Objects of Inquiry: Exploring Cio-Cio-San's Box of Memories
For this activity, students will need the reproducible handouts entitled Objects of Inquiry, the opera synopsis, colored pencils, and the audio clips. If teachers wish to utilize the video clips in this activity, they will need video projection equipment and access to Met Opera on Demand, the PBS Learning Media website, or a DVD of the Metropolitan Opera’s Madama Butterfly (dir. Anthony Minghella).
Art, History, English, Drama, Music, Ethics, Social Studies
- To strengthen students’ comprehension of Madama Butterfly’s characters and story
- To deepen students’ understanding of Cio-Cio-San’s cultural identity and how it develops throughout Madama Butterfly
- To expand students’ awareness of how objects can represent aspects of identity in fictional works and in their own lives
- To extend students’ ability to make connections between their own identities and those of operatic characters
COMMON CORE STANDARDS
This activity directly supports the following ELA-Literacy Common Core Strands:
Cite textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text; provide an objective summary of the text.
Seek to understand other perspectives and cultures and communicate effectively with audiences or individuals from varied backgrounds.
How can we understand someone whose life experiences are completely different from our own? In the opening act of Madama Butterfly, the American naval lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton marries the 15-year-old Japanese geisha Cio-Cio-San, yet he has little interest in understanding her life or culture. For Pinkerton, Cio-Cio-San is merely a passing fancy, and he looks forward to the “real” American wife he will have one day. But Giacomo Puccini’s opera, with a libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, works hard to do what Pinkerton cannot: approach Cio-Cio-San’s story, her Japanese Buddhist identity, and her struggle to assimilate into her new husband’s way of life with kindness, compassion, and real interest.
In this activity, students will explore the cultural experiences and upbringing that shaped Cio-Cio-San—including her religious heritage, her father’s ritual suicide, and her childhood as a geisha—through a box of prized possessions that she shares with Pinkerton in the opera’s first act. Tracing how and when these objects reappear throughout the opera, students will get to know Cio-Cio-San as a woman of profound conviction struggling to find her place in two very different worlds. By completing this activity, students will gain a deeper understanding of the opera’s story and protagonist and develop a greater awareness of how the objects we own can help define who we are. Students will:
- Explore the scene in which Cio-Cio-Sanpresents the belongings that are most important to her
- Predict the importance of these objects throughout the opera and analyze how Anthony Minghella’s production incorporates them into Madama Butterfly’s story
- Create their own boxes of important objects and explain how these objects represent their identities
In this lesson, students will use Puccini’s music, Giacosa and Illica’s libretto, and Minghella’s staging to investigate the contents of Cio-Cio-San’s box. By studying how Cio-Cio-San presents the objects to Pinkerton and analyzing how (and when) these objects reappear in the opera, students will develop an understanding of how these objects represent Cio-Cio-San’s cultural identity. Students will then create their own boxes of important objects to present to the class.
As a warmup activity, ask students, “If you had to pick one object to represent you, what would it be?” For instance, a student who enjoys playing basketball might choose a basketball as their object; a student who enjoys reading and writing might choose a notebook, a pen, or a favorite book. The object does not need to be available in the classroom, but it should be something tangible that could easily be displayed. (You may wish to assign this question as a homework assignment and invite students to bring their object to class to share.)
Once students have spent a few minutes brainstorming, invite them to explain their object to a partner or a small group of their peers. Why did they pick this object? What does it say about them? Other members of the group are free to ask questions about the item. If time allows, a few students can share their item with the whole class, but this is not essential at this stage in the activity.
Tell students that this activity will explore how Cio-Cio-San, the Japanese protagonist of Madama Butterfly, shares her culture and identity with her new American husband, Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton. Pass out copies of the Madama Butterfly synopsis. Ask for a volunteer to read the synopsis of Act I aloud. Define key terms (consul, geisha, etc.) if necessary.
Pass out the reproducible “What’s in Cio-Cio-San’s Box?” The first scene on the handout comes from Act I of the opera, as Cio-Cio-San and Pinkerton prepare for their wedding. In this scene, Cio-Cio-San shows Pinkerton a box of keepsakes that she has; one by one, she reveals the objects and explains (briefly) their significance. Play students the clip of this scene, available as Track 13, or as a video via Met Opera on Demand or PBS Learning Media. If students are listening to the audio clip, they should follow along with the text and translation on the reproducible handout. If students are watching a video, they can follow along with the subtitles or closed captioning on the screen. (Note that the stage directions in the handouts have been adapted to correspond to the actions in Anthony Minghella’s production; thus, by following along with the handout, students will gain an understanding of what is taking place onstage even if no video is available.)
