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A scene from Madama Butterfly
Madama Butterfly awaits the return of her husband (brightcove.com)

Past vs. Present: Puccini’s Madama Butterfly vs. Weezer’s Pinkerton

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“Tired of Sex” is the first song of Weezer’s 1996 cult classic Pinkerton and is possibly one the most thrilling album openers of all time. Featuring drummer Patrick Wilson’s salvage stomping—which alone has almost enough power to excuse the band’s latest 15 years of generic pop music—and lead-singer Rivers Cuomo’s terrified screaming of a sex-agenda over distorted guitar feedback, the track is as hysterical as it sounds. It may come as a startling introduction for an LP that shares its name with a character of Giacomo Puccini’s celebrated opera, Madama Butterfly (which recently wrapped up its run at Place des Arts), but listening beyond genre stereotypes and preconceptions, similitudes between the works abound.

In his diary, Cuomo talked about the opera’s central character, B. F. Pinkerton, describing him as an “asshole American sailor similar to a touring rock star.” The man cruises from one continent to another in a quest for pleasures, selfishly marrying a hopeful 15-year-old Japanese girl before leaving her, never to return, despite promising her that he would. Following the success of the Blue Album and its mega-hit “Buddy Holly,” Weezer jumped into the rock’n’roll lifestyle, similarly travelling the world in an endless search for meaningless, groupie-related adventures that left Cuomo deeply disillusioned by celebrity. Pinkerton acts as an account of those troublesome times, showing the singer lost in the midst of conflicting feelings towards women, love, and settling down. Unlike the opera, where the young girl serves as the main character, Cuomo has his “Pinkerton character” as the centre of attention, acting more as an anti-hero than a villain. 

Nonetheless, both works examine relationships from the same extremely childish point of view. The opera displays its titular Madama Butterfly as ever hopeful, trusting her lover’s word so much that she waits three years for him to come back. Like many passionate teenaged lovers, she repeatedly claims that she would kill herself if her husband didn’t return. As for Cuomo, he rejects all responsibilities for his bad behaviour, and instead spends most of the album’s length walking the tightrope of hormonal confusion and adolescent misogyny. Moreover, he selfishly refuses to accept that a woman would do to him what he has done to her, and awkwardly stalks a girl without her even being aware of his existence.

Pinkerton’s lyrical rawness is the principal reason why it received such an overwhelmingly poor reception from both the public and critics when it first came out. Cuomo sings so openly about his most intimate feelings that awkwardness on behalf of the listener was inevitable, especially when he wonders out loud how one of his groupies touches herself at night in the middle of “Across the Sea,” or when he acknowledges in “No Other One” that he would drop his girlfriend at any moment if he knew he could get anyone else. 

Puccini’s opera also showcases its hero acting in an uncomfortably crude and direct fashion. More than once, Butterfly threatens to kill secondary characters with a knife for suggesting that B. F. Pinkerton may never come back to her, and spends an unhealthy amount of time explaining to her two-year-old child that it is not his fault that she is about to commit suicide.

The two works conclude on the same note, with Pinkerton lying down crying next to the lifeless body of Butterfly, who ended up slicing her throat after meeting her husband’s new wife, and Cuomo shakily whispering “I’m sorry” to the girls he hurt by doing “what [his] body told [him] to.” 

With Pinkerton, Cuomo has written the perfect reinterpretation: An album that channels specific events and themes of its original source of inspiration while also being deeply personal. Almost 20 years after its release, it stands as one of the most singular albums of all time, a masterpiece that might prove itself just as timely as the opera it’s based on. 

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