Arts / Performing Arts

Houston Grand Opera Brings Truth Telling to Madame Butterfly — Looking at a Classic Through the Lens of Modern Times

The Dangers of Triffling With Someone Else's Heart

BY // 01.23.24

“One must not trifle with love.” – Alfred de Musset

Houston Grand Opera is continuing its season with one of opera’s most lyrical and often-performed works: Giacomo Puccini’s masterpiece Madame Butterfly.

It is not just the magnificent music that has captivated audiences since its debut in 1904, first at La Scala and later that year in Brescia. The story also draws you in. It is a searing portrayal of heartbreak and abandonment, centered around the unrequited love of a gentle, trusting girl with its unspeakably sad consequences.

It is Puccini’s genius to give voice to the story in the language he knows best, music. Sometime soaring, sometimes intimate, his score tells its poignant story where mere words might fail.

Houston Grand Opera's Madame Butterfly will run at Wortham Theater Center (Photo by Michael Bishop)
Houston Grand Opera’s Madame Butterfly will run at Wortham Theater Center (Photo by Michael Bishop)

In the opera, Japanese geisha Cio-Cio-San (from the Japanese word for butterfly combined with the honorific san) engages in a contractual marriage with Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, a U.S. naval lieutenant stationed in Nagasaki. Such temporary contracts between Westerners and Japanese women as paid companions emerged in mid-19th century Japanese treaty ports.

While Pinkerton does not view the marriage as a serious commitment, young Cio-Cio-San — or Madame Butterfly as she is known for her delicate beauty and sweetness — falls deeply in love with Pinkerton and believes she is wed unto him in a true lifelong marriage.

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After he departs on his ship for the United States, Butterfly waits faithfully for three years for his return, rebuffing other suitors and — unbeknownst to Pinkerton — raising the little boy their union produced. When Pinkerton finally returns with Kate, his American wife, the brutally sad ending unfolds in unforgettable fashion.

Madame Butterfly’s story will be sung by internationally renowned soprano Ailyn Pérez. Last November, she played the title role in the Metropolitan Opera’s Florencia en el Amazonas. The New York Times’ esteemed reviewer Zachary Woolfe callas Pérez “the uncontested star: wistful, tender, and sincere, her voice not enormous but generously delivered, her high notes glistening.”

Tenor Yongzhao Yu will play Pinkerton. Yu was most recently seen as Rodolfo in the Berkshire Opera Festival’s La Bohème. Writing for Berkshire on Stage, Roseann Cane observed: “The cast of this production is a joy to listen to. Yu’s exuberant tenor is transformative, bringing Rodolfo to new heights.”

Yongzhao Yu as Pinkerton and Ailyn Pérez as Madame Butterfly in a rehearsal of Houston Grand Opera's Madame Butterfly (Photo by Michael Bishop)
Yongzhao Yu as Pinkerton and Ailyn Pérez as Madame Butterfly in a rehearsal of Houston Grand Opera’s Madame Butterfly (Photo by Michael Bishop)

Madame Butterfly’s Layered Origins

You may not know that Madame Butterfly is largely a true story. It first appeared in 1887 as a novel titled Madame Chrysanthème by French author Pierre Loti. It’s told in the form of an autobiographical journal the author kept in the summer of 1885 while stationed in Nagasaki and temporarily married to “Kiku” (Chrysanthemum). The book is now in the public domain and available without charge in both audio and print.

Unlike the opera, Madame Chrysanthème is told from Loti’s point of view. His journal entry the day he boards the ship bound for China, leaving Chrysanthemum behind, tells us how he feels about his summer marriage:

“Well, little mousmé, let us part good friends; one last kiss even, if you like. I took you to amuse me; you have not perhaps succeeded very well, but after all you have done what you could. . . and who knows, perchance I may yet think of you sometimes when I recall this glorious summer, these pretty quaint gardens, and the ceaseless concert of the cicadas.”

Also unlike in the opera, Chrysanthemum did not end her own life. While Butterfly’s fervent love burned so hot for Pinkerton she couldn’t live without it, Loti understands Chrysanthemum returned in kind the empty politesse that coated the true nature and purpose of the relationship he offered her. He describes what he saw as he turned at the gate to bid a final goodbye. Loti calls it her “grand final salutation:”

“She prostrates herself on the threshold of the door, her forehead against the ground, and remains in this attitude of superlatively polite salute as long as I am in sight, while I go down the pathway by which I am to disappear forever.”

A short story by John Luther Long (1898) based on Loti’s book was turned into a one-act play by American David Belasco — Madame Butterfly, A Tragedy of Japan. It premiered in New York in 1900 before moving to London the same year. A spectator in the audience that summer was Giacomo Puccini.

Madame Chrysanthemum with author Pierre Loti on the right and French sailor Pierre Le Cor on the left, 1885 (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)
Madame Chrysanthemum with author Pierre Loti on the right and French sailor Pierre Le Cor on the left, 1885 (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Reframing Madame Butterfly

Recent years have produced new historical research on the subject of Western colonialism, along with heightened racial sensitivity and the rejection among women in the last half century of passively accepting male domination in any area of domestic or political life. As a result of these new understandings, issues with the plot of Madame Butterfly have become obvious, prompting opera companies to consider various approaches in direction and emphasis.

Houston Grand Opera has presented two previous productions of Madame Butterfly, with Michael Grandage as director in 2010 and Louisa Muller as revival director in 2015.

Jordan Braun is the revival director for Houston Grand Opera’s current production. She is intimately acquainted with Madame Butterfly, having been associate stage director for the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s’ production in 2020. This year for Houston, Braun says she is interested in exploring Butterfly and Pinkerton in terms of each one’s unique perspective, motivation and intention.

In an HGO commentary on Instagram, Braun notes a comment made by Houston Grand Opera CEO and general director Khori Dastoor that “All of the season’s pieces were chosen around truth telling and who gets to tell their story.”

For Pinkerton, Braun says, “Butterfly is sort of a fantasy. Pinkerton has a fantasy marriage or a marriage he believes is a fantasy.” That is the truth the opera has Pinkerton’s character tell – at least the truth he tells to himself.

For Butterfly, Braun says, the marriage is “very real, very true. It’s her real marriage.” That is the truth Butterfly shows us that she believes. At least the truth of which she convinces herself.

Ensemble of Houston Grand Opera's Madame Butterfly (Photo by Michael Bishop)
Ensemble of Houston Grand Opera’s Madame Butterfly (Photo by Michael Bishop)

The reality of the relationship does not match the fantasy of either Butterfly or Pinkerton, however. Reality comes in the form of their son. Butterfly has named him Trouble but says when his father returns, his name will become Joy. Pinkerton returns  – yes, after a fashion, but the child’s name cannot become Joy. Breaking through the fantasies, reality becomes devastating for all three of them.

By taking this approach, and having cast the roles in a manner that is not culturally dependent, Braun’s work has the potential to transcend the transitory concerns of a moment in history. The opera allows us to explore eternal truths of human nature, the fragility and nobility of the human heart, and the judgement that might befall one who fails to handle with care a heart given with pure love and trust.

Houston Grand Opera’s “Madame Butterfly” by Giacomo Puccini runs at the Wortham Theater Center this Friday, January 26 through Sunday, February 11. For more information and tickets, go here

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