothed in beautiful music. Puccini was the cynic, Mascagni the moralist. But Mascagni doesn’t ask us to accept absue and exploitation in the name of the love of a manipulated child. Butterfly is by far the more repulsive opera because it shrouds the horror in a sugar coat. Iris is glorious musically and Mascagni explicitly believed he could make the audience almost accept anything. He was right: audiences criticised it for having no love.
      P.S We have staged Iris theee times.

      • I’m still looking for the “pardon” aspect of Butterfly which, in your opinion, makes it “repulsive”. Pinkerton’s “second to last” words are “son vil!” and Puccini shows him no mercy. The “love story” aspect makes the opera so much more interesting than “Iris”, because it makes it ambiguous – not morally, but psychologically. If Pinkerton doesn’t love Butterfly in the first act, there is no betrayal. Puccini’s caracters are not “given”, they evolve, change and learn. In my modest opinion, that’s what dramatic art is about.

        • Listen to the words used to describe Cio Cio San when she is first encountered.
          For me there is no ambiguity. And her love for him and his feigned love for her (grooming) never strikes a chord for me. Puccini knew what he was doing. Anyway, each to their own interpretation.

          • I don’t see which words you mean – “Amore o grillo” ? Anyway, what is interesting in a drama aren’t the first, or the last words, but the road from the first to the last. Pinkerton’s attitude evolves remarkably already in the first act, and the rest of the drama shall change him completely. He’s not the same person at the beginning, and at the end. That’s why we’ve come to the theatre in the first place. Puccini most certainly DID know what he was doing.

  • Ms. Miskimmon does have a point. But this falls into the same category of Wagner and Chopin having been horrible bigots… It’s a serious problem, but what do we do now?

    • Not really, because you can listen to Wagner and Chopin without reference to their opinions. The opinons in MB are right out in the open.

    • In some Regietheater productions that is indeed being devised, with Pinkerton dressed-up as Puccini himself, to ensure the audience will feel morally uplifted instead of sadistically satisfied.

  • …wait! Also Caccini and Peri have never been in Greece before writing their Orfeo ed Euridice!
    Mrs. Miskimmon please go ahead with such useful statemets: let’s finally find a the real meaning of all the music history.

    …come on!

  • Like a typical, humourless lefty, she’s missed the point as usual, bless her cotton socks. We’re all perfectly aware of how hideous the story is. Puccini’s peerless theatricality and glorious music serve to heighten the grotesque nature of the marriage, the pain we feel for Butterfly’s delusion and the anger at Pinkerton’s accompanied return. All of this would fall flat if the director indulged in virtue-signalling on a carpet of similarly-intended orchestral and vocal writing. Trust the work to tell its own story.

    • This might be less about ideas than sweeping from his perches, past and present, the white man, wrecker of the planet and poisoner of all things otherwise good. Plenty of job openings in prospect.

    • I’m no righthie, but it’s funny how the words “leftie” and “humorless” ring so true in the same sentence. Tiring, isn’t it?

    • Now that’s just weird John Rook. “Like a typical humourless lefty” are you even serious? We’re debating Madam Butterfly for pete’s sake, are you suggesting she’s missing the work’s inherent humour? And a special award also for slipping in a reference to “virtue signalling” that silly, intellectually lazy slogan of the far right.

      Oh and by the way, funny right-wing stand-up comedians are as rare as hen’s teeth. Almost with exceptIon the good ones lean left.

  • Fed up of reading these idiotic statements by directors who don’t credit their audiences with the nous to see the works as of their time and judge for themselves. The programme for a recent performance of A Little Night Music was full of director-bilge about how the musical showed society “diminishes men with the pursuit of clear, binary gender identities”. Then on to a performance of A Streetcar Named Desire where the director-bilge in the programme was all about #MeToo. FFS.

  • By seeing all arts as the long arm of the currently dominant moral hegemony (which is in principle not very different from the Nazi or Soviet view of arts), these people are missing the point.

    • The difference with nazi / soviet views of the arts is that with this pc culture war, there is no government prescribing how performances should be realized, these people create the mental prison all on their own, without any help from the authorities. It begins to show certain traits of a religion and if you think it through, it has indeed obtained religious qualities: offering redemption from personal sin through expressing indignation about other people’s sins.

      • Agreed with every word. And note the typical “competition effect” : everyone tries to “out-outrage” everybody. We’ve had recently a black feminist around here protesting against the “racist” nature of bandages, gauzes and band-aids (in case you wonder, as any sane person would : they’re usually white and pink).

        • I suspect the black feminist complaining about the racist nature of bandages was PULLING YOUR LEG, actually.

          • You’re an optimist. No, she wasn’t. It’s just the beginning, the next one must invent something even better.

            We’ve had a doctoral thesis here (accepted – maybe not summa cum laude, I wouldn’t know, but the authoress has now a Ph. D.) demonstrating that females of all species (mammals in particular) are smaller because, during all these millions of years, males have been depriving them of food (meat in particular).

