Miss Saigon Déjà Vu
by Tracy E. Hill, Ph.D.
I journeyed to the Kimmel Center this evening to enjoy Cameron Mackintosh’s interpretation of Miss Saigon. Yet as I sat rapt and absorbed in the tale of Kim and her soldier husband Chris, I couldn’t help feeling that I’d seen this play before, but in operatic form at the Met. It felt like déjà vu and nagged at me until intermission when my sister commented that perhaps it was Madama Butterfly I was thinking of. It was!
Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly was inspired by a play based on Pierre Lot’s novel “Madame Chrysantheme” and Miss Saigon was originally inspired by Claude-Michel Schoenberg’s image of a Vietnamese mother sending off her child to America with his GI father. Both the opera and musical portray the tragedy of an Asian wife waiting years for her husband to return home from the war to their beloved wife and newfound child.
Although Madama Butterfly is Italian opera and Miss Saigon is more rock musical, they both feel quite similar in tone, emotion and depth. If you let the music and the singing wash over you, you easily get sucked in to the drama of the tale.
The talented Will Curry conducted. He has also directed and conducted My Fair Lady, Fiddler on the Roof and Les Miserables among other notable musicals. Emily Bautista takes our breath away as the 17 year old Kim who resorts to prostitution as her only hope to sustain a living after her family is killed in the war. Yet unlike in Madama Butterfly, where the soldier (Pinkerton) has no real interest in his young conquest, Chris falls madly infatuated with his young love offering a deeper dive into his narrative on stage. Anthony Festa (Chris) delivers a beautiful voice and performance. Bautista’s first time playing Kim after having been the “bridesmaid” for the past two years is strong and powerful.
The settings in Vietnam (Miss Saigon) and Japan (Madama Butterfuly) reflect the many traditions and mores, especially for women, who must adhere to their cultural norms and rules lest they lose their self-respect (or their lives) in their homelands.
In both the opera and the musical, the music rarely stops. Most words are sung, and the music continues throughout. Both pieces were influenced by their respective cultures. Yet the opera seemed more refine and elegant, whereby the musical was more risqué and provocative in both music, set design and choreography.
In the end, we enjoyed the musical as much as the opera. And yes, both Kim and Cio-Cio San die at their own hand rather than live with the realization that their love has married another woman. Sad.
Photo credit the mercurynews.com.