I hadn’t realized that such sharp divisions between the world views of the US military and America's diplomats extended back into the nineteenth century until I saw Puccini’s Madame Butterfly performed by the Santa Fe Opera on August 9. It was a rave review kind of performance – indeed New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini had given it one on July 26.
(Photo above by Ken Howard courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera: Goro - marriage broker performed by Keith Johnson; Lt. Pinkerton by Brandon Jovanovich; and Consul Sharpless by James Westman, 2010)
But what intrigued me most about this opera – composed by an Italian and premiered at La Scala in 1904 – was how differently the US naval lieutenant B(enjamin) F(ranklin) Pinkerton and American Consul Sharpless resident in Nagasaki where Pinkerton decided to take on a temporary bride while his warship was in port, approached the world even then. The opera was based on a short novel by Philadelphia lawyer and Japanophile John Luther Long. The story was then turned into a play in 1900 by David Belasco - an American theater producer and author. This play is what Giacomo Puccini saw performed in London just when he was searching for inspiration for his next opera.
Over the years, Madame Butterfly has become one of those war horse staples that is perhaps performed too often – occupying more of the opera world’s calendar than some would like. But the story and music and in this case – cast, orchestra and staging - were so strong – it’s no wonder that this turn of the twentieth century masterpiece has remained such a crowd pleaser.Booing Pinkerton
In an Albuquerque Journal review of opening night (review behind a pay wall), the reporter cum critic, reported that the audience booed Pinkerton. The reporter dutifully added that this was something very rare for the Santa Fe Opera. No explanations given. (Photo right by Ken Howard courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera: Kelly Kaduce as Cio-Cio San, Madame Butterfly)
What the Journal reporter failed to grasp – even I could have written a better review – was that tenor Brandon Jovanovich had so successfully portrayed Lt. Pinkerton that the audience was simultaneously applauding his performance while condemning his callous behavior.
That a Santa Fe audience would have little sympathy for American military misbehavior abroad is no surprise. It is one of America’s two most liberal and anti-war cities – second only to San Francisco. Nevertheless, most of the well-heeled audience came from elsewhere. But let’s face it, people who like opera do not necessarily have the same interests as those who hang out in seafront bars, engage in marriages of “convenience” abroad or embark on two year cruises to anywhere and everywhere courtesy of the US military. (Photo left by Ken Howard courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera: Kelly Kaduce as Cio Cio San, Madame Butterfly and Makai Pope as Trouble)
Plus ca change, plus la même chose
Sadly, Pinkerton’s cocky, can-do, devil-may-care attitude personifies too much of the image of the US military as seen abroad – especially in parts of Asia. Here today; gone tomorrow. No regrets. Fun and games. No understanding of the language or culture. Easy come; easy go. But, as Madame Butterfly showed, it’s terrible for the women these men leave behind. Not to mention the harm it can inflict on their American families at home.
Certainly the Pinkerton caricature does not fit all US servicemen abroad – likely not even most – but its does some – even today. And even one can tarnish the country’s image in foreign hearts and minds. Let’s face it, an overstretched military cannot be as selective as it would like – and it is not and has not been providing the kind of cultural and linguistic training our troops need to be successful personal emissaries abroad.
The Consul's warning went unheeded
Consul Sharpless, in contrast to Pinkerton, understood Japanese culture. He warned Pinkerton against engaging in a temporary marriage with the 15 year old Butterfly because of the long term devastating effects the relationship would have on her. Sharpless’ warning went unheeded - as Butterfly’s tragic life unfolded on the stage. (Photo left by Ken Howard courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera: Makai Pope as Trouble, Kelly Kaduce as Cio Cio San, Madame Butterfly and Brandon Jovanovich as Lt. Pinkerton)
This same tragic “love-em and leave’em” sailor's tale has subsequently been played out in theaters – think, for instance, Miss Saigon – and countless times in real life. I saw the latter when I served at the US Embassies in Manila and Bangkok during different stages of my Foreign Service career.
How much good does it do the US government to send troops well equipped with the latest battle gear if their personal behavior is less than stellar - especially in the wars of today. In fact, it seems to me the Pentagon might be far more effective abroad if it taught its personnel how to understand and relate to very different cultures. Listening to voices of experience who do know a country and its culture well – like the cautionary Consul - before undertaking difficult missions in faraway lands should be included in the package. (Photo right by Ken Howard courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera: Makai Pope as Trouble and Kelly Kaduce as Cio Cio San, Madame Butterfly)