Sunday, March 8, 2009

Madame Butterfly, Nagasaki and Empire

I don't know much about opera, but I have been intending to see if I can add it to the kinds of music I like (Rock, Folk, Classical, Jazz, World Beat ...). The community theater in Point Arena, California has been one of the theaters showing simulcasts from the New York Metropolitan Opera. Saturday I went and watched Madame Butterfly (aka Madama Butterfly).

Madame Butterfly, as with many operas, it is about love and infidelity. The protagonist is a young Japanese girl who has a marriage arranged with an American Navy Lieutenant, some time in the second half of the 19th century. He never intends it to be a real wedding; it is a method for cheap whoring. But Madame Butterfly falls deeply in love with him. He sails away; she remains true, and gives birth to a son he does not know about. She desperately maintains the fantasy that B. F. Pinkerton really loves her. When he returns to Japan three years later he is married to an American woman, and they take the son. Butterfly kills herself at the ripe old age of 18. The audience cries. I liked it. I might see another opera some day.

What struck me was that Giacomo Puccini chose to set his opera in Nagasaki. Madame Butterfly was first performed in 1904. There was no way Puccini could know that Nagasaki would be one of only two cities on earth, so far, to be vaporized with atomic weapons. He did probably know a lot more than Americans do now about how the U.S. Navy forced itself upon Japan. Since his Japanese characters are not at all westernized, and since the Lieutenant's ship is the Abraham Lincoln, once could conclude that the opera is set around 1870. But that is just artistic license, as it is supposed to be based on an actual event of the 1890s. After 1870 Japan westernized very rapidly. They put together a modern economy, education system, army and navy in less than two decades. In the 1890's they won a war with China, which surprised everyone. A few days before the first production of Madame Butterfly, the Russian-Japanese war began, which Japan won in 1905. This frightened European imperialists almost as much as Anarchism and Marxism. Some powerful Americans began wondering if it had been a good idea, forcing foreign trade upon Japan.

You could see Madame Butterfly as an Italian metaphor for the tragedy of Japan embracing American ways. The Italians, Americans, Russians and Japanese would all be allies the task of dismembering Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire during World War I, but the United States saw Japan as a rival, not a partner, after that.

After the opera ended some of my friends were outside chatting. They are all Democrats. They think they agree with me on most political issues. They say they are for the environment, peace, and social justice. I like to remind them of the differences, but not too often, or we could not be friends.

"What a metaphor. It's like Puccini was a prophet who knew the Democratic Party would drop an atomic bomb on the civilian population of Nagasaki."

A couple of groans, but before they can warn the novices, one asks the automatic I-am-a-brain-dead-liberal question: "What do you mean the Democratic Party dropped the bomb on Nagasaki?"

"The Democratic Party ruled the U.S. at the time. It controlled both branches of Congress and the Supreme Court. The final decision to drop atomic weapons on two civilian urban areas was made by the head of the Democratic Party, President Truman."

"Well, it ended the war early. And the Republicans would have done the same."

"So you think that if mass killings of civilians will further your war aims, like giving you an earlier victory, then killing them is not a war crime?"

Silence. Veins bursting. I was hoping for a "Yes," so I could compare Truman to Hitler and Bush, but failing that I went on.

"According to the record, the only advisor to Truman to oppose the use of atomic weapons against civilians was a Republican. Dwight Eisenhower. He believed soldiers should fight soldiers. He was against committing war crimes to achieve strategic objectives."

"That was then. The Democratic Party is different now."

"That must be why President Obama is sending more troops to Afghanistan. That's why the Democrats continued to vote funds for the wars after they gained a majority in the House in 2006."

"You can't achieve anything by being in the Green Party!" This, though said by a woman, was said in a tone that spat venom.

"You can make it perfectly clear that you are not a war criminal. That you are not part of a war crimes organization."

"The Democratic Party is not a war crimes organization!" She yelled this loud enough that pretty much everyone within 50 yards could hear it. Most of the original group of Democrats have already backed away from our circle.

"I would say that any organization that repeatedly commits war crimes is a war crimes organization."

"The Democratic Party has not repeatedly committed war crimes!"

"If you judge the Democratic Party impartially, by the standards that were used to judge the Japanese and Nazis after World War II, then Vietnam offers multiple instances of war crimes. If you have the afternoon to spare and are too lazy to read a history book, I can outline other Democratic Party crimes against humanity and war crimes for you."

"It's a different party now!"

"No, it isn't. Its filled with people like you who will rationalize and apologize for any American military adventure, as long as it is led by a President who is a Democrat."

At that point this peace-loving, Bush-hating, female Democrat, said "I love Obama! I will never, ever vote for a Green Party candidate. Never ever." And stomped off to her own personal hell.

But hopefully she will feel better by the next time I see her at a community event. Living in the heart of the Democratic Party Empire, I do try to get along people.

1 comment:

  1. The one really problematic fact about all of this speculation is the opera's libretto; Puccini didn't commission it. It was a popular American stage play written by David Belasco, an adaptation of a short story by John L. Long. Nagasaki was the portof call for one reason: from the 16th century onward it was Japan's most "Christian" city. It had the largest percentage of converts and was home to Urakami Cathedral, the largest Catholic church in Japan--until it became the epicenter of the atom bomb blast of 9 August 1945.