Monday, March 31, 2008

The Kyushu Trip: Nagasaki and Opera

[Statue of Giacomo Puccini, Glover Garden, Nagasaki]

Nagasaki was one of those places that got me thinking, and I love places like that.

I went to Glover Garden, an area which had been owned by Thomas Glover, the guy who started Kirin brewery. There's a display in one of the western style buildings about the Puccini opera Madame Butterfly.

I have to confess, I know Madame Butterfly primarily through teaching M. Butterfly. The basic idea of M. Butterfly is that it rethinks the ways that westerners (especially western men) conceive Asians as a feminized other. In the play (set in the 50s and forward) the western protagonist, Rene Gallimard, a French diplomat, has an affair with the Asian protagonist, Song Liling, a star in the Chinese Opera. But Song is really male (and playing a female in a cross-dressed role as was traditional), and a spy, and leads Gallimard to misinterpreting what's happening in China and Vietnam. As a result, he's recalled to France. Song, being no longer useful as a spy, is tortured by the Chinese government for homosexual behavior.

[Statue of Tamaki Miura, remembering her service and her playing of the role of Madame Butterfly]

Throughout, the play rethinks the opera, which involves an American officer in 19th century Nagasaki, who has an affair with a Japanese woman, Cio-Cio-San, "marries" her, but then leaves and since the marriage isn't recognized in the US, marries a US woman. Cio-Cio-San has a light-haired baby. He returns to Japan with his new American wife, and Cio-Cio-San realizes that she's been abandoned and kills herself.

Glover Garden has a big display, including a statue of Puccini. There's also a stature of the famous Japanese opera diva, Tamaki Miura, best known (according to the signage) for singing the part of Madame Butterfly. There's obvious pride in the opera connection here.

I'm fascinated. What does it mean that at least some people in Nagasaki see the opera as something worth celebrating while David Henry Hwang (and many other critics) sees it as a racist, stereotyping work?

The opera really focuses on a woman's story. The play takes that story, rethinks it, and makes it all about men.

While I was in Nagasaki, reading the signage, I was sort of under the impression that Puccini had written the part for Tamaki Miura, but she didn't make her operatic debut until about ten years after the opera opened, so I guess not. That would have added an interesting wrinkle, wouldn't it?


  1. Anonymous10:10 AM

    Puccini had indeed already created what today would probably be called Madame Butterfly: The Opera before Miura came along. (The storyline goes back in France to at least 1887, when Pierre Loti wrote a novel called Madame Chrysantheme, and there are also Japanese versions that were created independently from the original "true story").

    But as it happens, there is a Japanese actress closely associated with Madame Butterfly, Sada Yakko (sometimes spelled Sadayakko or Sada Yacco). She was a famous geisha romantically involved with several famous Japanese men who then retired, married an up-and-coming actor named Kawakami Otojiro, and went on tour with him to the US and Europe in 1900. Although she had not intended to appear on stage, from the moment they landed in San Francisco she found herself the center of attention, and so became the first modern Japanese actress. In Europe she and Kawakami hobnobbed with Mallarme, Picasso, Isadora Duncan etc. Puccini saw one of her performances while shortly after he finished writing the staging for Madame Butterfly, and was so taken with her depiction of a tragic geisha who commits suicide over love (one of her standard acts) that he rewrote the stage directions to mimic her acting on the belief that she was presenting an authentic Japanese experience.

    The amusing thing, as you might guess, was that she and Kawakami had basically created the character, action, and staging to please American and French audiences, basically presenting western orientalism as authentic Japanese theater.

    Lesley Downer has written a fascinating biography of her called Madame Sadayakko: The Geisha Who Bewitched the West. She is also covered in a more academic way in couple of chapters in Ayako Kano's Acting Like a Woman in Modern Japan: Theater, Gender, and Nationalism. I highly recommend both (Downer is more fun; Kano works harder to place Sada Yakko in the longer run of both European and Japanese theater).

  2. Richard, I'd heard about the short story and historical basis, but not at all about Sada Yakko! How fascinating! Thanks for telling me.

  3. Anonymous9:50 PM

    My pleasure, Bardiac! You might be interested to know that, once they returned to Japan, Kawakami's troupe turned the tables and presented western theater to Japanese audiences previously only familiar with Kabuki. Kawakami himself "modernized" may western plays, once famously combining Hamlet with The Student Prince. At least one Japanese reviewer (now, this is according to Downer) chastised him for having Hamlet enter on a bicycle....

    A very interesting time.

    If you are curious about theater history in Japan, Waseda University (Tokyo) has the most extensive collection of materials. They even lend some as far as the US via ILL. The librarian for your Japanese host university can help you figure out what's in Waseda's collection, and write a letter of introduction for you to the Waseda library, if you think you'll have a chance to visit while you're in Japan.

  4. Wow, cool! Thanks, Richard. I don't think it's really practical for me to try to look at Japanese materials, since I know only about 5 kanji. Alas!