Madama Butterfly

I’m currently preparing to show a video of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. I’ll be introducing the opera and offering a commentary before the showing begins and between the acts. So I’ve been studying the opera to prepare.

I’ve known Butterfly since childhood. Early in my career, I spent the better part of thirteen years in Asia during the Vietnam war and saw Butterfly’s story played out in real life. The opera captures reality.

While going through the score at the piano, I was struck once again by Puccini’s genius. For episodes involving primarily American characters, he relies on the standard major and minor scales, typified by the “Star-Spangled Banner” which is his leitmotif for Americans.

But for sections of the score dealing with the Japanese, he uses at least ten authentic Japanese melodies and several other themes that might be adaptations of Japanese folk tunes. To depict Butterfly herself and the Japanese that surround her, he employs modes, scales different from what we are used to—the Aeolian mode, the pentatonic scale, and the whole tone scale. The effect is to create a unique musical world inhabited only by Japanese.

Puccini portrays the Americans in the story as shallow, rough, and ruled by a superiority complex. He got that right. As I’ve noted here before, the Americans I’ve observed in my many years working abroad act as though they are a cut above people of other cultures and nationalities. We don’t even bother to learn other languages; people from other countries should learn to speak English.

My sense is that Puccini captured the American character in his portrayal of the American naval lieutenant Pinkerton. His superficiality and scorn for the Japanese lay the groundwork for the tragedy that ends the opera.

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