As students watch or listen to this scene, they should make a list of the objects in Cio-Cio-San’s box. Encourage students to pay attention to how Pinkerton reacts to the objects, as well.
When the clip is complete, have the class create a list of all the objects in the box. Write this list on the board. A complete list is provided below; the items in bold will feature prominently later in the activity.
- A handkerchief
- A pipe
- A belt
- A little brooch
- A mirror
- A fan
- A jar of rouge
- A tantō (A short sword, a gift from the Mikado to Cio-Cio-San’s father, inviting him to commit ritual suicide)
- Hotoke (Statues representing the spirits or souls of Cio-Cio-San’s ancestors)
Divide the class into small groups, and assign each group one of the objects in bold on the above list. (Depending upon the size of your class, some or all of the additional objects can be assigned to create additional groups.) Have students turn to the next page of the handout and invite them to work together to think through the prompts on the page. They should reference what they saw/heard in the clip, as well as the text of this scene (available on their handout). As students fill out their worksheet, they should:
- Predict why the object is important to Cio-Cio-San: Why would Cio-Cio-San choose to keep this object? What might it represent from her past life? Why might it be important to her after she is married?
- Describe Pinkerton’s reaction to the object: Was Pinkerton surprised by the object? Did he seem to understand Cio-Cio-San’s attachment to it and what it means to her? Did he counsel her to get rid of it? (If Pinkerton doesn’t respond to the object in the scene, students should imagine how he might respond.)
- Sketch an image of the object. (Students can be as creative as they want with this step.)
The following list offers an overview of each of the objects in bold; feel free to use this information to guide students’ thinking or to spark conversations.
- The mirror and the jar of rouge: Both the mirror and rouge are beauty products. Although Pinkerton says nothing about the mirror, he appears scandalized by Cio-Cio-San’s rouge. Since rouge was typically worn by geishas, this jar of makeup symbolizes Cio-Cio-San’s former life.
- The tantō: Pinkerton is understandably shocked to learn that this is the knife used by Cio-Cio-San’s father to commit suicide. For Cio-Cio-San, the knife is a source of both sorrow and pride: Although she is saddened by her father’s death, she is proud to know that he chose death over dishonor.
- The Hotoke: When Pinkerton first sees these statues, he thinks that they are dolls and laughs. When he realizes that they are actually religious statues that represent the souls of Cio-Cio-San’s ancestors, Pinkerton seems embarrassed by the gaffe he has committed. For Cio-Cio-San, these statues are a tie to Buddhism, the religion she left behind when she converted to Christianity for Pinkerton.
Once students have filled out the sheet in groups, they can briefly present their findings to the rest of the class.
Before moving on, ask the class: Why would Puccini (and his librettists, Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica) include this scene with Cio-Cio-San’s keepsakes in the opera? Do you think the objects will return later in the opera? If so, what role might the objects play in Cio-Cio-San’s story?
Ask for volunteers to read the rest of Madama Butterfly’s synopsis aloud. Do any of the objects they studied in Step 4 appear in the synopsis?
Explain to students that each and every one of the objects discussed above will return later in the opera; in the next phase of this activity, students will study the scenes when the objects reappear and think about what they signify.
Three scenes from the opera are included in this step. For each scene, begin by briefly describing the scene and telling students which object will appear in it. Invite students to follow along with the text and translation (available on their reproducible handout) as they watch or listen to the clip; students are welcome to jot down their ideas as they listen. After each clip is finished, lead a class-wide discussion about what students have just heard. Guiding questions and introductions to each of the scenes are available below.
Scene 2 | Track 14
In this scene from the beginning of Act II, Cio-Cio-San is awaiting Pinkerton’s return. Three years have passed since he left Japan, but still she waits patiently for the day he will come back. Cio-Cio-San prays silently before her Hotoke, the religious statues that represent the souls of her ancestors, while Suzuki prays audibly offstage. When Suzuki approaches, Cio-Cio-San quickly hides the statues, then chides Suzuki for still praying to the Japanese gods instead of Pinkerton’s Christian god. Guiding questions:
- What does Cio-Cio-San do while she listens to Suzuki’s prayers?
- What does Cio-Cio-San do when she hears Suzuki enter?
