Madame Butterfly Review, Grand Opera House York


An outstanding performance overshadowed by operatic Orientalism

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Image by Senbla

By Juliette Barlow

On a gloomy Yorkshire night, I was lucky enough to be transported to the beautiful landscape of Japan for an operatic performance of Madama Butterfly. Directed by Ellen Kent, the Ukrainian Opera and Ballet theatre brought Puccini’s classic tale to the York Opera House.

The plot revolves around US Navy Lieutenant, Mr B.F Pinkerton (Sorin Lupu) who uses marriage broker Goro to arrange his marriage to a Japanese geisha wife, Cio-Cio-San, known as ‘Madame Butterfly’ (Alyona Kistenyova.) Alongside his marriage, he gains a house overlooking the Nagasaki harbour, which comes with three servants, including Butterfly’s loyal maid and friend Suzuki (Natalia Matveeva.)

In the opening scene, where Pinkerton discusses his upcoming marriage with US Consul Sharpless, (Olexandr Forkushak) the contractual nature of the marriage becomes evident, with Pinkerton simply seeking exoticism and pleasure. He does not view it as a real marriage; he is waiting to marry a ‘proper American bride.’ Sharpless warns him that Butterfly will not see the marriage in this way, but Pinkerton, blinded by his own selfish desires, knowingly misleads her. Butterfly, on the other hand, could not be more excited for the wedding. Her excitement is perfectly encapsulated by the expressive Kistenyova, whose honey-like voice is perfectly complemented by the fluttering fans and trilling voices of the ensemble. This, alongside the flurry of activity on stage, truly makes the audience feel as though they themselves are part of the congregation.

During the ceremony, Butterfly’s Uncle, ‘The Bonze’ appears, criticising Butterfly for abandoning her culture and family in this way. He leaves, with the guests, who disown her and cast her out from her family. The raw emotion and abandonment is portrayed impeccably, with Butterfly’s friends and family forming an ominous semicircle around her, before dramatically taking their departure to leave Butterfly alone on the floor. This was perfectly complemented by conductor Vasyl Vasylenko’s extremely talented orchestra, who provided the perfect backdrop for the entire performance.

On the night of their wedding, the audience became privy to the incredible range of Butterfly’s and Pinkerton’s rich voices, which flawlessly capture the longing evident from both bride and groom. They discuss people who capture butterflies just to pin them to the wall, with Pinkerton explaining that this is ‘so they won’t fly away.’ This metaphor perfectly encapsulates his intentions with Butterfly, for him, she is simply a beautiful object to control and possess. He is ‘passionate to possess her’ even if crushes ‘her fragile wings;’ he clearly does not care for her wellbeing or see her for anything more than an object of sexual pleasure, an exotic jewel to collect. He particularly is drawn to her ‘small and delicate’ features and submissive and naïve nature. These childlike features are the basis of her appeal; she is quite literally a child bride at 15 years of age.

After spending their wedding night together, Pinkerton abandons his young bride for three years, despite his promise that he would return ‘when the birds next make their nests.’ Butterfly longs for him, and is still steadfast in her belief that he will return, despite the warnings of Suzuki and those around her. This connection between Butterfly and Suzuki is clear to see, with Kistenyova’s despairing hopefulness and Matveeva’s understandable concern for her mistress piercing through their mellisonant voices.

Eventually, Sharpless comes with a letter from Pinkerton announcing his return, although he seems distressed; it is evident he is not telling Butterfly the full story, particularly upon being introduced to her and Pinkerton’s son, Sorrow. Once a cannon announces the arrival of a naval ship, Butterfly is transformed, spending the evening adorning the house and gardens with flowers so it is perfect for the arrival of her beloved. Through the backlit Shoji doors, the audience can see Butterfly, Sorrow and Suzuki spending the long night waiting for Pinkerton’s return. This shadow effect, coupled with the changing of the stage lighting, beautifully illustrated the passage of time, and gave the audience a sense of the anticipation felt by Butterfly herself. Indeed, the whole set design, of a traditional Japanese house complete with cherry blossoms, a Buddhist temple and running water features, provided a stunning set for the storyline.

