Butterfly's Literary Family
Ancestors played a very important part in traditional Japanese society, and it was hoped Descendants would too. Madama Butterfly brings her ottokè to her new life and tells Pinkerton (who considers them mere puppets) they are the souls of her ancestors. The Registrar, leaving the wedding ceremony, wishes Pinkerton many descendants. In the second act Butterfly is concerned about Sharpless’s ancestors. Puccini’s opera was not an isolated look at the East-West culture clash that occurred in late nineteenth-century Japanese society. Its ancestors were many, and its descendants continue to proliferate.
Madame Butterfly’s literary family tree begins with the publications of Dr. Philipp Franz von Siebold, a German doctor and botanist, who arrived in Japan in 1823 as physician to the Dutch workers there. Since the early seventeenth-century the Dutch East India Company had been doing business with Japan, but – as foreigners were forbidden to set foot on Japanese soil – an island, Dejima, was specially built in the harbor at Nagasaki, to house the Dutch workers. By the middle of the nineteenth century foreigners were allowed to enter the country; they were expected to live in “concessions” – think Dejima re-built within the various “open” ports). Siebold married, “temporarily,” a Japanese girl who bore him a daughter. He introduced to Japan the latest medical knowledge and trained native practitioners; in return, he collected and sent back to Europe thousands of samples of native seeds. On a charge of espionage he was expelled from Japan in 1830 and published his first book about the country, Nippon, in 1832. Other books dealt with Japanese flora and fauna. He was allowed to return in 1859, accompanied by his thirteen-year-old German-born son; three years later he went back to Germany, where he died in 1866. His son remained in Japan.
In 1887 Madame Chrysanthème was published. It was a wildly successful novel: twenty-five editions in its first five years, and translated into various languages, including English. The author was Pierre Loti, the nom de plume of Julien Marie Viaud, a French naval officer who had a tendency to turn his various adventures into some forty novels! This one tells the story of a naval officer, confined to Nagasaki while his ship undergoes repairs, who contracts a Japanese marriage with one of the locals. He consults with a marriage broker, and agrees to marry the girl for twenty dollars a month and provide her with a house. Both the marriage contract and the rental arrangements can be cancelled whenever necessary. Loti’s narrator has no great admiration for the Japanese: “You look like little monkeys, like little china ornaments.” After he has signed the contract and is back on ship “…it seems to me that my betrothal is a joke, and my family a set of puppets.” When the ship is at last ready to sail, he returns to the house on the hill above Nagasaki to bid a final goodbye; from outside the house he hears Chrysanthème singing a happy song accompanied by a chinking noise: she is counting her money, and making sure that the coins are genuine. “The fear that I might be leaving her in some sadness had almost given me a pang, and I infinitely prefer that this marriage should end as it had begun, in a joke.” The novel became an opéra-comique in 1893, with music by André Messager.
In 1885 W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan produced what many regard as their masterpiece: The Mikado, though it takes place in the Japanese town of Titipu, and even brings the Emperor Himself on stage, is as English as roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. Jonathan Miller, in his 1980’s production for English National Opera (which can be seen on YouTube), opted to set it at a 1930’s upscale English resort hotel. Sullivan quotes a few bars of a Japanese folk song; Puccini used the same song in his score. The operetta was a huge success in England and in America. That there was a Japanese Exhibition in London at the time probably did not hurt the box-office; and much was made of D’Oyly Carte’s hiring of a lady from that Exhibition to teach the cast, especially the women, authentic Japanese movements. Mike Leigh’s 1999 movie Topsy-Turvy deals with the creation of the operetta.
Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan was published in 1894. Its author was the gloriously-named Lafcadio Hearn. He was born on Lefkas, one of the Greek Islands, to an Anglo-Irish surgeon in the British Army and his Greek wife. At the age of six Lafcadio’s parents divorced and he was sent to a great-aunt living in Dublin. At nineteen he decamped for Cincinnati, Ohio, where he became a newspaper reporter. In 1890 he went to Japan, remaining there for the rest of his life, marrying the daughter of a samurai family and eventually becoming a Japanese citizen. By the time of his death in 1904, Hearn had published seven books and countless articles explaining Japanese culture to enthralled foreigners.
No doubt cashing in on the success of The Mikado, and, perhaps, the interest aroused by Hearn’s book, Sidney Jones composed The Geisha in 1896: a story of officers from the HMS The Turtle and geisha girls from the “Tea-house of Ten Thousand Joys.” It ran in London for two years, and was actually far more successful throughout Europe than any of the Gilbert-and-Sullivan works. Vocal scores were published in German, French and Italian translations, and it was well-enough known in Russia for Anton Chekov to set a scene in one of his stories, (variously translated as The Lady and the Lap Dog or The Lady with the Little Dog), at a provincial performance of the musical play.
