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Things That Have Interested Me

Exotic Fiction

James Fenton
copyright © 2007

Originally published in The Guardian
24 February 2007

An article by Roger Parker in G2 last week ("One fine obscenity", February 13) posed the question: "Is it strange ... that in these anti-racist times, Puccini's 'exotic' opera [Madama Butterfly] still holds the stage?" This proved a gift to the Daily Telegraph, provoking a news item, an inquiry at the Japanese embassy (the spokesman said, "I do not think it is racist at all"), defensive remarks from Covent Garden, and letters (also in defence) in both newspapers involved.

On the face of it, Professor Parker's article depends on the belief that there are certain socially or politically unacceptable things that should not be portrayed on stage: racism, for instance, or the betrothal of a 15-year-old girl. "With the benefit of surtitles," we are told, "we can fully understand the exact terms of Pinkerton's racist sentiments in act one." But Parker never demonstrates that Pinkerton's act-one callousness is shared by Puccini or his librettists.

The whole opera depends on our understanding of the American officer's unpleasantness. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton is the prototype of the destructive, interfering American in the east. His name alone passes from the sublime to the ridiculous, reminding us of the "Pinkerton men", shabby employees of a strike-breaking detective agency.

The interesting development of Madama Butterfly is set out by Julian Budden in his 2002 monograph on Puccini. It begins, indeed, with a racist story of Japan, by the egregious Pierre Loti. This is Madame Chrysanthème, an autobiographical novel of 1887 in which the Japanese are portrayed as "a race of monkeys, insects even, their minds impenetrable by a westerner", while the wife, Chrysanthème herself, is compared to a pet cat. When the hero last glimpses the woman he is about to abandon, "he is relieved to find her hammering the coins he has left her to make sure that they are genuine".

Loti's book not only caused offence in Japan; it provoked a novelette in response, in the form of the secret diary of the fictional Chrysanthème by Félix Régamey. And it inspired the American lawyer John Luther Long to write his story of Madame Butterfly, once again emphasising the geisha's point of view as a counter-blast to Loti: a lieutenant in the US navy marries Butterfly according to Japanese law, leaves her with a promise to return "when the robins build their nests again", but returns with an American wife and claims Butterfly's baby, provoking an attempted hara-kiri.

The man who made a play out of this story, David Belasco, belonged to a world of show business familiar even today, where theatres still bear his name. Just as the modern retelling of Madama Butterfly, Miss Saigon, featured a spectacular theatrical effect (the landing of a helicopter on stage), so Belasco, the "wizard of the stage", was able to wow an audience with "a 14-minute transition from dusk to dawn in which not a word was spoken". Stage lighting was his speciality.

Nobody supposes that Belasco's play would be endurable on stage today. Although it, too, was part of the reaction against Loti's portrayal of Japan, it retained from Loti a babyish speech for Butterfly, "phonetically rendered jargon that bears no relation to English as pronounced by the Japanese". Butterfly dies with the words: "Too bad those robins didn't nes' again." But the play as seen by Puccini in London was transformed first by Luigi Illica, then by Giuseppe Giacosa, the dramatist-poet team also responsible for La Bohème and Tosca. What began to come out clearly - too clearly, Giacosa thought at one point - was the anti-Americanism of the drama, as established early on both in the libretto and in Puccini's music, with its sarcastic use of the "Star-spangled Banner". No doubt Illica knew as little of Americans as he did Japanese. His protagonist was initially called "Sir Francis Blummy Pinkerton". He was entirely cynical - Tito Ricordi, the publisher, referred to him as "a mean American leech".

The consul, Sharpless, by contrast, was to be, according to Illica, "frank, genial, kindly, at bottom a mine of philosophy due to his having lived in different countries; contemptuous of all customs and usages, appreciative only of good people, be they English or Boer, American or Japanese". This is the balance of points of view we get in the first scene, when Pinkerton frankly expresses his philosophy: "Everywhere the Yankee vagabond enjoys himself and trades, scorning risks. He lets down anchor at random, until a squall upsets ship, mooring, masts. He doesn't satisfy his life if he doesn't make his treasure the flowers of every region . . ." That is, he is not happy until he has made love to the beauties of the place. Sharpless replies with a gentle rebuke: "It is an easy gospel that makes life charming, but saddens the heart." The story that unfolds illustrates Sharpless's point.

As for Butterfly herself, she may be sentimentally conceived, but she conforms to no racial stereotype: rather, she embodies the antitype of Loti's venal pet-woman. Her naive and stubborn pro-Americanism was, I should have thought, something new to literature in its day, but by no means foreign to our experiences since. In one sense, however, Butterfly represents something very old indeed. Viewed not as an oriental victim of occidental cynicism, but as the abandoned woman, Butterfly is as old as Dido or Ariadne.

Parker, with his objections to a supposed racism in the music of Butterfly, comes across as something of a throw-back. He reminds one of the youthful music writer Joseph Kerman, who (though he later regretted it) damned Tosca as "that shabby little shocker". Tosca, he said, "is no doubt admired nowadays mostly in the gallery. In the parterre it is agreed that Turandot is Puccini's finest work; no opera at present [1956], not even Carmen, has so inflated a reputation. But if Turandot is more suave than Tosca musically, dramatically it is a good deal more depraved, and the adjective is carefully chosen."

Turandot is depraved. Carmen's reputation is inflated. Tosca is shabby and little. Madama Butterfly ... Kerman didn't deign to mention it, but no doubt it would have fared no better. Kerman's prejudices set the tone for a certain kind of second-hand operatic good taste in the middle of the last century. But, as Auden once said to me, whatever you feel about the rest of Puccini's work, "you can't ignore Madama Butterfly".

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