November 19, 2019

The choice to love

By Martha C. Nussbaum

Martha C. Nussbaum is Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago. Her most recent books are The Monarchy of Fear: A Philosopher Looks at Our Political Crisis and The Cosmopolitan Tradition: A Noble But Flawed Ideal.

Madama Butterfly is one of the most beloved operas in the repertory: it ranks number six in performance frequency among all opera performances in the U. S. and Europe during 2009-14. Its popularity is easy to understand, for its soaring, heart-rending lyricism and tragic story of love and commitment have always moved audiences deeply. And yet, Butterfly is also one of the most reviled operas today, charged with a condescending use of ethnic stereotypes and with a cruel objectification of women’s suffering. Audiences need to sort out these debates for themselves, but this note aims to offer some guidance, ultimately giving a strong defense of the work.

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) produced Butterfly in 1904, drawing on a short story by John Luther Long (1897) and a one-act play by David Belasco (1900). Chronologically, the opera is right in the middle of Puccini’s output – later than Manon Lescaut, La bohème, and Tosca, but earlier than La fanciulla del West, Il trittico, and Turandot. Musically, it begins a period during which Puccini’s compositions exhibit increasing harmonic daring, showing the influence of Wagner. It used to be fashionable to condescend to Puccini as a mere crowd-pleaser. Today there is a greater appreciation of his musical depth and daring.

Although the opera had a disastrous premiere, a revised version won success only four months later, with three acts instead of the original long second act; there were other cuts and changes. Puccini kept revising until a “standard version” emerged by 1907. Furthermore, his notebooks show sketches for scenes that were never performed. Of particular interest is a long scene in the U.S. consulate, where Cio-Cio San (Butterfly), taunted by Pinkerton’s American wife Kate as a “plaything,” stands up for herself and the integrity of her marriage. Unfortunately this scene is not finished enough to perform; it would have enhanced the opera’s portrayal of Cio-Cio-San’s strength and assertiveness. Throughout the opera, Puccini and his librettists display serious research into Japanese culture, particularly in their depiction of Cio-Cio-San’s impoverished but rigidly proud samurai family, who reject her when she converts to Christianity.

Today, two related complaints are made against the opera under the heading of “cultural appropriation”: one about casting, the other about the opera’s use of cultural stereotypes. Theater has always been a medium of self-change and artifice. Gender-crossing is only one way in which theater and opera invite our imaginations to go beyond their usual confines. When executed with respect and genuine curiosity, such crossing reveals fascinating human depths and commonalities. So I think the complaint cannot validly be that only Asian singers should sing Asian roles, any more than that Lyric’s Cio-Cio-San, Ana María Martínez, should stick to Puerto Rican roles.

The real issue behind the casting objection is that we know that minority artists have often been denied any roles: the performing arts in general used to cast Asian and Latinx roles with white performers only. To answer this complaint, an opera company must show, I believe, not that it adheres narrowly to ethnic type in casting – for surely it is thrilling to see African-American tenor Lawrence Brownlee as Count Almaviva, African-American bass-baritone Eric Owens as Wotan, and Latina Ana María Martínez as Cio-Cio-San – but rather, that the company, as a whole, creates ample opportunities for artists of color to shine in a wide range of roles. Casting decisions involve a range of complex issues that need to be considered on a case-by-case basis. I would respectfully disagree with those who insist that Butterfly be performed only by an Asian artist. Rather, I believe, there is a need to see Asian and other minority singers exhibiting their talents everywhere in the repertory. (For example, one of the most moving and vocally impressive performances I have ever seen was that of Korean bass Kwangchul Youn as Gurnemanz in Wagner’s Parsifal – casting that would have horrified the composer, but that today would bring dignity and illumination to any opera house.)  I believe, however, that out of sensitivity to a history of mockery and denigration, Butterfly should not be made up in “yellow-face”: makeup should let us see the artifice – even while, as an actress, Martínez shows her respectful grasp of Japanese styles of movement, discussed in her program article for Lyric.

Another, and more serious, “cultural appropriation” charge is that white Western artists typically demean other cultures by showing them as childish and morally bad, often using negative cultural stereotypes. It’s hard to make this charge stick to Butterfly, a profoundly anti-American and anti-colonialist opera. The shallowness, rapacity, and Yankee solipsism of Pinkerton (“America forever!") make him one of opera’s most unattractive tenor “heroes,” and this is clearly Puccini’s goal. Indeed, he gave Pinkerton a mildly sympathetic aria of his own, in Act Three, only late in the revision process, after tenors refused the role. The opera does indeed contain a critique of samurai culture, but it is drawn from Japanese critiques and has had the approval of serious students of the period. Obviously any artist who ventures to depict a culture that has often been stigmatized and marginalized runs a moral risk. But great art is full of such risks, and even deeply flawed artists sometimes succeed beyond their daily selves – as Tolstoy, whose real-life views of women and sex were full of objectionable stereotypes, created, in Anna Karenina, a complex female character who captivates the imaginations of both women and men.

