The Morphing of Madame Butterfly

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In Siem Reap there’s a magical little restaurant where the ferns part and the lanterns sway in the tropical breezes. At night, the lights go on and the place twinkles charm. It’s called Madame Butterfly.

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I’m not sure when it happened, but through the years the story of Madame Butterfly has become embellished and turned into a Mikado-esque fanfare. If you google “Madame Butterfly”, “Madame Butterfly Geisha” pops up. These two subjects have merged, and in many people’s minds are the same.

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Both subjects offer plenty of mystique, glamor and pique our interest in the exotic. I believe it’s a result of this misunderstanding that the two are so often confused. I know. Opera is dramatic. It’s supposed to be. I get that. Puccini’s is one of the most beautiful ever written. Despite the superiority of the score, the opera is still a sentimental favorite, due to the potent mix of tragic love and gorgeous sets; parasols swaying, silk rippling and falling blossoms, all the trappings we’ve come to expect. Those who have attended a performance, or read the backstory know Cho-Cho-san and her horrible ending.

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We feel her love for Pinkerton and we go with her on her naïve journey, as she waits, ever faithful, scanning the horizon line for him to return. Touching and poignant. If you’ve done you’re homework, or poked around my blog you’d know the story is largely made up, a myth the Nagasaki Tourist Board shamelessly exploits. It’s based on scant historical evidence. An old photograph and a kimono. The book, Madame Butterfly was published in 1903 by an American lawyer who was influenced by Loti’s famous Madame Chrysanthemum. Are you following me? Because here come’s the geisha connection.

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It seems Loti’s story too chronicles a naval officer married to a Nagasaki geisha. Bingo. The novel was so influential in it’s day that it shaped western views of Japan. Or, more precisely of kimonoed Japanese women sitting around all day, emoting for officer lovers. But it did little to promote the truth about the real geisha as artist who studied her craft from an early age. In other words, a story that had no real basis in truth-the Glover House-the photograph of one of his many women wearing butterflies-and a novel became the image we see today; Madame Butterfly the Geisha.

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Of course, this is largely due to ignorance and perpetuation of early 20th Century stereotypes of Asian woman as exotic sexual object. To be fair, some includes admiration for La Japonaise style, a craze for everything Japanese, albeit through western filtering at the time.

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The geisha and the woman purported to be Madame Butterfly, if she existed at all, are not remotely connected. Period. But through the magic of cinema, novelists and dreamers they will likely be intermingled for a long time to come. And, I guess that’s not such a bad thing as long as people have the opportunity to learn the history and appreciate the craft of the geisha without being confused or sidelined by stereotypes and misinformation. One of the problems is that the geisha community itself, shrinking every decade is closed and guards it’s secrets well. I wonder how they feel about Madame Butterfly, and whether they are annoyed by the morphing of a fictional character into their realm?

It’s still a darn good story that refuses to go away and that’s okay by me.

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