In honor of the 4th of July, I’d like to discuss the most famous American character in opera, Lieutenant B. F. Pinkerton from Madama Butterfly.
There are two ways of interpreting Pinkerton’s character… no, make that three. He can either be (A) a completely loathsome cad, (B) a reckless and irresponsible yet well-meaning man who doesn’t realize the depth of Butterfly’s devotion until it’s too late, or (C) a tenor who just parks and barks. So far, believe it or not, I’ve never seen Interpretation A in an actual performance. Every Pinkerton I’ve seen so far has either been a B or a C; either tried to make the character sympathetic or done nothing except sing nicely. I’ve read reviews of A Pinkertons, but have yet to see one. But which interpretation is the dominant one in the minds of the masses? A! A! A! I doubt any character in the standard operatic repertoire is more universally despised than Pinkerton. I don’t think I’ve read half as much venom directed toward any other operatic villain: not even Iago or Scarpia. Audiences love to hate them, but they just hate Pinkerton.
I have two questions. This is the first one: Why? As far as villains go, he could be worse! Does every cad in opera, or in real life, eventually feel remorse? I don’t think so! Yes, I know people tend to disdain him for running away from his guilt instead of facing Butterfly and apologizing, but better remorseful and cowardly than completely unrepentant! Besides, Butterfly is his only conquest that we know of and all he does is abandon her, nothing worse. (Honestly, why are people more willing to forgive serial womanizers and rapists like Don Giovanni or the Duke of Mantua?) And it’s not entirely his fault that she waits for three years as her money dwindles away to nothing. Yes, he lies that he’ll come back when the robins nest again, but is it fair to blame him for her still waiting long after the robins nest, instead of realizing she was duped? Nor can we blame him for her being disowned by her family – the decision to convert to Christianity was hers alone. (Yes, I’ve read John Luther Long’s novella – I know that in the book, he actively “Americanizes” her, isolates her from her family, and never expresses any remorse. But that’s the book. We can’t hate the opera character for details that the libretto changes!) And while I know some people consider his wanting to take his child from Butterfly the pinnacle of cruelty, at least he shows interest in the child by doing so! A complete monster would have denied the boy was his and left him to rot in poverty. He’s better than the majority of Vietnam veterans, who did nothing for their half-Asian offspring!
Maybe my viewpoint is skewed because my introduction to the Butterfly story was the musical Miss Saigon, which makes the Pinkerton-equivalent Chris much more sympathetic. But I’ve never hated Pinkerton. I don’t love him, far from it, but I’ve always been open to Interpretation B as well as Interpretation A. I even prefer it slightly, because it makes the whole scenario more complex and less of a black-and-white melodrama. (And because I’m American and don’t like to see my country completely savaged – it’s possible to criticize the imperialist attitudes of that era without completely vilifying us!) But not many critics agree with me! Again and again I’ve read reviews of the opera, either praising A Pinkertons or disdaining B ones, insisting that to make Pinkerton the least bit sympathetic dilutes the drama beyond repair. They seem to think we can only cry for Butterfly if Pinkerton is the world’s most repulsive excuse for a human being.
Which brings me to my second question: Why does it matter? The opera is called Madama Butterfly, not Lt. B.F. Pinkerton! She’s the one whose emotional journey we follow, who has dimensions and grows as a character, who almost never leaves the stage after her entrance, who sings three gorgeous powerhouse arias, two ravishing duets and much more, and whose musical and dramatic requirements are daunting for any soprano! And whether Pinkerton is portrayed as an irredeemable villain or just a reckless fool, does Butterfly’s fate change? No! Regardless of what the tenor is like, she’s still abandoned, still disowned by her family and isolated from her culture, still left to raise a child in poverty, forced to give up said child and left with no honorable choice but death in the end! Everything that makes the opera heartbreaking stays exactly the same in every performance, whether Pinkerton is morally black, morally gray, or just a voice on stationary legs!
In all fairness to the critics, I’ll say this: if you want to view the opera as a biting anti-American political tract, then yes, Pinkerton needs to be loathsome. I think a lot of the critics are wrapped up in the ever-popular concept that True Art Sticks It to the Man. Or else they’re so concerned about the opera’s reputation as a racist, sexist nightmare and of Cio-Cio-San as the “lotus flower” archetype at its worst that they don’t dare express too much love or sympathy for her, so they channel all those feelings into anger at Pinkerton. I definitely think Peter Fox Smith does this in his book A Passion for Opera – the Butterfly chapter is so devoted to spewing venom at Pinkerton that Butterfly herself is almost ignored, as if she were just a pathetic doll who only exists to make us despise the man who abandons her. It’s funny that these critics and professors seem to think the only way to make the opera PC is by making it revolve around the American male antagonist and reducing the importance of the Japanese heroine.
I’d honestly like to see an Interpretation A Pinkerton sometime. Maybe if I saw a tenor who made me despise the character, I’d agree with some of those critics and find the opera ten times more effective when we despise him. But as it is, I don’t think he’s worth such strong feeling. He’s not developed enough for us to feel deeply for him, but he’s not written as a monster either. He doesn’t single-handedly shatter Butterfly’s life – she’s partly to blame, too (which makes her much more interesting than if she were a total victim with no agency), as are both of the societies that shaped them. And the opera isn’t about him. It’s about Butterfly. She’s the opera’s raison d’etre. I just don’t see the point in wasting time raging over Pinkerton when we could spend that time investing in Butterfly instead.