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performance as an act of intervention – part one

 “… I oppose the global project and I believe in another kind of global eccentricism project that comes from within, from the bottom up, that is ‘cooked’ on the streets and that organically emerges out of it. You know, the migrations of people throughout the world; and that kind of global project is almost opposite to the one imposed by the master minds of globalization, right?”

Guillermo Gomez Pena

“And what in the hell did Puccini know about the identity crisis of a Japanese Geisha in Nagasaki in 1904 anyway? What in the hell did he know about butterflies? What in the hell do I know about the identity of a Geisha in Nagasaki in 1904? I am a middle aged white Canadian faggot. I have the ethnicity of a loaf of Wonder Bread. My forefathers are the Man from Glad, Mr. Clean, and Jack Daniels. How on earth do I position myself within a fragmented postmodern narrative about an innocent Geisha and Popeye the American sailor man?”      

from Lotus Blossom Speical; Metamorphosis and misidentificaiton in Madama Butterfly by David Bateman

Larissa Lai
Butterfly’s Borders: Gender, Geography, Fantasy and Experience in David Bateman’s Lotus Blossom Special

Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly begins with a mock marriage.  This type of

marriage supposedly belongs to Japanese tradition, at least, in the imagination of the

librettist. The callous American sailor Pinkerton, eager for a temporary Japanese wife

marries the naïve, fifteen-year-old Butterfly in a contract that binds them for nine

hundred and ninety-nine years, “but with the option, at ev’ry month, to cancel the

contract.” Both are ecstatic at the union, but for Pinkerton, it is a frivolity, while for

Butterfly, in spite of her relatives’ admonitions, it is deadly serious. The opera’s tragedy

turns on the misunderstanding between play and reality. This is indicated in the very

opening of the opera, with Pinkerton and Goro observing the mobility of the walls of the

house in which Pinkerton and Butterfly are to be husband and wife. The walls and ceiling

“come and will go, just/ as it may suit your fancy.” Pinkerton calls the house a “fairy

dwelling,” which, Goro observes “Springs like a tow’r from nowhere.” Like the fairy

house, Butterfly, for Pinkerton, is a toy (“the age/ of playthings”)  to play with until he

marries “a real wife from America.” To Butterfly, who, in the logic of the opera, inhabits

only the world of play, the marriage is serious and solemn. Those who live in fairyland

experience it as “real.” Tellingly, while showing Pinkerton her treasures, she throws

away her pot of carmine (the stuff of artifice) but keeps the very real dagger her father

used to commit suicide at the Mikado’s command some years prior.

The opera draws a frame around Butterfly, her house, and indeed, Japan itself. It

is self-aware, but it is not self-reflexive in the sense of seeing it’s imperialist

misrecognition of Asian women. It lays the error of reading at Butterfly’s feet. She can

not see who she is. Pinkerton might be callous, but because he is American (and real) and

she is Japanese (and therefore of the imagination), he cannot be expected to stay with her.

In the logic of the opera, Butterfly’s tragedy lies in her own misrecognition of both

herself and her lover.

Of course we, as good postcolonial readers think we know better. We understand

that Madama Butterfly is a racist, imperialist imagining of Asian femininity. In the

context of American imperialism in Asia, if one thinks of its military bases in the

Phillipines, or more pointedly Vietnam (which is what makes the newer rendition of the

opera, Miss Saigon, so appalling) the international political context in which the opera

circulates is racist and offensive. The right-on stance of contemporary race politics is to

read the opera as a bad Western race fantasy, and move on to produce other, better

representations. However, in recent years, as myself and others have discussed elsewhere, 

the difficulty of producing “better representations” that do not get consumed in a newly

Orientalist way, has shown itself to be difficult if not impossible.

David Bateman’s performance piece Lotus Blossom Special, then, takes on a

slightly different strategy. He re-engages the narrative of the opera to show us something

about whiteness, masculinity, camp and queer sexuality. In so doing, he reveals that these

may in fact be the real subjects of the original opera, and not Asian femininity at all.

Puccini may have been more conscious of this than his audiences, if the framing is any


This post was written by davidb

  1. ashok

    Thanks for this re-post, David, and thanks by extension to Larissa for letting this appear here. We did a few performances at the incubation in the Soo, and it seems with similar intent, to disrupt paradigms that tended to overwhelm, to come from the ‘bottom up’ as Gomez-Peña states in your epigraph here. Yes, food for thought. Thanks!

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