            Try to beat that.

        • You’re missing the point. The Nazis and the Soviets sought to control the musical content of new work, something that has been completely off limits post the fall of those regimes. Hence the prevelance of arms-length government funding of the arts.

          As William Osborne (a regular here, no relation) pointed out in his excellent blog, Germany for example did not even have a federal arts minister until the year 2000, and even then the appointment of one was a hugely controversial move.

          But removing all external oversight has also been a disaster, because far from nurturing creative freedom, governments have instead handed control to a small group, by and large the academic community, who have acted solely in their own interests, accountable only to themselves.

  • I saw this last week and I may be a bit thick but I don’t get this 1950s Nagasaki update.

    1) Isn’t there a danger that the unmentioned 2nd atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki could be seen as a worse example of US aggression against the Japanese than Pinkerton marrying Butterfly?

    2) If Butterfly is presented as one of a stream of war brides, i.e. everybody is marrying Japanese girls these days, doesn’t that normalise Pinkerton’s behaviour, rather than highlighting his exploitation of vulnerable young Japanese girl etc?

    3) If Butterfly/Pinkerton were part of US sanctioned war bride program, surely not so easy for Pinkerton to marry someone else in the US?

    Also WAY too much blood on Butterfly in final scene – maybe less is more here?

    I can’t help thinking Mrs Miskimmon needs to spend less time apologising for her white priviledge (we get it) and more on basic directorial choices that might make sense of this (admittedly complex) opera story.

  • A good example of why many of us who used to go to the opera frequently now choose to stay home more often than not.

  • My guess is that you lot haven’t read her piece. You just saw ‘Guardian’ and did the usual twitching knee-jerk Rightist thing of going ‘la la la’ with your fingers in your ears. Beause it’s so much easier to sneer than to think.

    So here are some interesting snippets from the article for your education:

    “And what a libretto it is. Puccini went through five versions of the piece with his writers Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica until he achieved what we have today: a precise, ruthless exploration of how a near-powerless woman is bought and sold to a pleasure-seeking westerner.2

    “Puccini’s lack of English meant he could transcend the indignity of her speech to see the inherent humanity of Butterfly. As a result, he defended her from any accusation of collusion in her own misfortune by creating an original Act 1 to flesh out the deliberate detail of her deception. Consequently, in Pinkerton they created one of the most morally bankrupt characters in opera – so unpleasant that Puccini had to be persuaded to sympathetically expand the role or risk having tenors reject the part as too small and seedy to perform.”

    “And yet the opera is filled with moments of glorious, uninhibitedly romantic music, and this ecstasy is as much an integral part of this production as the dark subject matter. The near-mythic status this piece has in the operatic canon is due to its amazing combination of brutality and beauty, and that is both its strength and its weakness. This musical allure must never dull the unpleasantness of the story – it must be remembered that the first audience who heard Madama Butterfly in La Scala in 1904 ridiculed the piece, and shouted obscenities at the character of Butterfly.”

    I suggest you read the rest. It will do you good.

    • @Will Duffay

      There’s a little problem with your choice of quotations. Here’s the last one, long version :

      “…the first audience who heard Madama Butterfly in La Scala in 1904 ridiculed the piece, and shouted obscenities at the character of Butterfly. (…) Puccini refused to let the piece fail, even in the face of a disgusted first-night audience who greeted the onstage revelation of the child with what biographer Mosco Carner described as “an uproar of hisses, obscene sneers, [and] laughter”. They jeered at Butterfly’s perceived sexual licentiousness despite an unequivocal first act that establishes that she has understood herself to be legally married.”

      As a serious, thouroughly prepared artist should know, the “uproar of hisses, obscene sneers, [and] laughter” wasn’t directed at Butterfly at all, but at the singer Rosina Storchio who, at that time, had an affair with Toscanini. Harvey Sachs tells the precise story in his biography : “the breeze on stage had made Storchio’s kimono billow out, and someone in the audience had shouted “E incinta ! E il bambino di Toscanini!” (“She’s pregnant ! It’s Toscanini’s child!”).

      But this story, of course, doesn’t fit Mrs Miskimmons’ “ideologically informed narrative”.

  • I always felt Pinkerton could be a very sympathetic character with the right actor/singer, namely a very young lieutenant, himself still in his late teens 19, to 21 or so, which would not be that far off from Cio-cio san’s 15 years, especially for 1904, thus a Pinkerton who then would not be callous, but just clueless, someone who matures and realizes too late what he has done, and who could mature into someone who raises his son with full respect for his mother.

    But of course, opera singers as they are, no soprano looks 15 and no tenor looks 19, they both look very much like well developed adults in their 30s, so you just go and listen to their singing and ignore their character development.

