Tuesday, September 20, 2011

M(Adam) Butterfly: A Brief Introduction

The gist: Life really does imitate art, in case you thought that was a fake thing. Also, Weezer!

Generally, I know next to nothing about opera. I can talk books and movies and TV and music and games and even certain kinds of live performance, to a degree, but I just don’t know opera, have never been taught opera and, indeed, have never watched an opera, at least in the strictest sense of the term. I mean, I attended one, but I was blindfolded so I couldn’t watch it. What a weird birthday.

Just recently, however, I wikistumbled into limited knowledge about the opera Madame Butterfly. It happened as a result of running late to work. When Morning Becomes Eclectic starts in, I know I’m my computer monitor is conspicuously blank. On this particular slow-moving morning, I was behind enough that I heard all of the show’s first song, a strange blend of operatic singing, spoken word and that very 80s variety of pop that sounds familiar even if you haven’t heard it before. The song, it turns out, was an experimental piece by Malcolm McLaren, a guy I know primarily for managing The Sex Pistols and being responsible for that downtempo remix of “She’s Not There” that plays during the Mexican hotel scene at the end of Kill Bill, Vol. Two. That song I like. This opera-influenced one I can’t recommend, exactly, but it’s enough of a curiosity that music buffs should want to give it a spin, just for the “This exists?” factor.

It’s a riff of the Madame Butterfly story, complete with the more famous parts of Puccini’s opera. Not knowing the story, I looked it up. Here’s a quick synopsis, via Wikipedia:
In 1904, an American navy man, Pinkerton, marries a Japanese woman — Cio-Cio San, nicknamed Butterfly — while he’s staying in Nagasaki. She converts from Buddhism to Christianity for him. However, he leaves and does not return for years. Butterfly insists that Pinkerton will come back to both her and the son she bore in his absence. When Pinkerton does return to Japan, Butterfly spots his ship and spends the entire night waiting for him. Pinkerton eventually arrives at Butterfly’s house, but he brings the new wife and the news that he intends to collect his son. Butterfly, heartbroken, apologizes to Buddha and then kills herself.
Very sad stuff, of course — it is a tragic opera, after all — and there’s something particularly moving in the image of the woman waiting up all night, thinking that the person she loves will come running back to her at any moment, when everybody but her knows that he will not.

Now, knowing that Madame Butterfly is also called Madama Butterfly, I assumed that M. Butterfly — a play that became a movie that I know mostly by virtue of it being one of the only major David Cronenberg-directed work that I haven’t seen — must be yet another version of the same story. It is not. M. Butterfly is, in fact, a separate but related work inspired by the opera.

Here is another quick synopsis:
Rene Gallimard works in the French embassy in China, where he falls in love with a beautiful opera singer, Song Liling, not realizing that the Beijing opera casts men in all the roles. Song does not explain this to Gallimard, and they fall in love anyway. Ultimately, Song comes with Gallimard back to France, where Song’s true gender is revealed. Gallimard is jailed and then commits harakiri.
You can draw parallels easily — the enmeshing of orientalism with occidentalism, trans-Eurasian love, deception leading to suicide. But here’s the thing: M. Butterfly is also based on real events.

A third quick synopsis:
In 1964, Bernard Bouriscot was a 20-year-old employed at the French embassy in China. Finally out of school and off in a foreign land, he sought to fall in love with a woman, having previously only experienced sex with other men. He met Shi Pei Pu, a Chinese opera singer who told him that he was a woman dressing and posing as a man. The two fell in love, allegedly only having sex in the dark so that Bouriscot believed Shi was female and shy-in-a-Chinese-way about her body. At some point, he began giving Shi the kind of documents you’re not supposed to give to other countries. Shi, meanwhile produced a boy — actually purchased the kid, but whatever — and claimed it was Bouriscot’s. Finally, 20 years into the affair, Shi was found out when Bouriscot attempted to bring him to France to live as his wife. The couple’s treason was revealed and, during the subsequent trial, so was the truth of Shi’s biological gender. Bouriscot slit his own throat. He survived. Shi remained in Paris, working as an opera singer. The two had no contact with each other in their remaining years, and their son grew up in France. 
Bouriscot is still alive. Shi, pictured below, died in 2009. 

Bouriscot once commented, “When I believed it, it was a beautiful story.” And it is, in its own strange way. In fact, the strangeness of it all may actually make it especially beautiful, even if these quirks ultimately caused the story to end. In my estimation, of the three stories I’ve told in this post, the one that actually happened is the best. Beneath the political and anatomical levels lies a story about two people who felt something so profound that it eclipsed every limitation imposed on it. I’m fascinated how roles swap and shift between Madame Butterfly, M. Butterfly and the real-life events that occurred between the two works — who’s deceiving whom, who’s exhibiting that constant, unbreakable type of love that should elicit both admiration and pity in anyone observing it. And I’m awed that such a similar story could play out three times, over the course of a century, in such an observable way.

There’s a bit more to be done with the story, a few more cultural connections to make, as if the story didn’t already pull enough together. For example, I can’t say whether David Henry Hwang, the author of M. Butterfly, did this intentionally, but what his play lacks and what Madame Butterfly has, on a phonetic level, is Adam, a name that effectively means “man.” The notion of masculinity being hidden, even in the title, even on the phonetic level, is too enticing for me not to mention.

The other link I can make between this swirling mass of Madame Butterfly-ness is one that people with my taste in music probably made when they hit the fifth paragraph: Weezer’s second album, Pinkerton. I’d always thought that the title referenced the detectives or at least was a color-coded entry between The Blue Album and The Green Album. But in thinking all this over, I realized the title had to have come from the opera. I mean, come on — “Across the Sea”? “El Scorcho”? The cover art?

Here is that cover art, by the way: “Night Snow at Kambara,” in its original cropping:

Of course, the very plausible connection between Pinkerton and Madame Butterfly was noted by better-educated Weezer fans years ago and is plainly stated on the album’s Wikipedia page. But it’s a good connection to note, and I just want to say that I thought of it on my own, and it was that kind of “Oh, that’s what that is” moments that I don’t have often enough anymore.

Oh, and regarding the Malcolm McLaren video? No, I don’t know why it has a bunch of white ladies in flesh-toned one-pieces bathing together in a seductive manner. I can’t connect all the dots.

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