• “The Biggest Cad in Opera”?

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    This is my first post that isn’t a review. In addition to discussing recordings, I like to write down my various thoughts about opera in general, as well as the books and articles I read on the subject.


    Recently I reread Peter Fox Smith’s excellent book “A Passion For Opera.” With its detailed chapters discussing both libretti and music of every standard repertoire opera, as well as Smith’s experiences with each opera both as a music lover and as a professor, that book is a good source of information and understanding for any newcomer to opera. But one aspect of it baffles me slightly. In the chapter on Madama Butterfly the main emotion that Smith expresses is uncontainable hatred for the character of Pinkerton. Now, hating Pinkerton certainly isn’t uncommon, but Smith takes it to a bit of an extreme. Twice he calls him “the biggest cad in opera”: does he really consider him an even bigger cad than the Duke in Rigoletto… an even bigger cad than Don Giovanni? And he seems occupied with hating Pinkerton to the point of indifference toward Butterfly, despite the fact that the opera revolves around Butterfly, one of the longest, most central and most demanding roles in the Italian soprano repertoire.


    Can some intelligent, rational opera lover (as Smith generally is) please explain to me how Pinkerton is a worse cad than the Duke of Mantua? The dismissal of Don Giovanni I’ll reluctantly let slide, because he’s a mythic figure whose womanizing goes far beyond a realistic level. It might not be fair to include him in the comparison. But how can an author so despise Pinkerton while seeming indifferent to the Duke in his chapter on Rigoletto? How is the Duke’s remorseless seduction, betrayal and implied rape of Gilda and God-knows-how-many other women, while already married, more forgivable than Pinkerton’s single conquest, achieved neither by rape nor while attached to any other woman, and which leaves him wracked with remorse in the end? My best guess at the answer, besides the fact that the Duke sings better music, is that we, the audience, are made to care more about Butterfly than we are about Gilda. But the odd thing is, Smith doesn’t seem to particularly care about Butterfly.


    The emotion with which Smith writes about Pinkerton, compared to the simple telling-of-facts with which he discusses Butterfly, would make anyone think that Pinkerton was the central character of the opera. He almost seems to regard Butterfly as nothing but a pretty, pathetic martyr puppet that exists only to demonstrate Pinkerton’s loathsomeness. A bit of a disservice, I think, to one of the great tragic heroines of opera; to such an enormous, emotionally rich, and (arguably) complex role with such tour-de-force music. Why does Pinkerton seem to dominate this professor’s feelings about Butterfly? It can’t be a case of disinterest in women: his chapter on another heroine-centric opera, La Traviata, is thoroughly focused on Violetta like it should be and conveys plenty of love for and fascination with her. Why is the Butterfly chapter different?


    Who knows? Maybe his attacks on Pinkerton are actually his way of expressing affection for Butterfly. Since Butterfly has so often been labeled a racist, sexist stereotype of Asian womanhood, maybe he felt that expressing overt love for her character would be politically incorrect, so instead he expresses it by lambasting the man who hurts her. Or maybe this is a case of (to quote Tvtropes.org) True Art Sticks It To The Man. Maybe his fondness for Violetta is based in the fact that she’s a ‘proto-feminist’ figure (his writing does emphasize that aspect of Traviata), which Butterfly decidedly is not, and maybe Butterfly really does revolve around Pinkerton for him because it’s through Pinkerton that the opera “criticizes” the “Ugly American.” Or maybe I’m overanalyzing everything. Maybe Pinkerton just touches a raw nerve in Prof. Smith for reasons that only he knows. At any rate, it’s fascinating to read opinions and catch glimpses of author’s emotions that are so different from my own, and that confound my understanding and cry out for speculation. I love books, articles and essays that offer glimpses of the unique (and possibly quirky) person behind the text.

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