Yuki Allyson Honjo
Henry Hwang's play, "M. Butterfly," is loosely based on the true
story of a young French diplomat bewitched by a beguiling Chinese
opera star. They meet, fall in love and have a child together—all
to the strains of Puccini's "Madame Butterfly." Unfortunately for
the diplomat, his butterfly was a man, and the child had been "borrowed"
to perpetuate the myth. To make matters worse, his lover was a spy
for the Chinese government.
old bromide that truth is stranger than fiction certainly applies
to this tale. The story behind Puccini's opera, while perhaps less
bizarre, is a piece of fiction with bits of truth, lies and art
woven into it. Jan van Rij's book, Madam Butterfly: Japaonism,
Puccini and the Search for the Real Cho-Cho-San, attempts to
untangle truth from fiction.
is Butterfly? Is she merely a confection for the delectation of
the period's taste in Japonisme? Or was she real?
story line of the opera is simple: a girl's love is betrayed. In
the late 19th century, Lt. Pinkerton of the United States Navy rents
a house in Nagasaki and "marries" a younger Japanese woman by the
name of Butterfly, or Cho-Cho-san. Like the house, the arrangement,
at least in Pinkerton's eyes, is temporary: both bride and house
are leased for 999 years, revocable with one month's notice. Pinkerton
even toasts his future with a "real" American bride at his "wedding"
with Butterfly. Fifteen-year-old Butterfly, however, thinks the
marriage is real: she renounces her faith, her family and settles
into life with Pinkerton; with whom she has a child. Pinkerton later
leaves Butterfly for the United States, promising to return. Three
years later, Butterfly still waits for her husband and spurns all
other suitors. Pinkerton does return, but with his new American
wife. He demands that Butterfly hand over his child. Butterfly kills
herself in despair.
taxonomy of Lepidoptera, as Van Rij illustrates, is not easy. The
real Butterfly could have been one of many women. One popular myth
is that she was Tsuru Glover, the wife of Scottish diplomat Thomas
Glover. Indeed, the city of Nagasaki encourages this association.
The garden of the Glover's former home, now a tourist attraction
in Nagasaki, has speakers piping in strains of the opera.
could have been O-Kikusan of Pierre Loti's novel Madame Chrysanthemem,
based on his own experience in Nagasaki.
could also have come from the memoirs of Jeannie Correll, a missionary
in Japan who told her brother, John Luther Long, the story of a
girl forsaken by a foreign sailor and her sad death, on which he
wrote a story. David Belasco wrote a play based on Long's story
and Puccini saw the play—the rest was opera history.
was it? Puccini's librettist borrowed elements from Loti, Charles
Messager, Long and Belasco—multiple sources informed the opera.
to this mix was the potent mix of Japonisme, the period's taste
for the exotic and Puccini's own neuroses and passions. The end
result was Madame Butterfly, which did not so much reflect
19th century Japan, but how outsiders like Puccini, who had never
gone to Japan, imagined the place.
opera itself underwent a number of changes. The first performance
at La Scala in 1904 was a disaster: Puccini was literally booed
off the stage. Badly shaken, he reworked the structure of the opera,
though not so much the music. The changes brought smashing success.
The Paris version of 1906 reworked some of the characters and became
the definitive version.
Japan, the opera has never garnered the popularity it has in the
West: a complete version was note performed until 1936. Japanese
audiences have often found the "Japan" of Puccini's vision disquieting,
alien and with the patina of cheap drama. When part of the opera
was performed in 1916, an Asahi Shimbun reviewer scoffed that it
was a "contemptuous glance at the customs and habits of loose women"
Rij is a fine guide through the twists and turns of the story, the
perfect historical companion for the opera viewer or casual reader
of history. Reading his book is like reading extended record liner
notes: it serves to educate as well as amuse. His book is not a
musical analysis of the opera. However, in one slim volume, Van
Rij provides an overview of life in Nagasaki, Japonisme,
Puccini's creative struggles and milestone performances of the opera.
the book meanders from subject to subject like a dinner-party conversation
after one too many bottles of wine—delightful but ultimately
frustrating for the scholarly reader. But for someone wanting additional
information on the opera, the book is a charming way to pass the
time. And Van Rij also shows us that in Puccini's opera, truth is
fiction, and vice versa, and always entertaining.
Yuki Allyson Honjo. "Tracking down Cho-Cho-san." The International
Herald Tribune/Asahi. April 27, 2000.
part of [Madame Butterfly] was performed in 1916, an Asahi Shimbun
reviewer scoffed that it was a 'contemptuous glance at the customs
and habits of loose women' in Japan.".
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