Last week my mother, sister and I deviated from our usual Friday night routine of pasta, pizza and red vino and tasted a little upmarket culture by venturing to the opera. Madam Butterfly was performing at Wales’ Millennium Centre, and we decided to join the audience. Having always been loyal musical theatre fans, we chose to take things up a notch and a few keys. The closest we’d ever been to a fully-fledged opera was during our visit to Vienna last Easter. We watched the Wiener Residenzorchester perform at Palais Aursperg, which was a truly spellbinding experience. The setting itself was spectacular as the stage stood under a canopy of chandeliers. The orchestra was accompanied by a dazzling ballet display and an operatic rally of falsetto and tenor voices competed and complimented each other.
Now in Cardiff, it was time to spend two and a half hours solely focused on the opera, and this time there was to be subtitles. The spectators weren’t donned in ball gowns, pearls and mink coats as I had envisioned, but there were no jeans, Vans or “Wicked” T-shirts in sight. So far, I thought we were just about blending in. Madam Butterfly is the operatic sister of the musical Miss Saigon, which I’ve been desperate to see for years. I had a vague idea of the story, so felt the Japanese setting, Italian verses and Welsh subtitles wouldn’t confuse my senses too much. In brief, the story is a tragedy about a young Japanese geisha, Cho-Cho-San, affectionately known as Butterfly, who falls in love and marries an American naval officer, Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton. He then leaves Japan, she gives birth to his child and spends years pining after him longing for his return. Given, it’s not the cheeriest of tales.
One of the most striking things about the story for me was the level of female exploitation. Butterfly loses her innocence, religion and (spoiler) her life. Women are treated as disposable commodities, as servants to unruly men throughout, which left me feeling uneasy and the feminist in me enraged. By the time this Japanese girl turns 18 she’s been forced to become a geisha, has been married, pregnant and abandoned by her husband and eventually takes her own life. Putting it mildly, she gets a pretty rough deal. GCSEs and A levels were a rough ride, but my teenage years were spent in a safety bubble, guarded by a lioness of a mother and a Dad who is part Terminator. Not to mention the basic human rights that sealed my cushy existence. I found it difficult to appreciate the skill of the singers, the craftsmanship of the set and subtleties of the orchestra when faced with an inescapable fact: the value of a girl’s life can be determined by race, religion and the will of men.
Watching Pinkerton try to seduce a child wasn’t comfortable viewing. And whilst the second half wasn’t without its sorrows, I felt I could relax and enjoy the performance in a way I couldn’t in the first. With Pinkerton mostly out of sight, the depiction of female friendship came to the forefront of the plot, which was one of the most beautiful parts of the story. The duet between Butterfly and her maid, Suzuki which is sung as they prepare the house ahead of Pinkerton’s fateful return was the standout performance in my eyes. It is infused with the naïve hope of a jilted wife and the unwavering support of a friend. As you watch both women decorate the house with flowers you are confronted with a heart-breaking melody about wishful innocence and harsh reality. In the end, innocence loses as Butterfly’s life is lost when she discovers Pinkerton has remarried and the ending of her happily ever after had been rewritten.
Leaving the theatre a team member down, as my sister gave up on the performance at half time, I was pleased I had experienced my first opera. Despite the slightly awkward moment when my mother and I had burst out laughing at quite a pivotal dramatic scene, I thought we’d done quite well not to draw attention to ourselves. The opera singers’ voices and the orchestra were incredible and demanded your full attention as the minimalistic set really let the lead voices and instruments shine. After a while you stopped realising you were reading the subtitles and got used to a different way of enjoying music. Needless to say, I didn’t leave my seat in quite the same theatrical mood as I was used to after watching a musical. Musical theatre will always have my heart, with its uplifting feel-good anthems, extravagant sets, perfectly choreographed dance routines and its ability to make you feel that anything is possible. But in leaving Madam Butterfly I was reminded of just how much of a feminist I am, which is pretty much the same thing.