Sunday, 3 July 2011

Madame Butterfly broadcast and real Japanese response

That excellent Puccini Madama Butterfly from the Royal Opera House is now available online, internationally and on demand on BBC Radio 3.  It's a must-listen because Kristine Opolais is singing - she's the sensation of the production! Liping Zhang will be on the film that's being made, so this is your chance to hear why most of us were stunned by Opolais. Read review HERE. (There's an announcement before the show that Opolais is unwell, so not in best form.) You'll need to go to about 20 minutes to cut the chat, most of it uninformative (though Andris Nelsons talks well about the music at 15 min)

When are western commentators going to realize that the Japan Puccini portrays is not the real  Japan? Madama Butterfly tells us no more about Japanese society than The Mikado. Puccini uses the exotic setting to emphasize the idea that westerners like Pinkerton know kaput about other civilizations. Puccini writes about what happens when one culture sees others only in its own context. Unfortunately too many westerners still think Madam Butterfly "must" fit their conception of what Japan ought to be.

The lady in the photo is Hamako Watanabe 渡辺はま子(1910-1999) There's an article about her in Japanese Wiki, but little in English. She was one of the big singing stars in Japan in the 1930's, 40's and 50's. HERE is a clip of her singing in 1939. A real Japanese song on the theme of Nagasaki and Madama Butterfly. Please listen as it's a genuine Japanese response to the opera.  Translation, help please ! Listen to the snippets from Puccini.  Nagasaki means different to Japanese than it does to most westerners. It was where the Potuguese in the 16th century, and later the Dutch, traded with Japan, so placing the opera in this city means a lot more than to those who know Asia. The idea that there was any single "Butterfly" original is sheer nonsense. There must have been hundreds of contacts, even though foreign communities in Nagasaki were closely monitored.

HERE is a link to a Japanese TV documentary about Ms. Watanabe, and shows her singing Shina no Yori (China Nights) in her 80's. Shina no yori is a story worth telling in more detail, so I'll write more another time.


Unknown said...

Thank you for the post.

Unknown said...

Hopefully one does not have to be conscious of his mixed blood to fully appreciate this work but yes it has a special resonance for those who question the difficulties and the sincerity of intermingling in 'open' (that could mean just permissive but not so tolerant) societies; and butterflies (with diverse situations) are as old as colonialism, coloured or non whites, different nationalities, trade and ports. The destiny of Cio Cio san or her son could recall that of a young mulatto in Rue Cases Negres. Maybe there were also some Butterflies even in Bristol?

Anonymous said...


If you're interested in Watanabe Hamako, I just posted her 78 rpm recording of "Shina No Yoru" on my blog :


Ceints de bakélite, France

Doundou Tchil said...

Hello ceintes de bakelite ! I enjoyed your nlog and also the link to Michael Bourdagh's article. There's a lot on my site about cross cultural Japanese and Chinese culture and movies. The song Bourdagh mentions on page 31 comes from this movie here :

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your comment, I'll read your blog carefully ! I saw that film Street Angel when I was in China a few years ago. I also posted a 78 rpm recording of Zhou Xuan a few weeks ago on my blog, I hope you will like it !