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Subject: Re: Cultural controversy swirls around Seattle Opera’s ‘Madame Butter fly’
From: Donald Levine <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:Donald Levine <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Thu, 3 Aug 2017 10:05:54 -0700

text/plain (143 lines)

It has become very convenient in our contemporary culture to look at the
product of an earlier time with jaundiced eyes.  We have also become ultra
sensitive in ways that for me are a bit  much.  Butterfly is a product of
its time.  It is an opera by an Italian based on an American play.  It is
also a magnificent creation musically and emotionally and that is how we
should look at it today, not seek to pull it apart and impart meanings that
never past through the minds of Puccini or Belasco.  When I see and hear
Butterfly, I do not think about cultural relativism, political correctness
or racial injustice.  I leave the theatre in tears.  I start bawling at the
moment that Cio-Cio-San and Suzuki spot the ship entering the harbor.  Il
cannone nel porto is my cue for the tears to flow.  I don't care if the
Butterfly is Japanese, Chinese, Mongolian or Chechan - or a fat little
Italian butterball (Scotto at the time of her Met debut).  I don't care if
she is made up to look Japanese or not, what I care about is that she can
sing the music and touch my heart.  Period.  I remember being with a friend
who was learning the role and coaching it with Teresa Stratas.  We had
lunch together - this was about twenty years ago.  I asked Stratas who was
the best Butterfly she ever heard and without looking a beat she said
Antonietta Stella at the Met in 1958.  She said at the end of the day, it
was an Italian opera that required a big, colorful, powerful spinto voice.
End of conversation.  She also admitted that she did not fit the bill.  My
friend also coached with Kiharu Nakamura, an elegant, cultured Japanese
lady living in Jackson Heights, NY who was a geisha during the thirties and
was known for educating prospective Butterfly's on the proper etiquette
 and style of portraying a Japanese woman.  She herself was not offended by
Butterfly or its portrayal of Japanese society and having been born in 1914
and educated in pre war Japan, she was much closer to the era in which the
opera took place.

If you think Butterfly is bad - have you seen or heard Iris of Mascagni.
Talk about a romp in the underbelly of turn of the century Japan.  Its
similar to Butterfly in that it portrays some not so nice characters but is
basically more about a big Italian spinto singing glorious music and an
Italian tenor lover (in Iris' case, a real piece of shit).    That genre of
orientalism was very popular during fin de siecle Europe (end of the 19th
century).  There was Mme. Chrysanthome, Lakme, the Les Pecheurs des
Perles...and others.  We really have to accept them on their own terms and
not try to fast forward to our 21st century sensibilities.

I love Butterfly, I enjoy Turandot, Iris, and their ilk.  I don't think the
creators were trying to dis anyone.  If anything. its the Mericans who come
off at the shitheads in Butterfly.  Sharpless is the only one with some
decency and if you think Pinkerton is bad, you should get to know the
original 1904 Butterfly.  He was cleaned up and made a bit more sympathetic
in the final version we know today.

As far as I am concerned, this whole conversation is an exercise in mental

Donald 🤔

On Thu, Aug 3, 2017 at 8:08 AM, G. Paul Padillo <[log in to unmask]>

> Fascinating article, Jason.  At the risk of sounding insensitive, I truly
> believe too many people, regardless of heritage or culture, can be a bit
> over sensitive and reactionary when their culture is portrayed in a light
> that
> they don’t appreciate.
> I was particularly flummoxed by Ms. Gainor’s final quote:
> “. . . Cio-Cio San is a sex-trafficked 15-year old Japanese teenager.  Why
> are we so comfortable with that, to the point of romanticizing it and
> telling
> the story over and over?”
> The answer is, I believe, less complex than some might want to believe:
> Cio
> Cio-Cio San's story is, despite its “Oriental trappings,” universal and,
> regardless of one's own culture, we develop an automatic and great,
> sympathy (even empathy) for this young woman who, though the cards of
> life are stacked against her from the beginning, refuses to play the
> victim.
> While some would vilify Puccini we must remember he didn’t write Butterfly
> to poke fun at a culture he knew little about, but rather because Cio-Cio
> San stole, then broke his heart.  She does for many of us.
> While in London supervising the English premiere of “Tosca”, Puccini
> attended Belasco’s play during its premiere run at the Duke of York
> Theatre.  According to Belasco, Puccini rushed backstage, threw his arms
> around the playwright and, still weeping from the performance, begged
> Belasco to allow him to set it to music.  Belasco offered Puccini the
> rights
> immediately because, “it was impossible to discuss arrangements with an
> impulsive Italian who has tears in his eyes and both of his arms around
> your neck.”  (More stereotypes!)
> Regardless of his ignorance of genuine Japanese culture, Puccini gives this
> seemingly naïve, fragile, and enormous strength and nobility.  While many
> Asians may not appreciate what he created, others have (and do) with
> productions designed and starring Asian artists, some of them playing in
> Seoul, (where during a recent run, the title role was split between two
> sopranos – an Armenian and an Italian), Tokyo, Beijing, Hong Kong, Saga
> (Japan), Singapore (this season they also staged Turandot) . . . and other
> Asian cities.
> A number of Asian artists have actually been influenced and inspired by
> Puccini’s opera, including composer Shigeaki Saegusa who, with a libretto
> by one of Japan’s most respected writers, Masahiko Shimada,
> created “Butterfly, Jr.”
> Renowned director Kuriyama Tamiya, whose credits include Broadway and
> London’s West End, recently directed an enormously successful production
> of Butterfly for the New National Theatre in (wait for it) . . . Tokyo.
> While I would never minimize either the offense or contempt felt by many
> for Puccini’s opera, I do feel it does not paint a complete picture, and
> Asians who are touched and inspired by it, also should not be ignored or
> minimized.
> minimized.
> Thanks again for sharing your article with us.
> p.
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