Thursday, January 7, 2016

Madame Butterfly and the Exotic

This month on Clef Notes, we are looking at exoticism found in music. Last time, we looked at Bizet’s famous opera, Carmen. Today, let’s travel to Japan for an opera many of you may have enjoyed during the Cincinnati Opera’s 2014 season: Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (1904).

Puccini created his own unique style by combining elements of the great opera composers who came before him: Verdi’s gorgeous vocal melodies and Wagner’s leitmotifs. Puccini uses arias, choruses, duets, etc. throughout and blurs the distinction between recitatives and arias used in operas in the prior century.

In Madama Butterfly, Puccini combines elements of Western-Romantic music and exoticism by telling the magazine story by John Luther Long of a young geisha who gives up her family and religion to marry American Lieutenant Pinkerton who promises to come retrieve her from Japan. After a three-year wait, he returns with a new wife, leaving young Butterfly heartbroken. Pentatonic and whole-tone scales can be heard throughout Puccini’s score, a feature that Western audiences commonly associated with the East.

Here is a clip showing a famous aria from this opera—“Un bel di vedromo,” sung by Maria Callas:

Can you hear exotic elements in the “Un bel di vedremo”?