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A Brief Examination of the Tragic Element in Madama Butterfly

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A Brief Examination of the Tragic Element in Madama Butterfly

A Brief Examination of Madama Butterfly’s Tragic Element

Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is an intense display of one woman’s tragic spiral into the depths of false hope and despair ending in her death. The tragic element in this story has many layers, because it derives from the shortcomings that each character possesses. In addition the tragic element, Cio Cio San’s decline and death, is a consequence of the clashing of many cultural variables.

The blame for the tragedy is often placed squarely on Pinkerton. Often, I will hear in discussion among opera enthusiasts, “Pinkerton has got to be one of the most hated characters in opera and, from a performer’s perspective, one of the least appreciated roles when it comes to audience’s reactions at the end of a show.” His behavior is certainly one of many factors that contribute to the sad conclusion of the story. Yet his is the “all the world is my playground” view typical of the somewhat imperialistic America of the early 20th century. He represents a society that easily regards foreign cultures of exotic novelties, as if the entire globe were a theme park.

I wonder if Puccini was attempting to make a political statement with this production. He highlights the inherent faults of two cultures and constructs a premise for these two cultures to clash under the most despairing circumstances. Cio Cio San either really loves Pinkerton or she loves the idea of what benefits marrying an American will bring her, essentially freeing her from a life she does not want. Either way, she buys into an illusion and thereby contributes to her own downfall. Pinkerton, as a product of American culture, is predisposed to disregard the seriousness of his actions. From his point of view, he is simply enjoying the harmless perks of an exotic culture. Whether Puccini was attempting political commentary or not, these symbolic incorporations of Japanese and American cultural traits, as perceived by Puccini, within the characters of Pinkerton and Cio Cio San contribute to the culmination of said tragic element in the opera.

If opera audiences are to hate Pinkerton, then they must also thumb their noses at Kate, Sharpless, Goro, Uncle Bonzo, and Suzuki. Kate looked at Cio Cio San in the same manner Pinkerton did in the beginning of the opera: anything but a human being. Sharpless, although his prophetic warnings to Pinkerton about hurting Cio Cio San may offer some redemption, he did not extend his hand out to help Cio Cio San except to pity her. He did not see Cio Cio San as a human being either. Goro is a despicable product of his culture: LOVE FOR SALE!! Uncle Bonzo

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