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Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly has long been a lightning rod for cultural critique. Robert Wilson’s minimalist re-staging, while not devoid of ethnic stereotypes, charts new spaces for this butterfly to soar.
A comment in a recent Los Angeles Times Calendar story drew my attention to the current revival of the L.A. Opera’s stunningly minimalist 2004 presentation of Puccini’s legendary -- and often controversial -- opera Madama Butterfly. “This is no ordinary ‘Butterfly,’” writes Donna Perlmutter. “Instead, director Robert Wilson has rethought the story in austerely abstract terms, entirely removing its emblems of a culture clash between 1900s Americana and still-feudal Japan.” The quote suggests a de-ethnicization and de-politicization through abstraction, an idea that could in many ways defuse critics of the opera’s reliance on stereotypes of Japan as being feminine and subordinate to the West.
Obviously, that sort of ethnic neutralization is impossible. For one, Puccini’s music and libretto are intact. The Western stereotypes of Eastern music remain: the “Japanese” musical themes are a standard pentatonic carried by “Asian” instruments. The story itself -- about an American naval officer who marries a Japanese geisha and then leaves her for an American woman --is left unchanged, and thus the backbone of the culture clash remains. It should also be noted that Puccini’s opera is almost as egregious in its stereotypes of the American: he is Colonel Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton who steps off the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln. His theme, a fragment of the “Star Spangled Banner,” is as reductive as the pentatonic scales.
Ethnicity also persists in the theatrical interpretation. No serious visual artist (and I consider Robert Wilson one) has sincerely believed in the tenants of abstract minimalism since the days of high modernism, and thus the “impurities” -- in this case race --are not ignored. In fact, Japanese culture seems to still be the force dictating the abstractions: the spacious sets evoke Japanese stone gardens and Noh Theater, while many of the costumes look like leftovers from a space-age version of Samurai Jack. Meanwhile, the arm and leg movements of the Japanese characters mimic someone’s ridiculous vision of Japanese servants meekly shuffling their feet as they race to please their masters; the way their elbows are at a perpetual right angle and the robotic way they rotate as they walk make them look like Oriental C3-POs.
That said, I don’t in fact believe that de-ethnicization was the intention of Wilson’s staging. What then is the meaning of the abstraction beyond the obvious eye candy? The idea of vast minimalist space in an opera about East-West relations is an intriguing one, and it remains poignant throughout the opera’s three hours. Blank space is a useful strategy of conceptualizing the psychology and cultural dimensions of Madama Butterfly. In many ways, this is an opera about inhabiting space itself: the opening lines are of Col. Pinkerton singing about the strange Japanese house he has just bought for his new bride. That house then becomes the set for the second act, in which the geisha, Cio-Cio San, is literally encased in that space, a prisoner of her deadbeat husband’s patriarchal and colonialist negligence.
But what’s most fascinating to me is the blank, expansive blue screen behind all of the action. The way the wood boards and stone path are arranged onstage makes the blue background signify the limits of an infinite horizon. That horizon could be read as the American dream to which Cio-Cio San aspires. American mythology is built around the myth of the land: expansive, limitless, uninhabited, and ripe for conquest. It’s only fitting then that Cio-Cio San’s dream is an abstraction, something she can’t completely understand and which has been filtered to her through the scoundrel Pinkerton. In the final moments of the first act, the geisha and her husband are in the bottom right corner of the proscenium, and she sings lovingly toward the wide blue space about her expectations of immigration: an escape from her family’s poverty; her conversion to Christianity. The tragedy of course is that in the final act, she never attains her American dream. In fact, the only character who has the ability and perhaps naiveté to explore the horizon is her young, half-American son, who, in a ballet-like instrumental sequence, prances arm-stretched into the back of the stage. Incidentally, he is the only one who will ultimately arrive in the U.S..
Through this staging and design, Wilson’s Madama Butterfly becomes a critique of the American dream via the character of a betrayed Japanese immigrant. In that way, Cio-Cio San is endowed with more strength as a character even beyond the conflicted yearning expressed in arias such as the legendary “Un bel dì,” here given a stellar interpretation by Patricia Racette. As for the minimalism, the absence of Japanese props in fact liberates her from the historically specific stereotypes of the submissive Japanese woman. While we still see markers of Japanese-ness, what’s gone are the specificities of the “universe” containing an illusion of the decorative, exotic, mythic Japan of our collective unconscious. Gone are the teapots, the tatami mats, the kimonos, the samurai swords that obsess -- and therefore problematize -- an immature and uninteresting fiasco like Rob Marshall’s Memoirs of a Geisha. The blankness here allows us each to reconceptualize the spaces of the opera in our own ways. As viewers we fill in the spaces of our own “Japan,” and that sort of audience agency within the limits of Puccini’s music and Wilson’s staging makes for a powerful and invigorating audio-visual experience.
I’ll admit that my reading of the opera’s space may be informed by my position as an Asian-American interested in representations of Asian migration and American culture. That I could find such a moving elaboration of the Asian-American experience in an opera traditionally so repulsive that writer David Henry Hwang wrote an angry play (M. Butterfly) in response, is testament to the ability of Wilson’s vision to jump-start new interpretations of a canonical work.
Date Posted: 2/9/2006