Rene Gallimard, a civil servant at the French embassy in Beijing, falls in love with a beautiful Chinese opera singer named Song Liling, who holds two shocking secrets, both of which eventually bring Gallimard professional and personal ruin. Broadway’s smash hit is transformed to operatic form.
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Sc. 1 – At a party in Paris in 1986, the guests ridicule and toast the French diplomat René Gallimard over an “exotic fling” he has been carrying on.
Sc. 2 – From his jail cell in Paris, Gallimard states that he has become a laughing stock. But if people really knew his story, he asserts, they would understand and even envy him, for he has been loved by the perfect woman. He begins to tell his story: In 1964, France opened an embassy in China, where Gallimard he was sent as a bookkeeper, with his wife Florette.
At a party in the Swiss Ambassador’s home in China, Western diplomats complain that there is no dancing, no nightclubs, no movies, no concerts, no hanky panky with the natives. On this night, Gallimard first sees the love of his life, Song Liling, a star diva of the Chinese opera, singing an aria from Madama Butterfly. Gallimard, instantly smitten, introduces himself to Song, saying that for the first time he truly saw the beauty of the story. Song responds that the story is one of the favorite fantasies of Western men: the submissive Oriental woman and the cruel white man. Song tells Gallimard that if he wants to see the true butterfly, he should attend the Chinese opera.
Sc. 3 – At the Chinese opera, Gallimard is transfixed by Song’s performance. After the performance, Song flirts with Gallimard. “So, you are an adventurous imperialist? We cloud your minds, leave you wanting more,” says Song. Gallimard responds, “But that fascination is imperialist, no?” “Yes, but sometimes it’s also mutual,” says Song. Song bids Gallimard goodnight, suggesting that he visit another time.
Sc. 4 – That night, Gallimard is visited in a dream by Marc, an old school friend and ladies’ man, who has travelled across time and space to congratulate him on his new love. Marc tells Gallimard that Song cannot love him, but she must surrender, for it’s her destiny. Gallimard has a romantic vision of Song. Marc encourages Gallimard to seize the moment.
Sc. 5 – Gallimard visits Song at home. Song behaves seductively but claims to be afraid of scandal and finally asks Gallimard to leave. “I’m a modest Chinese girl,” Song insists. “I’m a foreign devil,” declares Gallimard.
Sc. 6 – Gallimard continues his story: Because of Song’s rebuff, he stops going to the opera. This seems to disturb Song, who writes to Gallimard, first claiming to miss him, then expressing hurt at his apparent coldness, and finally begging him to return.
Manuel Toulon, the French ambassador, tells Gallimard that their needs in China are changing. Most of his department is being transferred, he Gallimard will remain and become the Vice Consul, leading the Intelligence Division. “I hear that you get along with the Chinese”, says Toulon.
Sc. 7 – Gallimard can hardly believe his good fortune. He visits Song at an odd hour to announce his promotion. He asks Song, “Are you my Butterfly?”, and Song affirmatively. They confess their mutual love and begin to get intimate. But Song will not strip and insists on turning out the lights, claiming to be “a modest Chinese girl.”
Sc. 1 – At the same Parisian party in 1986 with which Act I began, the guest gossip about the Gallimard case, now all over the front pages and headed for trial.
Gallimard recalls meeting discreetly at Song’s flat back in Beijing. Song tells him, “I want to be part of what you know as you rule the world. Tell me what is happening in France.”
Sc. 2 – In Toulon’s office, Gallimard and Toulon discuss America’s plan to send troops to Vietnam. Toulon wonders how the Chinese will react, and Gallimard assures him that Asians will always submit to a greater force. Toulon asks Gallimard if he is keeping a Chinese mistress, adding that he is impressed. Knowing that Toulon knows and approves of his affair, Gallimard believes that his future will be bright.