In 1898 Iris, by Pietro Mascagni (who was still looking for a success to equal his Cavalleria Rusticana) was first performed. Set in Japan, it tells the story of the poverty-stricken soprano who is devoted to her blind, bass, father. She is courted by a wealthy tenor who kidnaps her, leaving some money behind as payment. Bass, thinking soprano has deserted him, resolves to find her, and so ends the first act. At the end of the second act, soprano, bejeweled and in the fine clothes provided by wealthy tenor, jumps from her second-floor window into a sewer; there she is found by beggars who proceed to steal her jewels and clothes. Soprano, of course, is not quite dead, because she has to sing a final, hallucinatory aria. She does. She dies. The opera was not a success.
MADAME BUTTERFLY IS BORN. (or just THE BIRTH?)
Note to reader: these two paragraphs are greatly expanded in “The Making of MB” chapters!
In the same year that Mascagni’s opera was not a success, John Luther Long published Madame Butterfly in the January issue of Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine. Although Long claimed the story was based on his sister’s account of an actual event in Nagasaki (she and her husband were Methodist missionaries in the city from 1892-1897), it is obvious that Long had absorbed Loti’s novel. Two years later, collaborating with the producer/playwright David Belasco, he turned his story into a one-act play which opened in New York City on March 5, 1900. At the end of April it was produced in London, where Puccini saw it, and was struck, not only by its emotional power, but also by the amazing lighting effects that led the audience through the evening, night and dawn of Butterfly’s vigil; he immediately saw its operatic possibilities.
On February 17, 1904, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly had its disastrous opening (and closing) performance at Milan’s La Scala; three months later, after some revisions, it was rapturously received in Brescia; in 1906 the version that is usually performed today was given in Paris. Ricordi published an orchestral score based on this production, which might indicate that Puccini, despite the initially-revised, and successful, version in Brescia, approved of the various Parisian revisions. But, as late as 1920, Puccini oversaw a production at the Teatro Carcano in Milan; a surviving score contains various restorations of the original 1904 version. We will never know what the composer really wanted.
Pacific Overtures is one of the more fascinating stage-works by that most fascinating stage-composer, Stephen Sondheim. In an evening of kabuki-style (i.e. traditional Japanese) theatre, with music influenced by traditional Japanese sonorities, Sondheim and his librettist, John Weidman, take us from the arrival in Japan of the American Commodore Perry in 1863, to the country of 1975. The cultural dichotomy of East and West is somewhat distanced by the fact that the story is told through Japanese eyes, but it reaches a comic climax in “Please Hello” where American, English, Dutch, Russian and French admirals demand their own individual treaties, singing in their own individual musical styles: the Americans have a marching band; the English a wonderful parody of a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song; the French a can-can; and so on. The end, though, is a tragic denunciation of mid-twentieth-century Japanese (or perhaps out own) life. The frenzied dance of “Next! Streams are dying…Never mind a small disaster” is interrupted by the idyll of the opening: “There was a time when foreigners were not welcome here. But that was long ago.”
The 1988 Tony Award for Best Play was given to M Butterfly by David Henry Hwang. The play is based on the actual affair between a French diplomat and a Chinese Opera singer (by “Chinese Opera singer” I mean a singer of the Chinese traditional theatrical production, as opposed to a singer from China who sings what we, Westerners, consider “Opera”). The liaison resulted in spying charges against the diplomat who was found guilty and imprisoned. Hwang assumes the audience’s familiarity with Madama Butterfly, drawing interesting parallels between the opera and the life portrayed in his play: it is the diplomat’s favorite opera; music from the opera underscores certain scenes; even characters from the opera appear on stage to paraphrase the libretto. The climax is an effective twist on the opera’s dénouement, and wonderfully sums up the role-playing that is at the heart of the play. In an afterword to the published script, the author notes that, in his Chinese-American society, the phrase “pulling a Butterfly” means that the girl is playing a submissive Oriental role. Puccini’s heroine had become a symbol, at least in America, of the Oriental Female.
The following year, 1989, a musical opened in London which proved Puccini’s opera can survive updating and transplanting. Miss Saigon relocates the situation to the 1970’s: the height of America’s war in Vietnam. The best that can be said about the show is that Long’s nineteenth-century, quasi moral, tale of two clashing cultures can still resonate two hundred years later. Yes, the show has just been revived in London, and a transfer to Broadway is expected!
Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Golden’s first novel, published in 1997, was on the New York Times bestseller list for over a year. Supposedly the translation of a series of interviews with a geisha who had moved to America in the 1950s, the author tells us that, while the character of his geisha is a complete fabrication, the historical facts of her daily life are indeed that: facts. Learned from conversations he had with one of the most famous geishas of her time. The book became a movie in 2005.
In 2010 the extraordinary David Mitchell published The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. The novel takes place in 1799 on Nagasaki’s artificial island of Dejima. Not only are we are given a love story between Jacob, the young clerk in the Dutch East Indies Company, and a Japanese girl, but also so much more! At the very least it’s a great introduction to the nineteenth-century relationship between Japan and the rest of the world. Read it!!