Madame Butterfly: Japonisme, Puccini, and the Search for the Real Cho-Cho-San – Jan van Rij

Madame Butterfly: Japonisme, Puccini, and the Search for the Real Cho-Cho-San by Jan van Rij is an engaging hobbyist’s project. The author’s thesis— the search for the real Madame Butterfly, also know as Cho-Cho-San—is not a new topic but a continuation of the controversy that surrounds the people who might have inspired the stories from which Puccini’s opera springs. Van Rij, a retired lawyer and European Union senior diplomat who was once stationed in Tokyo, hatched some of the ideas for this book during dinner meetings of the Tokyo Penguin Club. Laying no claim to musical, theatrical, or historical expertise, van Rij describes himself in his introduction as a fan of opera who got caught up in the Madame Butterfly legend in Nagasaki where tourist attractions suggest a connection to this misfortunate bride of a foreigner.

The value of this handsomely produced little book printed on high-quality paper with a graphically striking dust jacket is that it can easily be slipped into a purse (it measures 5 3/4 inches by 7 1/4 inches) and read on the run. More importantly is that all the background for Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is contained in one place. This includes a handy plot summary, a map of the multiple sources of the operatic story, a narrative of Puccini’s process of developing the opera with two librettists, and the report of the disastrous premier at La Scala and how Puccini’s opera was changed to make it a runaway success.

Appropriately, Van Rij provides the story of Puccini’s personal life at the time of this opera, which resonates interestingly with the story of Butterfly. Puccini was a mama’s boy turned womanizer. Van Rij’s cap to the background information is the interest of the Western world during Puccini’s time in things Japanese and how the Japanese remain to this day embarrassed by the story of this opera.

What is interesting about Madama Butterfly is that there were several literary sources from which Puccini’s opera was created: David Belasco’s play Madame Butterfly which Puccini saw in London during the summer of 1900, John Luther Long’s short story from which Belasco’s play was copied and somewhat amended, and Pierre Loti’s, novel Madame Chrysantheme, which preceded Long’s short story. Both Long and Belasco were Americans. Much of van Rij’s discussion centers on Long’s short story, which was divided into fifteen chapters and mistakenly referred to in its time as a novel. Van Rij’s book would have benefited from reprinting the story as an appendix. The story is worth reading to better understand what van Rij is trying to prove concerning who the real Cho-Cho-San might have been.

The downside to van Rij’s book, despite its brevity (the narrative portion is less than 150 pages), is that the van Rij does not cut to the chase and lay out the facts in a straightforward manner. Often what he offers is hearsay and not facts. In addition, the he frequently adds gratuitous opinions and speculations. The most frustrating passage deals with the reliability of John Luther Long’s sister who was the source of Long’s story. This passage serves as an introduction to Tom Glover, who van Rij offers as the model for Trouble (known in the opera as Dolore), Madame Butterfly’s son.

One other annoyance is that the introduction should have put this investigative study within an historical framework that right up front acknowledges World War II and the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, the place where the story of Madame Butterfly originates. For Americans, the mention of Nagasaki immediately triggers the horror of what occurred to the people of that city. Because the Madame Butterfly story involves a callous American navy man who breaks Madame Butterfly’s heart, takes their son away from her, and drives her to suicide, clearing the American-Japanese historic perspective seems necessary. Instead van Rij waits until the end of the study to mention the catastrophic nuclear event in conjunction with the suicide of the man van Rij suggests was the son of the real life woman who served as the model for Madame Butterfly. The shell-shock ending leaves the reader both ambushed and unsatisfied that the search for the real Cho-Cho-San has been completed.

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Washington, DC
Karren Alenier is a swing-dancing poet whose opera, Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On, with composer William Banfield and New York City’s Encompass New Opera Theatre artistic director Nancy Rhodes premiered in New York City in June 2005. She writes a monthly column for scene4.com entitled "The Steiny Road to Operadom." Read about her forthcoming book on opera—The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas at alenier.blogspot.com.