Madame Butterfly and the National Anthem: Ironies

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Friday’s night’s performance of Madame Butterfly was opening night. Lots of shiny dresses, only one at all flattering. A young woman was heard to say, “We thought we’d try opera.” Three acts but just one intermission—almost 30 minutes with a long long line for drinks. But not the usual sea of white-haired attendees. That’s good, probably. It’s a famous opera after all, and maybe the youngers have heard of it.

The ad uses quite the prose style: “Passion flares—and the beautiful and trusting Cio-Cio San gives up everything to marry American naval officer B.F. Pinkerton. But he’s a heartless cad who abandons her and their little son with devastating results. Hear some of the most gorgeous operatic music of all time in this fabled romantic tragedy….And oh, what a cast!” But why not “Passions flare”? Why any italics (the last defense of the weak) at all? Accuracy? Pinkerton doesn’t abandon his son because he doesn’t know he has one.

Now for the details in which irony and plot intertwine: Full house, excellent orchestra—a chandelier of cylindrical crystals ascends so that those of us in the distant seats can see the stage. The music (in Texas we sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” not just at all ball games but also at many concerts—symphonies and operas, for example) begins, we stand, we sing. Hands over hearts, hats off men’s heads. (Why, you might ask, does anyone have on a hat at the opera? Texas. I thought that was clear.)

Two observations: the man one row down removes his black felt Cody James (informed guess) and places it over his heart. Then back it goes on his head. My friend notes, “I thought you don’t wear hats inside. I guess it’s his good hat.” Maybe. I’ve seen four cattlemen eating in a steakhouse with their Stetsons (assuredly) sitting beside them rather than wearing them inside, a show of good breeding and what their mamas taught them.

Five seats down right, a young couple—his hair dark and moody, her lovely bare shoulders tattooed and thereby part of her garment–sit and do not sing and do not cover hearts with their hands. Arms folded, a defensive posture? In solidarity with? Then we all sit and await the overture. (And “Un bel di” the only real reason to come. Personal opinion. The man could write a melody.)

And nothing else happens. No one says anything to anyone. No one is anyone’s mama tonight. My heart swells with pride—not at the anthem—but for the couple. Here the ironies pile on.

I know I should cover my heart (US Code 36 Ch 10 § 171) where the key word is should. Not must.

And these youngers are free to sit, unlike in China. A law there, the rule compels standing. The government wants loyalty or patriotism, the government gets obedience, if nothing else. You go to jail, or some undefined punishment else.

But in these United States at the opera, the young ones can sit, unaware their act is not rebellion at all but a sign of solidarity with the Constitution.

Throughout Madame Butterfly, snippets of “The Star-Spangled Banner” are heard as thematic elements. We see American flags—Madame Pinkerton, as she prefers to be called, gives a tiny one to her son as he is about to be taken away by his father (a stranger to him) and Kate (his step-mother). Pinkerton is worse than a cad, and we wonder if he can be faithful to his new wife after the stereotypical girl-in-every-port lifestyle. (A few members of the audience gasp when Kate appears, since apparently the foreshadowing/program notes had not clued them.) In other words, the American is the bad guy who recognizes his own cowardice but is not redeemed.

I will continue to stand for the anthem, therefore, not because Americans are always the good guys or because there is a “should” but because there is no “must.” A freedom not to is as important as the freedom to.

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