copyright © 2007
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
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
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
, 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
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".