Upon the arrival of the morning, however, the ugly truth reveals itself. Pinkerton, Sharpless, and Pinkerton’s new American wife Kate (Anastasiia Blokhaha) come to the house to take away the child. Suzuki is burdened with revealing this news to Butterfly, whilst Pinkerton is seemingly distraught at the consequences of his own actions. Despite Lupu’s evidently powerful voice, his redemption arc, is, however, lost on me. Personally, there is no way that the white coloniser man who knowingly sexually exploited a young, vulnerable Japanese girl is the victim of this - or any - story. Finally, the opera ends in dramatic fashion, with Butterfly leaving her child, blindfolded and holding an American flag, to be collected by Pinkerton and Kate, before killing herself with her father’s ancestral knife.

The story is portrayed as a standalone tragedy, a love-affair gone wrong, with Pinkerton seen simply as a thoughtless creep. However, the plot is indicative of wider societal structures of colonialism, where marriages between ‘Western’ men and ‘Eastern’ women served to maintain the heteropatriarchal colonial order of subjugation. The way in which Butterfly is fetishised by Pinkerton echoes wider Orientalist narratives which continue to exist today, where non-Western women are seen as ‘exotic’ or ‘submissive.’ It is not a love-affair gone wrong, it is sexual exploitation of a child bride which recreates unequal and hierarchical power relations. Her subjugation and exploitation is a microcosm of for the way in which Western Imperialism dominates and ‘others’ both non-Western nations and people. This maintenance of American hegemonic rule and hierarchical global order is in turn internalised by Butterfly, who abandons her own religion and legal system to adopt the American version, which she sees as inherently superior. The closing scene illustrates this in particular, where Sorrow is given an American flag, whilst Butterfly kills herself with her father’s traditional Japanese knife, perhaps representing the death of Japanese cultural tradition in favour of American modernity. This, along with Butterfly’s financial dependence on Pinkerton, recreate these unequal and hierarchical power relations, where colonial women were seen as the sexual playthings of Western men.

The story of Madama Butterfly is far from fiction; it is in fact based on two true stories of two separate Japanese women. The first of these is the story of Ki-Hou-San, who ‘married’ a French Captain Pierre Loti in 1885, with Loti himself candidly writing a novel describing this marriage. The second inspiration for Butterfly came from geisha Tsuru Yanamura, who had a son by a British merchant, who then deserted her and took the child, leading her to attempt suicide. Again, these were not simply individual tales; colonial marriages such as these were common during this period, whilst their modern day manifestations continue to exist today. The sexual exploitation and Orientalism of non-Western women is evident in more overt forms, such as white men going to Thailand for sexual tourism, as well as more subtle forms, such as the sexualisation of manga and anime. Similarly, many of today’s beauty standards, which fetishise and idealise hairlessness, submissiveness, and small features, are often rooted in paedophilia and male domination of young girls.

Although the performance was certainly very pleasant, I felt rather uncomfortable watching this wildly Orientalist tale. It is, after all, written by a white Italian man who never set foot in Japan, and, unlike the promotional photos (such as the above) would suggest, is performed by white Western actors who arguably don yellowface through their use of clothing, makeup, and mannerisms to depict Japanese characters. The fact that it is put on to a predominantly white, Western audience as a form of entertainment also recreates the exoticism and fetishisation of Asian culture that makes it so inappropriate in the first place. I am honestly not sure what the alternative should be, as choosing just Japanese performers to carry out a story based on the offensive stereotyping and the domination of their own country also seems extremely problematic; however it is evident that something needs to be done.

Short of removing the opera from the performance circuit, (which due to its highly offensive nature, I do not think would be entirely unacceptable), more needs to be done to highlight how the plot is not simply an individual tragedy, but exists within wider structures of Western domination and oppression. At present, the programme recreates the Orientalism of the story, referring to ‘exotic scenarios’ and ‘Eastern promises.’ If the opera is to continue to be performed, theatres that host these performances have a duty of care to not only situate this story within colonial narratives but also explain its deeply Orientalist and offensive nature. Only then, can we truly enjoy this outstanding opera.