The People’s Liberation Army marches to celebrate China’s National Day, October 1, vowing their allegiance to Chairman Mao. Comrade Chin questions Song Liling for information on American plans to send troops to Vietnam, and Song volunteers the information. Comrade Chin appreciates the application of Song’s “decadent skills to serve the revolution” but obliquely reminds Song that “There is no homosexuality in China”.
Sc. 3 – At another Embassy party in China, the guests indulge in intrigue, gossip, alcohol, and adultery, asserting that these vices are all that sustain them. Gallimard tells the diplomats that he has advised the Americans to stay the course, because he believes that Asians need and want Western protection. The partygoers note that Gallimard is rising in importance and that he seems to be in the know.
Toulon informs Gallimard that he will be moved to a downstairs office and that another colleague will succeed him as Vice Consul. When Gallimard demands an explanation, Toulon tells him that the American war is a disaster and that “Paris has lost all faith in US assurances and in yours”.
Sc. 4 – Gallimard arrives at Song’s flat unexpectedly and demands to see Song naked. Song reproaches him: “I thought you respected my modesty.” When Gallimard wonders if he has been deceived, Song insists, “We have made the world we need”. Gallimard, sick of “inscrutable Orientals,” orders Song to disrobe. Song suddenly tells Gallimard, “I’m pregnant” and Gallimard proposes marriage.
Sc. 5 – Song tells Comrade Chin, “Last night he told me to strip and I took a chance,” to which Comrade Chin replies, “Be careful, comrade, before you say something I cannot hear”. Song asks Comrade Chin to procure a male Chinese baby with blond hair in seven months so that Gallimard “will commit to the Revolution”.
Gallimard asserts that “soon the world will see I was right all along. They will learn to love the East with a love like mine.” Song, cradling the baby, affirms that “Love can make miracles.”
Toulon congratulates Gallimard on getting what all French diplomats in Asia want: “You’re going home”. Toulon explains that all that Gallimard predicted in Asia simply has not happened. Gallimard resolves to take Song home to France with him and divorce his wife. “We’ll no longer have to hide.” He rushes off to share the good news, only to find Song’s flat deserted.
A Revolutionary Chinese Opera Company resolves to defeat the imperialists: “The East Wind rises as the West wind falls.
Sc. 1 – The Revolutionary Chinese Opera Company stages a ritualistic denunciation of Song Liling for being an “actor-oppressor”. Song confesses having been “a plaything for the imperialists” and engaging in “the lowest perversions with China’s enemies”. Song claims, “I want to serve the people”. Comrade Chin orders Song to go to Gallimard in France and send back weekly reports. When Song protests, Comrade Chin threatens death in the fields as a laborer.
Sc. 2 – Ten years after parting with Song, Gallimard recalls the tedium and alienation he felt upon his return to Paris. His tales of having loved and been loved by the perfect woman fell on apathetic and uncomprehending ears. He remains haunted by the memory of Song.
At this moment, Song returns to Gallimard, singing the same aria from Madama Butterfly as the night they first met. Gallimard is overjoyed to see that his dreams of Song are no longer an illusion. After they have spent many years together, French counterintelligence agents come to arrest Gallimard for espionage, claiming that they have already exacted a confession from his accomplice, Monsieur Song. Gallimard insists that Song Liling is a woman, and the agents laugh as they lead him away.
Sc. 3 – In a French courtroom, the Judge asks Song if Gallimard knew Song’s true gender. Song was never seen completely naked by Gallimard, Song says, adding that men always believe what they want to hear.
Sc. 4 – In a holding room in prison, Song visits Gallimard. Song has come to reveal the truth to Gallimard. Gallimard tells Song to stop, confessing that he knew all along that their love was a deception. Declaring that the wait is over, Song shows Gallimard the truth. Song is devastated to hear Gallimard say that all he loved was the lie. Gallimard sends Song away.
Sc. 5 – Gallimard decides to return the world of fantasy. He declares that love was his undoing and that the truth demands a sacrifice. Song returns, too late.
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