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Death of a Geisha

Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is a perfect example for a sympathizing score outweighing the far-fetched, anachronistic story. Regardless of any controversy about its tear-jerking plot, the piece ranks easily in the top ten of the most popular operas worldwide.

The Plot

Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly) marries Pinkerton, a US lieutenant stationed in Nagasaki. When she gets a child from him, he has left. Accompanied by his American wife, Pinkerton returns to Japan three years later, in order to take the child. Butterfly commits suicide.

Let’s assume taking a temporary, local wife was nothing unusual for Western explorers back then. Were these arrangements anything more than just a deal? Would you expect a temporary wife to commit suicide? I guess it is safe to attribute the opera’s tragic end to the way the Western world looked at Japan back in the day – a view that is probably best described as “colonial.”

Even though Puccini never visited Japan, he did quite a bit to familiarize himself with the country’s musical idiom. While working on the score, he contacted the Japanese ambassador to Rome. He made the ambassador’s wife sing indigenous folk songs for him as well as acquire sheet music for further study. Unsurprisingly, many of the opera’s tunes reflect actual Japanese songs.

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