One of the world’s most popular operas opens in Covent Garden today amid fresh claims of racism, colonial misadventure and outmoded, “sordid” morals.
Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, the tale of an American naval lieutenant who takes and discards a young Japanese wife, has become accustomed to political criticism. But yesterday’s attack, from a renowned opera scholar intending to cause mischief, stirred the soul of opera fans across the country.
Professor Roger Parker, a teacher of music at King’s College London and a Puccini specialist, suggested that opera audiences could be unwitting participants in racism because of the stereotypes Madama Butterfly contains.
He said: “An authentic production [of the opera] is a racist production. It has a lot of ideas within it that would be seen in any other circumstances as racist. It is not just a question of the words, it also Puccini’s music.”
Prof Parker said his remarks would be regarded as heresy by some people, but that the popularity of “authentic” productions meant he had to speak out.
“We have become much more sensitive [about racism] and the interpretation of Madama Butterfly is one of those operas that needs to reflect that.
“But the problem is that people are too frightened of intervening in opera to make a modern production, by cutting out or changing some parts.”
He said directors will “do as they like” with interpreting Shakespeare, but that there is too much respect for a composer’s original opera vision.
Other critics have pointed out the anti-American tone of Madama Butterfly, but many agree that it presents ignorant clichés of foreign lands.
The production opening at the Royal Opera House tonight, first seen in 2003, is a broadly traditional take on the story of the 15-year-old Japanese geisha who falls in love with Lieutenant Pinkerton.
He makes a marriage of convenience to Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly), who falls deeply in love and converts to Christianity, before abandoning her with a baby and returning to America to get married to a “real wife”.
Prof Parker said that the clearly racist sentiments of Pinkerton, who derides the Butterfly’s relatives and their religious sentiments, need to be exposed, or distanced, in any modern production. He said he had not seen the new production, originally by Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser, but feared that traditional costumes of kimonos and red lipstick could be “buying into” a stereotype.
A spokesman for the Royal Opera House defended the production, saying: “It is a product of the time in which it was written, and reflects the attitudes of the time as many art and cultural pieces do.”
However a source in the Japanese embassy in London, said: “I don’t think it is racist at all. The story could have happened in Vietnam or even London. It is about the time it was set in, we don’t feel offended because it is about Japan.”
New research claims finally to solve the mystery of the story’s origins. Kirin Ichiban, the Japanese brewer, says the Scottish-born industrialist Sir Thomas Blake Glover and his Japanese wife, Tsuru, were the inspiration for the tale of love and betrayal.
Sir Thomas was born in Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire, in 1838, the son of an English Royal Navy officer. As a young man he travelled the world as a merchant trader and in 1859 settled in Japan, founding the Kirin Ichiban brewery in 1907.
The story was adapted by the American author John Luther Long, who was said to have based his tale on incidents related to him by his sister, the wife of a missionary stationed in Nagasaki, where it is set.
It was later turned into a play before becoming the inspiration for Puccini.
The opera, first staged to terrible reviews in 1904, has since become one of the world’s most popular.
It is set in Japan at the start of the 20th century, and tells the tale of Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton of the United States Navy and 15-year-old Cio-Cio-San, a former geisha nicknamed “Madam Butterfly”.
He proposes to her but tells colleagues that he is simply touring the world in search of pleasure.
The naïve Butterfly believes that her marriage is real, allows herself to fall in love and gives birth to Pinkerton’s child after he departs with his ship.
When Pinkerton finally returns, Butterfly learns that he has married an American woman who wants to take away her child. Butterfly commits suicide.