A Butterfly with Clipped Wings: An Analytical Study of the Fantasy and Reality behind the Italian Opera Madama Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini

By Patrick Lo and Ricky Tsang.

Published by The Arts Collection

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

Born in Lucca 1858, Giacomo Puccini worked for years to reach the top of his profession. By 1900, Puccini was already the most popular opera composer in the world. At the height of success after other operas, such as Manon Lescaut, La Bohème and Tosca, Puccini settled on a play he had seen in London on 21st June, 1900 – the first British production of Madame Butterfly by American impresario David Belasco, based on the one-act dramatization of John Luther Long’s short story, with the famous actress Blanche Bates in the title role. Although the composer understood almost no English, he instinctively felt the appeal of the story. As Puccini later described it, the effect on him was like “pouring gasoline on an open fire”. Even though he immediately applied to Belasco, it took time to secure the rights to the play, as well as for his librettists, Illica and Giacosa, to fashion a text. In fact, the negotiations with Belasco over rights to the drama dragged on into September 1901, when the anxious composer pressed Illica to begin Madama Butterfly using a translation of Long’s short story. Madama Butterfly is indeed by far the best known opera by Puccini. In fact, multiple versions of the ‘Madame Butterfly’ story exist (both in literary form and in staged and filmed versions), particularly via the following works: the French novel Madame Chrysanthème of 1887 by Pierre Loti, in addition to the tale Madame Butterfly by the American writer John Luther Long, which appeared in the Century Magazine of January 1898.
According to Dr. Sandra K. Davis – Butterfly’s faith is based on two wrong assumptions -- unconditional love for a man whom she trusts, and for whom she sacrifices all aspects of her previous life and culture, and her faith in that man’s culture, her ‘American dream’. The opera’s most prominent musical themes, powerfully echoed at dramatic peaks, cluster about these central tragic choices. The ‘cosmic collusion’ of fate, represented most often in authentic Japanese musical themes, challenges her faith throughout the opera. Because Butterfly shares her hamartia with countless women and men throughout history, audiences are drawn deeply into empathy with her situation. But because her voice and melodic contours in Puccini’s orchestral context make her powerful, she becomes an iconic tragic figure of the theater. Since the mid-nineteenth century, the story of ‘Madame Butterfly’ has been an enduring cultural trope. Although it is not the first tale of ‘the soldier and the exotic’, the fundamental issues of race, gender, and imperialism intertwined in Puccini’s popular opera setting have stimulated its continuing representation in popular literature, theater, films, and music, in addition to more formal historical, political, social, and cultural studies, and so on. This paper aims to examine the literary, historical and musical currents that shaped Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, as well as the images of Japanese women in other Western arts forms and literature.
This paper also includes transcripts of interviews with an internationally acclaimed Chinese soprano, Ms. Ella Kiang, sharing her thoughts about her interpretations and understanding of the opera Madama Butterfly.

Keywords: Giacomo Puccini, 1858-1924, John Luther Long, 1861-1927, David Belasco, 1853-1931, Madame Butterfly, Italian Operas, Western Operas and Literature

International Journal of the Arts in Society, Volume 3, Issue 1, pp.59-96. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 4.252MB).

Dr. Patrick Lo

Post-Graduate Student (EdD), University of Bristol (UK), University of Bristol, UK

Mr. Lo is currently a candidate of Doctor of Education (EdD), at Bristol University (UK). He has a Master of Arts in Design Management (MA) from Hong Kong Polytechnic University (2004), a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from McGill University (Canada; 1994), and a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) from Mount Allison University, (Canada; 1992). Mr. Lo also took part in a one-year academic exchange programme at Tuebingen University (Germany) from 1990-91. Mr. Lo is efficient in: Cantonese Chinese, Mandarin Chinese (Putunghua), English and German. 1996-2007, Mr. Lo was serving as Cataloguing Librarian at Lingnan University Library (Hong Kong). 2003-06, Mr. Lo was also serving as the Coordinator of the Library as Cultural Centre activities at Lingnan University Library. Mr. Lo's professional affiliations include the following: (1) 1999-2006 - Secretary of JULAC-HKCAN (Hong Kong Chinese Name Authority) Workgroup. (2) 2003-2006 - Representative of Lingnan University Library (Hong Kong) for the Hong Kong JULAC-BSC (Bibliographic Services Committee). (3) 2004 - present - Member of CALIS (China Academic Library and Information System) Unicat Expert Group. Mr. Lo has presented close to 40 research papers and project reports focusing on humanities, education, and library science at different local and international workgroup meetings, seminars, conferences, including: Mainland China, Hong Kong, Germany, Austria, France, Italy, Japan, United States, Korea, and Sweden; including presenting at: (1) The Library of Congress (U.S.), (2) Austrian National Library (Vienna), (3) University of Vienna, (4) National Library of France (Paris), (5) National Institute of Informatics (Japan), etc. Mr. Lo’s recent professional activity includes presenting “Using Outsource Data of Digital Resources in Creating Our Own Bibliographic Records: Lingnan University Library’s Experience in Converting Naxos Music Library and Spoken Word Library Online Titles to MARC Records” at the 72nd IFLA (International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions) Conference in Seoul, Korea, in August 2006: http://www.ifla.org/IV/ifla72/papers/123-Tam_Lo-en.pdf Mr. Lo's research interests include: latest developments of Metadata, Chinese authority works, and cataloguing among Chinese libraries in Asia and North America; exploring potentials for resources sharing among Chinese libraries in Asia; future development and enhancement of bibliographic records; users’ interaction with the online catalogue; Western classical music, especially Italian operas, vocal music of German Post-Romantic period, Lieder (German art songs), etc. Award(s): Most Active Presenter Award of HKIUG (Hong Kong Innovative Users Group) Annual Meeting in December 2006. Recent Activity: serving as Reporter of Recent Serials Publications in China of Fontes Artis Musicae Journal.

Ricky Tsang

Projects Officer, Naxos Digital Services Ltd., Hong Kong, Hong Kong, China

Mr. Ricky Tsang graduated with double B.A. in English and Music from The Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2004 and 2006 respectively. Before studying the voice with Ms. Chan Siu Kwan at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, he was under the tutelage of Ms. Rosaline Pi at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts Junior Music Programme with scholarships. Mr. Tsang also participated actively in choral music, having joined the choruses of the Opera Society of Hong Kong, Hong Kong Arts Festival and the Hong Kong Philharmonic. In 2005, he became the winner of the Miss Barbara Fei Vocal Scholarship (Open) in the 57th Hong Kong Schools Music Festival. In 2006 he was awarded the LTCL diploma in Vocal Recital by Trinity College London. Ricky Tsang is currently working as a Projects Officer at Naxos Digital Services Limited in Hong Kong. He also served as a freelance reviewer for Hi Fi Review, (a Hong Kong music magazine). His research interests include: music cataloguing, preservation of antique sheet music, database implementation and interface user-centred design of online music resources, usage and applications of online music resources for general education, early 20th-century Italian opera composers, Western choral and bel canto vocal pedagogies, and the developments of Western Christian music in Hong Kong. Ricky Tsang is currently working as a Projects Officer at Naxos Digital Services Limited in Hong Kong. He also served as a freelance reviewer for Hi Fi Review, (a Hong Kong music magazine). His research interests include: music cataloguing, preservation of antique sheet music, database implementation and interface user-centred design of online music resources, usage and applications of online music resources for general education, early 20th-century Italian opera composers, Western choral and bel canto vocal pedagogies, and the developments of Western Christian music in Hong Kong.

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