Cultural Representation Through Music in Puccini’s Madame Butterfly

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In Madame Butterfly, Puccini portrays a submissive, sacrificial Oriental woman who dies for her undeserving lover. In this paper, I will discuss the cultural and gender implications in Madame Butterfly and its conceptualization of “Oriental” women, the ways Puccini incorporates the notion of orientalism into his music, the microcosmic portrayal of the “Butterfly” stereotype, and sexual imperialism in the post-war world.

This three-act opera is set in Nagasaki during the fin-de-siecle, Postcolonial world. The protagonist, Cio-Cio-San, a submissive Japanese geisha, who is sold to an American Navy Captain, Pinkerton, through a wedding contract. She unconditionally falls in love with Pinkerton, betraying her own religious faith and giving birth to a son after Pinkerton leaves her. She waits years for Pinkerton’s return, yet when he does eventually come back, he returns with his new American wife to claim the son. Devastated by her blind faith in her husband, Cio-Cio-San commits suicide.

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Madame Butterfly is the quintessential example of Freudian phallocentrism; the play exemplifies the fetishization of Asian women and their depiction as obedient and passive. In Madame Butterfly, Cio-Cio-San is a geisha, and Pinkerton only views her as a rented, temporary wife. Cio-Cio-San, the Butterfly, is a metaphor representing the plight of an Oriental woman as stereotyped by a Western man— the Butterfly is pierced in the heart with a needle and pinned to a board, both literally and figuratively. Her Japanese identity is defined by stereotypical Oriental characteristics that are hypersexualized. She is depicted as exotic, submissive, and inferior— a misconstrued stereotype of Asian women that was developed during the end of the 19th century. Furthermore, when she commits suicide, her sacrifice represents the submission of the East to the West and woman to man. Stereotyping the Asian women with exotic, sexual connotations reaffirms the notion of Western imperialism during this time and the unconscious imperialist mentality. The inherently sexist element of Orientalism is depicted as Western men fantasizing Asian women as the “ideal” woman: submissive, vulnerable, and inferior to them. This cultural hegemony justifies the subjugation of the West over the East.

Butterfly’s literary submissiveness to Pinkerton and the cultural exotisim of Japan is represented in Puccini’s music through a Western lens. He incorporates traditional Japanese folk songs combined with Western tonal implications and French impressionism, subtly conveying the co-existence of Japanese and Western cultures. Puccini’s ability to engage Eastern musical language with Western contemporaries subtly draws a paradigm in the bridging of the Western and Eastern cultures. A metaphorical example of this is when Puccini quotes the Star Spangled Banner to link Western diatonic music with the color of Japanese writing. Not only is the American National Anthem used to portray Pinkerton as ostentatiously Western, but the quotation of this fanfare is incorporated to signify Butterfly’s adoption of her lover’s culture and her withdrawal from her own roots. Furthermore, one can identify Puccini’s assimilation of the impressionistic with the diatonic harmonies in Act I with Butterfly’s entrance. Much of the diatonic harmonies are left unresolved and extra notes are added to tonal triads. Moreover, the bass is written as an ascending whole tone scale, and within each step, Puccini includes an Augmented triad, giving this libretto a dream-like quality: a dream of false hope which Butterfly cannot escape from.

On the other hand, Puccini also paints the fatal coexistence of Japanese and Western cultures and the distinction of their political laws through his music. The merging of the two cultures is unattainable in this opera; unsurprisingly, the two national anthems never blend in his writing. While Butterfly’s entrances are marked by Japanese melodies supported with Western diatonicism, Pinkerton’s tunes are strictly full of diatonicism and exclude any hint of japonisme. To Pinkerton, his matrimonial acquaintance with Butterfly is merely a surface level intention, and the distinction in the two types of music makes this point clear: He had never intended to pursue Butterfly. The tragedy continues to unfold in the most famous aria, Un bel di. The juxtaposition between Butterfly’s Japanese identity and her imagined Western identity is represented in this musical limbo in Act II. At this point in the opera, Pinkerton had left her for three years and there was no hope for him returning. The melodic structure of this aria is structured in a simple F minor key, with a diatonic treatment in Gb Major-- the simplicity and the manner she sings it in representing Butterfly’s blind faithfulness to Pinkerton. Despite her efforts to be American, as the aria denotes through its tenacity to the major key--- she cannot escape her Japanese identity. She remains fundamentally Japanese; her American visage is a fantasy, and no fusion of the Japanese and American cultures can be imagined.

In the end, Pinkerton conquers over Butterfly, sexually and emotionally, as does the Occident over the Orient, man over woman, and the colonizer over the Other. Butterfly eventually recognizes her subjectivity and takes control over her own destruction. In the final scene, Puccini alludes to earlier quotations of the ominous musical theme that is played: her father’s death, her cutting ties with her relatives, her being shamed by her community, etc. The blade of the knife, which states, “to die with honor when one can no longer live with honor,” symbolizes her being lost to nothingness and dying without cultural honor. Despite her valiant efforts to preserve her interracial love, her death subtly exemplifies her dream of assimilation as merely a fantasy.

Whether one views Madame Butterfly homogenized representation of Eastern culture or as an exploitation of gross stereotypes, it remains an impactful work that continues to touch the pathos of audiences worldwide. Despite the changed narrative of these old-fashioned stereotypes in today’s culture, the opera offers an exploration of the critical angles of western colonialism during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Ultimately, the insidiousness of cultural stereotypes around the world has and continues to be prevalent, yet one can wonder if we are in a time progressive from cultural and gender stereotypes to analyze this piece as merely a reflection of history.

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