    • Agree, there has to be a reason why she falls in love with him. One credible reason would that he was a young and dashing and carefree American barely out of his teens himself.

      • There are many mysteries about the real Butterfly, but that man was very beautiful and he was probably a Russian.

  • Read the damn article before you comment. She is the shining example of taking an odious story, reckoning with it, and then proudly staging it. She wants us to deal with the brutality and difficulty of the story, as did Puccini it seems. Again, read the article before commenting.

  • Isn’t it interesting how it’s almost always white liberals who complain about things like this and rarely the so-called oppressed people?

    • Oppressed people don’t attend operas.

      In other words, oppressed people don’t care about your art form you westerners call opera. So of course the only people left who care about these things, who debate these things, are white people.

      It’s a white art form for white people.

    • Most white people couldn’t care less about operas.

      There’s probably a 100% overlap of the readership of the article in the Guardian, the post in slippedisc, and those who have seen a production of Madame Butterfly.

      It’s an echo chamber we’re hearing.

  • Butterfly is simply a love story,not a cultural lesson. REMEMBER WHEN IT WAS WRITTEN. You don’t like it, find another story snowflake

    • If you cared to read the article, you would see that this is exactly what the director did. But you didn’t read the article, like most posting here.

  • Another director working on an opera she barely understand. If she does not like it, why she directs it?

    • I am going to say this once more……READ THE ARTICLE, in which she explains exactly why she chose MADAMA BUTTERFLY.

      • In spite of being so popular, Madama Butterfly is a very complex text, with a long evolution in which some pieces of the history switched direction. As a first instance, say in 1901-02, Pinkerton was a nicer character than now is – after all, he must be somehow fascinating or Butterfly would not fall in love with him. The opera was still referred, while the first act was being written, as a comedy and Japanese people were mostly a laughing stock. There is also an hint of autobiography as Puccini, aged 42, was madly in love with a 17 years girl, a love story that actually backfired in a catastrophic way. – Actually Butterfly was abused not only by Pinkerton but also by his American baby, that in the original version bargained hard to get the child. – In time, most reference to strange Japanese people were cut, the role of Kate Pinkerton gradually reduced to the point that she does not even enter Butterfly home, and the story focused on the evolution of Butterfly psicology. There are so much things in Butterfly that a simply porto-feminist reading looks very coarse.

      • The “why” which is expressed is a false flag. The “why” is to call attention to herself (and effectively so, unfortunately) through controversy rather than quality of work.

  • What an ignorant fool. How is it she is allowed to direct opera? If this is the “MeToo Era”, then it is the era when art was murdered by vengeful women. How long till we get an opera about the destructiveness of women? Besides Medea.

  • It’s a loathsome piece, profoundly racist, in the way it concentrates in such detail on the bizarre moral codes of an exotic culture.

  • “And how do we honour a desire to be true to the realities of the story when the Japanese characters are so often performed by western singers”

    That’s just no. Following this logic, we’d have to ban foreigners from singing in Italian operas, because I’m pretty confident there were no (for example) Koreans in Il Barbiere di Siviglia.

    White washing is a bad thing, but I do not think it applies in operas here (Germany).

    And didn’t La Bohème’s Mimì die of phthisis? Only skinny singers need to apply?

    I do know, of course, what she’s getting at. But to treat people equally, you have to treat them equally.

  • By realising that cio cio kills herself as an act of autonomy and protest.

    I don’t this woman is very bright.

  • The fact is that MB doesn’t need a director for the audience to enjoy
    Anyone can read into the score and the libretto. She, like most of these charlatans, needs to make herself important.
    Puccini didn’t even consider that his opera had to be filtered by these idiots.

  • SJW-ism masking opportunism (re-)enters opera

    Vapid, undignifiable, self-serving criticisms of a work whose moral stance is crystal clear. One leaves the theater in total sympathy for the title character, and antipathy for Pinkerton.

    The glory of the music is the “teaspoon of sugar”. The exploitative behavior is not romanticized, unless one considers suicide and abandonment of one’s child romantic.

    This director is “punching up” to gain attention through controversy, rather than quality of her own work


  • I’m from the Orient. Butterfly, in the hearts and minds of most music lovers from the Orient, is one of the greatest operas of all time. It portrays the way Caucasians, espeicially Americans and Brits treated Oriental women at that time. Until the seventies, many Caucasian men in the Orient, treated Oriental women the same way, just as dolls or playthings. Once they had satisfied their desires or conquests, they merely abandoned these ladies as if they had no feelings or emotions and merely as “ things”, a sex toy or something of that nature. This opera has for decades contributed to anti-American and anti-British feelings in the Orient because it depicts the truth. As far as CioCio San is sung most of the time by a Caucasian, so what ! Great music has no racial boundaries. Go rent the movie acted and sung by the great Chinese soprano Huang Ying. You wouldn’t be human if you would not shed a tear or two watching this opera-movie.

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