A Letter from Butterfly
Dear Chicago Reader:
It has come to my attention that you’re collecting the best bad date stories for your annual anti-Valentine’s Day issue. I am herewith submitting my own. In my always-humble opinion, it will be very hard to top. Created by Italian composer Giacomo Puccini with a couple of his librettist pals, and based on an English play by another guy (David Belasco), it is set in Nagasaki, Japan, around 1904, which is also the year it premiered as an opera, in Milan. Puccini had never been to Japan, and the Milanese audience hated it, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
It won’t surprise you to learn that my bad date had been arranged. Actually, purchased. After my father’s demise at his own hand (the honorable death of seppuku), my once-wealthy family had fallen into poverty. I was struggling to support myself as a geisha when a marriage broker approached my mother with an enticing offer. A dashing American naval officer, Lt. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, wanted to wed me and was willing to pay for the privilege. Dazzled by visions of our future together in America and deeply smitten, I converted to Christianity and married the lout. When my family learned of the conversion, they immediately renounced me. Did I mention that I was 15?
All was bliss until B.F. shipped out a few months later, promising to return when “the robins nest” and unaware that I was pregnant. For three long years I waited, positive that he would be true to his word. Imagine my shock when he did return, with an American wife in tow, demanding that I hand over my beloved child to be raised in America as their son. Heartbroken, I seized my father’s knife and followed his example. Or at least, so says Puccini.
After a rough opening and a revision, this version of my tragic romance—buoyed by a truly ravishing score—became one of the 20th century’s favorite tearjerkers. You can see it right now at Lyric Opera, in a revival of a production by Michael Grandage staged there six years ago, with an able new cast headed by soprano Ana María Martínez and tenor Brian Jagde as myself and Pinkerton, under Louisa Muller’s direction, with Henrik Nánási conducting. (On March 4 and 7, we’ll be played by Lianna Haroutounian and Brandon Jovanovich.)
Recently, however, folks have noticed that its archaic treatment of Japanese culture is ignorant; its casting, like this review, has been guilty of blatant appropriation; its touching love story is a #MeToo pedophilia nightmare. To which, I would only add that Pinkerton, that dirtbag, is an intentional symbol of American imperialism, and I, as conceived by Puccini, am honor incarnate. As University of Chicago professor Martha Nussbaum notes in her defensive program essay, whatever its other faults, Puccini wrote “a profoundly anti-American and anti-colonialist opera.” What could be more contemporary?