In 1940, in a Japan at war, Wagoro Arai began work on an animated version of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Twelve minutes long, his version focussed on the closing act of the opera, as the dutiful wife waits expectantly for her husband to return home, only to find that he has abandoned her in favour of an American woman. It was the perfect propaganda strike against the Allies – a heartless foreigner, discarding a Japanese spouse, who avenges herself with suicidal fervour. Arai planned to use the voice of Tamaki Miura, a Japanese singer who had travelled the world in happier times, singing the role of Butterfly in Boston and New York, Rome and Florence.
There was one small problem. Puccini was Italian. This was not like the intellectual property of the Disney cartoons or Popeye shorts that the Japanese felt able to rip off with impunity as part of the spoils of war. Puccini had only died in 1924; his opera was still in copyright, and Italy was Japan’s ally. Arai would have to play by the rules.
Gingerly, and with thousands of frames of animation already complete, Arai went to Puccini’s estate to ask how much the music rights would cost. The price was so high that he could not afford it, and his Madama Butterfly cartoon was forced into a regrettable compromise, stuck with a hastily compiled alternative soundtrack.
It was not the last time that we encounter a foreign claim on a supposedly Japanese story. Madama Butterfly might be seen as quintessentially Japanese, but few of those who carried her story to the West were Japanese themselves. The latest incarnation, which I saw at the New York Metropolitan Opera on Saturday, is another glorious piece of Japanning. Produced by the late Anthony Minghella, directed by Carolyn Choa, and starring Patricia Racette as Butterfly, it luxuriates in the oriental, and in a foreigner’s-eye view of exotic Japan.
When I say I “saw” it in New York… the performance was in New York. I personally was seven time zones away, one of thousands of people all around the world watching it as a live broadcast in an HD-ready cinema. I had thought that the idea would appeal to hardly anyone, but instead I found a packed theatre. It seems that from Brixton to Brazil, there are people who are prepared to pay £25 for “virtual” front-row seats at a performance that might otherwise set them back ten times as much.
I loved the backstage glimpses, and the moments of irreplaceable close-up. As Butterfly and her servant Suzuki (Maria Zifchak) waited in silence on a Nagasaki hilltop for a man who will not come, the camera caught a real-life tear rolling down Zifchak’s face. I wouldn’t have seen that from a football field away in the cheap seats. The Met’s live broadcast knew when to pull back for the set pieces, and when to zoom in for the detail – the masterpiece on Saturday belonged not only to the performers, but to the live broadcast director who kept the camera transfers seamless.
The story of Madama Butterfly might be set at the turn of the 20th century, but owes its influences to events of a generation earlier. Butterfly’s relatives, who disown her when she converts to Christianity, display an attitude that belongs to 1870s Japan, when Christianity was only newly decriminalised. The allusions to her late father, presented with a dagger by the Emperor and ordered to take his own life, is likely to be a vestige of the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877, when the last of southern Japan’s samurai rose up against the unwelcome influence of foreigners and modernisers. This is why Butterfly is so reluctant to let Pinkerton see the knife among her meagre possessions – it is a reminder that her father died trying to rid Japan of the likes of Pinkerton, and that in the aftermath, her family has fallen on hard times. It took a generation for such muddled facts to migrate into fiction, to circle the globe and then re-emerge as Puccini’s most famous opera.
There was no single historical Butterfly. There were many like her. Impoverished girls in the treaty ports gained an erotic frisson for foreign visitors, particularly Pierre Loti, whose Madame Chrysanthème (1887) portrayed Japanese girls as charming but mercenary hookers with hearts of gold, encouraging a generation of sex tourists in search of a “temporary wife”. The most infamous was perhaps the Russian Prince Nikolai, who in 1891 arrived in Japan, caroused the red light districts, got a tattoo, and was soon knifed by an irate local in a resort town near Kyoto. He bore the scar for the rest of his life, along with a hatred of all things Japanese, which blossomed into disaster when, as Tsar Nicholas II in 1904, he led his country into the Russo-Japanese War.
1904 was also the year of Madama Butterfly’s premiere in Italy, with a libretto drawn from these influences and many more. Butterfly is also the product of a short story “as told to” an American writer by a sister newly returned from Japan; a performance of Japanese theatre by the legendary actress Sadayakko; and a general vogue for Japonisme as the vanquished factions in Japan’s civil war, the likes of Butterfly’s father, offloaded family heirlooms onto the European antiques market.
Puccini’s Butterfly was not the sexually charged bed-warmer of Madame Chrysanthème. She was written as a tragically infatuated innocent, a 15-year-girl who genuinely believes that she has found her soulmate in B.F. Pinkerton, an American cad who has leased a wife and a house for 999 years, but fully intends to cash both of them in after only a few months. Abandoned by her family and soon by Pinkerton himself, Butterfly patiently raises Pinkerton’s child and wait for her husband’s return, as her finances dwindle and she lapses back into poverty. But Pinkerton is not coming back – even at their wedding, he boasts to the disapproving Consul Sharpless that he is looking forward to having “a real, American wife.”
This makes him, as far as I am concerned, opera’s Worst Bastard. Yes, even worse than that arrogant bitch Turandot. In one of the illuminating interviews, all part of the Met’s live broadcast for those people who don’t leave their seats at the intervals, singer Marcello Giordani pleaded for mercy, arguing that Pinkerton was not as bad as that, and that in his own way, he loved Butterfly, too. I don’t buy it. Although, possibly, I have been influenced by my mother, who throughout my own childhood used to regularly heckle the stereo with “HE’S NOT WORTH IT, CIO-CIO-SAN!”
Notably, the Met also had Butterfly committing suicide in the open. Most productions have her knifing herself behind a screen in silhouette – a fact that Wagoro Arai’s 1940 cartoon version exploited to the full by presenting the entire story in silhouette form. Butterfly’s death is, admittedly, a crucial moment for any performance, but all the more important to Japanese audiences. In killing herself after a prayer to a Buddhist altar, she repudiates her newly and vaguely adopted Christian values, returning to the bosom of her family by acknowledging the samurai way, seeking “honour in death” when it has been denied her in life. To modern, Western audiences, this might make her come across as something of a bunny-boiler, but even that has a strong connection to Western appropriations.
A “bunny-boiler”, of course, is a piece of modern slang we have inherited from Fatal Attraction (1987), in which Glenn Close plays a Madama Butterfly fan who decides not to let her personal Pinkerton get away with it. The original ending of Fatal Attraction (now available as a DVD extra) had Close slicing her own throat with a knife that bore Michael Douglas’s fingerprints, while Puccini played on her stereo. After testing badly with audiences all over (except, unsurprisingly, in Japan), the ending was dropped in favour of a Hollywood-style confrontation, to Close’s annoyance and to the film’s detriment. However, rumours persist that the original ending was retained in Japanese theatres; I genuinely don’t know if this is true or not – if anyone out there saw Fatal Attraction at a Japanese cinema, do drop me a line and let me know.
Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of Japan.