If, then, the “cultural appropriation” charge means that only a Japanese woman (say) should be permitted to portray the experiences and feelings of a Japanese woman, this charge makes two related errors. First, it assumes that we know ourselves, and speak adequately for our own “group.” Surely this is false: we are often blinkered about ourselves, and learn a great deal from the perspective of another. Second, it appears to assume that we may never understand what a different type of person feels or thinks. Well, of course, we never achieve complete understanding of any human life, including, and especially, our own. But the attempt to do so, with strenuous exercise of imagination and emotion, is a vital basis for good citizenship in a plural society. Dramatic art requires such bold attempts, on the part of both author and performer. What particularly needs to be avoided is failure to make the attempt seriously, strenuously, with deep engagement with the full and bottomless humanity of the “other.” Many Western portrayals of Asia and Africa have been lazy and crude, full of demeaning stereotypes, and that is the right target of criticism. Does Butterfly make an attempt to understand a human being that is deep and serious, or does it treat this Japanese woman as a mere object of audience condescension, rather than as a full human being – for example, by buying into the demeaning stereotype of the Asian woman as childish and deferential?

My own verdict on Butterfly is that there is some use of “local color” that does invite a mostly white and western audience to assume a detached and merely touristic attitude to Japan, seeing its customs as quaint. One might possibly object to that, as well as to the atmospheric use of stereotypical musical gestures in some early scenes. But the critique doesn’t fit the core of the work, for at its heart the opera is a story of love and devotion. And it depicts a young Japanese woman as a vitally strong heroine deserving of our most passionate respect and our curious sympathy. If seeing heroism in another culture is deemed a vice, we’d better abandon all prospect for mutual understanding and reciprocity in this world of difference.

But is Butterfly actually heroic? Surely she is a young victim of sexual exploitation. She even compares herself to a butterfly immobilized with a pin. So isn’t the opera asking audiences to become accomplices in her sexualized humiliation? So, at least, goes a criticism of Puccini eloquently made by philosopher Bernard Williams. His critique does fit some surface aspects of the work: she is described as only fifteen, and she is indeed taken advantage of by both the marriage-broker Goro and Pinkerton. And indeed Belasco’s play does depict her as a mere child, without intelligence or initiative, speaking a ridiculous pidgin. However, as we gradually see, Puccini’s opera depicts this Cio-Cio-San as a strong and intelligent woman, and she displays increasing strength throughout the opera. She chooses: to leave her family for Pinkerton and his religion; to face down their criticism; to reject Yamadori and other potential suitors. In the deleted scene in the consulate she even shows great knowledge of the law!

Nor does Puccini’s music depict Cio-Cio-San as a frail or flighty person: indeed it is a role requiring great vocal strength and maturity. And in the love duet, where she does mention the butterfly image, Cio-Cio-San already emerges, musically, as very far from a passive victim: she is fully and actively involved in the reciprocal gift of self; indeed at some points, musically, she takes the lead.

There is a view, common among the young professional women I teach at the University of Chicago Law School, that vulnerability to deep pain is a weakness to be avoided, and that romantic love itself is weakness, if that is what it requires. (And of course, that is what it does require.) Women, the view goes, have too long been passive victims; we must take charge and reject that type of vulnerability. But this view is confused. It is certainly right for women to reject exploitation and victimization, and right again to notice that women have all too often been given no other choices. But strength and autonomy do not require the rejection of love with the depths of vulnerability and potential pain to which love often leads. Butterfly, in fact, is both strong and autonomous, within the confines of the path life has opened to her. She does not have to love; she might have been a successful professional by looking for the best offer.  But she chooses love. Repeatedly people try to dissuade her, but she is stubborn and sticks to her choice.

Puccini’s music for his heroine conveys this idea – the choice to love – indelibly. Cio-Cio-San’s famous second-act aria “Un bel dì” expresses utter exposure and unconditional devotion, which is a strong way of living, not a weak way. Through our sympathy with her story, we understand that she is the strong one and Pinkerton is the weak one, because she has unswerving devotion to an ideal, even when things are hard. And when she runs out of options, she chooses, deliberately, a heroic death, the death of honor her samurai father bequeathed to her. Her suicide aria has great dignity and weight, as well as expressing unconditional love for her child. As a mother, I find myself tempted to think that for a mother to abandon her child to others and choose suicide is weak. As Cio-Cio-San sees it, however, she is choosing an open future for her child in the culture and religion she has chosen, while leaving him the memory of a mother who was strong enough to die with honor.  


Puccini lost his heart to his heroine, and so will you, in music of miraculous beauty and aching, deeply poignant dramatic truth.

Lyric production revival of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly generously made possible by

Lauter McDougal Charitable Fund

Sylvia Neil and Daniel Fischel

Randy L. and Melvin R.⁰ Berlin

⁰ deceased

Marion A. Cameron



A coproduction of Lyric Opera of Chicago, Houston Grand Opera, and Grand Théâtre de Genève.

Photos: Lynn Lane/Houston Grand Opera, Felix Sanchez/Houston Grand Opera