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Butterfly In Baghdad And Other U.S. Dramas: A Night At The Pre-Election Opera

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One of the most exquisite moments in Vancouver Opera's Madame Butterfly is the Second Act scene where the giddy heroine covers her home in cherry blossoms in anticipation of Pinkerton's return, only to discover his betrayal.


Its emotional resonance is powerful on a personal level, and the Vancouver Opera production's leads -- Mihoko Kinoshita as Butterfly and Richard Troxell as Pinkerton -- gave strong performances on opening night as the arrogant American cad and the fragile Japanese flower.


But in the midst of the pre-U.S. election circus, it's hard not to highlight the political dimensions of a character who arrives on a boat named the Abraham Lincoln, and whose seduction and abandonment of a local ends in tragedy.

While it would be fun to cast the production in line with Republican and Democratic primaries -- Trump would be a shoo-in as Pinkerton, perhaps Bernie- moral conscience of America- Sanders as the American consul disgusted by Pinkerton's heartlessness. As for Hillary, it would be a toss up between Suzuki the loyal servant, and a role as Pinkerton in drag. Butterfly, of course, would be the long-suffering American voter.


But let's no waste such high drama on mere domestic politics. The real opera is found in American foreign policy.

I can imagine a production of Butterfly where a variety of dictators in the vein of "the only thing worse than being an enemy of the U.S. is being a former ally" -- from the Shah of Iran to Saddam Hussein to Noriega to Bashar Assad -- sing that poignant second act aria.

Butterfly in Baghdad could be set in a variety of eras: perhaps that moment towards the end of the horrific eight year Iran/Iraq war that wiped out a generation of young men, when Saddam Hussein realized that the U.S. was arming both sides.

Or Butterfly in Nasiriyah, circa 1991, when the anti-regime uprising, encouraged by Bush senior, was brutally quashed by Saddam, whose helicopters were conveniently allowed safe passage through U.S. controlled airspace.

Or that moment in 2011 when Gaddafi realized that his exoneration by the UN and backing by the U.S. was only a short term "temporary marriage" and that he would soon meet a violent end and have his country torn apart.

Or perhaps the time Bashar Assad realized -- somewhere after the puff piece about his wife ran in Vogue and when the U.S. began to arm the al Nusra Front -- that he was out of favour with the West as the friendly dictator we could farm out torture to.

Alas, American love is fickle. It respects neither ancestors nor contracts but seems to suffer, like Pinkerton, from a particularly violent form of ADD.

But back to the domestic drama for a moment. It's not clear that U.S. foreign policy would change that much if Hillary or Sanders win. Hillary's record on backing violent and illegal invasions and supporting the likes of Bibi Netanyahu is well documented. Sanders would certainly be less belligerent, but hardly seems to diverge from mainstream American policy on Israel.


Oddly enough Trump -- who again would be well cast as Pinkerton -- seems to have adopted of late a kind of libertarian non-interventionism akin to that of former Republican candidate Ron Paul. Although his wall-building ways -- more akin to 19th century Shoguns than business moguls -- seem at odds with his free enterprising past, he did call out both Hillary and the Bushes for their support of the disastrous invasion of Iraq.

While it would be nice to imagine a new happy ending for American domestic and foreign policy -- perhaps a triumphant Sanders who manages to magically break the AIPAC fetters that have tied so many post-war presidents and emerge as a champion of human rights and social justice at home and abroad -- I am not optimistic. I predict more traditional world wide American productions of Butterfly in the future and more of those exquisitely painful Second Act arias. It's enough to make Puccini weep.


All photos supplied by Vancouver Opera. Photo credits all Tim Matheson

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