Giacomo Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” tells the story of a young Japanese girl named Cio-Cio San (“chō-chō” is the Japanese word for “butterfly”) marrying and getting dumped by an American naval officer named Pinkerton. First performed in Italy in 1904, the opera is one of the most popular in the world and was reportedly performed more than 2,640 times in the 2015-16 season.
As a Japanese woman myself, I’ve never really enjoyed “Madama Butterfly.” This isn’t a knock on any of the individual performances I’ve seen, I just never liked the message the story conveys — particularly Cio-Cio San’s tragic suicide during the finale. Bringing this up with friends, as soon as I voiced my opinion they launched into a slew of other critiques concerning overseas stagings of the opera: the extravagant kimono-like costumes tend to ignore Japanese tradition, the exaggerated gestures are things Japanese would seldom do, and so on.
Since it was first performed in 2005, director Tamiya Kuriyama’s version of the opera staged at the New National Theater, Tokyo (NNTT) has corrected some of the piece’s cultural missteps — a necessity for its Japanese audience.
Director Yoshi Oida helmed an even newer production that toured Kanazawa, Osaka, Takasaki and Tokyo earlier this year. In his staging, he made the choice to turn the lights off before Cio-Cio San’s scripted suicide. His intention was to create slight doubt over whether or not she went through with the act, a decision that might be seen as taking too much license by opera purists. For Japanese women like myself, though, it was a welcome move that allows the viewer to consider an ending in which Cio-Cio San wrestles her destiny away from her grief.
Last month I joined an NNTT educational program in which Kuriyama’s “Madama Butterfly” (with the suicide scene) was performed for high school students. I spoke with some of them specifically to gauge their opinions on whether they felt the same issues with the story that I have had.
“Cio-Cio San is a fool, only having eyes for Pinkerton,” one boy told me. “She became isolated because she abandoned her religion and relatives,” another boy added, remarking on the character’s conversion to Christianity. “I’d never wait three years for an absent husband,” one girl said. “It was hard to watch her killing herself in front of her child.”
Despite their critiques on the character’s choices, they said they enjoyed other parts of the experience such as the music. That should give those in the opera community some hope that they’ll be able to continue to attract an audience. Oida’s opera has a place in the conversation too, though. I wonder what the same students, many of whom were watching an opera for the first time, would think of the slight alteration that allows Cio-Cio San a second chance at life. If that kind of idea continues to be discussed, maybe one of them will be the person to give her a happier ending one day.