- Why does Cio-Cio-San tell Suzuki, “The gods you pray to are lazy and fat. I’m convinced that the American god will respond to your prayers much more quickly”?
- How does this scene compare with what you predicted in Step 4? Why are the Hotoke important to Cio-Cio-San?
Scene 3 | Track 15
At the end of Act II—Part I, Cio-Cio-San sees Pinkerton’s ship enter the harbor. Convinced that he has returned to Japan to be with her, she happily dresses for his arrival. By her side sits her child, whom Pinkerton is about to meet for the first time. Guiding questions:
- Why do you think Cio-Cio-San takes out her mirror and jar of rouge?
- Cio-Cio-San says, “I’m no longer the beautiful girl I once was! Too many sighs have passed these lips, my eyes have spent too much time gazing at a far horizon.” What do you think she means? Do you think Cio-Cio-San has only changed physically, or has she changed in other ways, too?
- Cio-Cio-San puts some rouge on her son’s face, saying, “And also some rouge for you, little one, so that this night of waiting won’t make you look pale and tired.” Why do you think she does this?
- How does this scene compare with what you predicted in Step 4? Why are the mirror and jar of rouge important to Cio-Cio-San?
Scene 4 | Track 16
Unfortunately, Pinkerton has not returned to live happily ever after with Cio-Cio-San. Instead, he has come (with his new wife) to take her child back to America. Cio-Cio-San is ashamed, heartbroken, and unable to bear the thought of living without Pinkerton and her child. She is also horrified by the idea that her child might one day think his own mother abandoned him. Feeling that she has no other option left, Cio-Cio-San decides to take her own life—using the same knife her father used to commit suicide. Guiding questions:
- Why does Cio-Cio-San feel she needs to take her own life?
- What do you think the inscription on the tantō (“Let those who cannot live an honorable life have an honorable death instead”) means? Why does Cio-Cio-San feel that this applies to her?
- Why do you think Cio-Cio-San gives her son an American flag to hold? What might the flag symbolize?
- How does this scene compare with what you predicted in Step 4? Why is the tantō important to Cio-Cio-San?
Before moving on, ask students to return to the question posed in Step 5: Why is Cio-Cio-San’s box of objects important? Why would Puccini, Giacosa, and Illica choose to feature it so prominently at the beginning of the opera?
Ask students for additional thoughts and impressions on what they have seen and heard. How did Pinkerton’s responses to the objects in Cio-Cio-San’s box prefigure his behavior in the rest of the opera? Were they surprised by Cio-Cio-San’s belief that Pinkerton would return? Were they surprised by her decision to take her own life? Why or why not?
Now it’s time for students to think about creating their own version of Cio-Cio-San’s box. Pass out the reproducible “What’s in Your Box?” Ask students to think about five objects that are important to them and their families (including the one they came up with during the warmup).
As students work to fill out their “What’s in Your Box?”sheets, support their thinking with the following guiding questions:
- How might a stranger react to seeing each object in your box?
- What might a stranger think the objects mean?
- How would you explain to a confused stranger what the objects mean to you?
- What makes these objects important to you?
Once students have completed their worksheets, give them an opportunity to share their work, either in small groups or in front of the whole class. Are any objects in students’ boxes unfamiliar to other students in the class? Are any objects familiar to everyone? How might these objects help students get to know one another better?
Anthony Minghella’s production of Madama Butterfly integrates several aspects of traditional Japanese theater, most prominently Bunraku, a form of Japanese puppetry performance. Distribute the sidebar Bunraku Theater for students to read at home. Students should then watch a short clip from Act III of Madama Butterfly, the scene in which Cio-Cio-San sits down to wait for Pinkerton after seeing his ship in Nagasaki harbor (available at via PBS Learning Media, Act III, 0:40–5:15). Cio-Cio-San waits all night, and in Minghella’s production, her silent vigil is accompanied by a beautiful ballet that incorporates Bunraku puppets.
When students return to class, invite them to discuss their experience watching this scene. Some guiding questions:
- Why do you think Minghella chose to use Bunraku puppets in his staging?
- How did Minghella’s use of Japanese theatrical traditions change your impressions of this scene?
- What happens in the ballet? What actions and events do the dancers and puppeteers evoke?
- Do you think the ballet represents a dream? A daydream? Something else?
- A fan was one of the objects in Cio-Cio-San’s box, and fans feature prominently in this ballet. How were the fans used?
How does Minghella’s use of Japanese theatrical practices reflect Madama Butterfly’s theme of cross-cultural exchange?