Reframing Musical Exoticism: Ideas for Teaching Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly”

Tamaki Miura (L) and Hizi Koyke

Author: Kunio Hara

When I was a graduate student at Indiana University in the mid-2000s, J. Peter Burkholder, who was then working on the 8th edition of A History of Western Music, he reached out to his colleagues as well as graduate students for ideas about additional pieces to include in the accompanying 6th edition of Norton Anthology of Western Music which came out in 2009. Prior to starting my program at IU, I had completed a master’s degree at the University of Cincinnati, College-Conservatory of Music with a thesis on Puccini’s use of Japanese melodies in Madama Butterfly. Based on my interest and awareness of the interesting history behind Puccini’s adaptations (and creative imagining) of Japanese music in the opera, I lobbied to include the dialogue between Pinkerton and Cio-Cio-San before the marriage ceremony in Act I. Peter listened to my suggestion and not only agreed to add this excerpt to the new edition of NAWM but extend it through the middle of the marriage ceremony to incorporate the national anthems of United States and Japan.

In traditional accounts of Western music history, Puccini’s interest in the Japanese subject matter in Madama Butterfly is frequently discussed as a manifestation of exoticism, Europe’s long-held fascination with cultures and peoples originating from beyond its imaginary boundaries. More recent takes on the narrative, spurred by the critical framework of postcolonial theory, highlights the problematic nature of such fascination, pointing to its exploitative nature and problematic tendency to greatly distort the original musical sources. Curiously, both types of accounts describe the process in a way that positions Puccini the composer at the center of the discourse either as a creative genius who had “discovered” rare musical sources to enrich his compositional language or as a harmful exploiter of Japanese culture. In these accounts, Japanese people, who produced the music, are left mute, passive, and helpless. To me Both of these approaches did seem to capture the complexity of the cultural exchange represented in the work. For one thing, they both minimized or ignored the work that 19th-century Japanese people undertook in order to create the conditions that enabled Puccini to become aware of Japanese songs in the first place.

One of the goals that I sought to accomplish through the inclusion of Madama Butterfly in NAWM was to challenge this notion by opening up a space in the commentary section of NAWM to talk about the Japanese political leaders’ and educators’ efforts to introduce Western music in the second half of the 19th century. Instead of Cio-Cio-San’s famous Act II aria “Un bel dì,” I suggest the relatively obscure passage from Act I for the anthology because it includes Puccini’s secondary adaptation of a traditional Japanese song, Sakura, that was originally transcribed, arranged, and published in by Rudolph Dittrich (1861–1919) in a collection called Nippon Gakufu vol. 1 (1894). Dittrich was a German composer and music educator hired by the Japanese government to teach Western-style music at the Tokyo School of Music between 1888 and 1894. The discussion of Dittrich, I reasoned, would have to necessitate the larger historical processes that highlights the Japanese people’s effort to rapidly digest and master music from Europe and North America. Looking back at this nearly fifteen years later, I can now see this was my small attempt at trying the reframe the narrative of musical exoticism as a two-way process.


Since that time, the excerpt has survived two rounds of revisions in 2014 and 2019. I also had opportunities to teach the excerpt multiple times at the University of South Carolina where I have been teaching since 2010. Whenever I teach Madama Butterfly in my undergraduate survey of Western music class, I touch on the introduction of Western music in Japan through the figure of Dittrich. I typically introduce the song “Sakura” first as it appears in the orchestral passage in Puccini’s opera (5 measures after rehearsal number 75 on p. 923 of the 8th edition of NAWM) by playing the snippet and asking the students if the tune sound familiar to them (typically a couple will have heard the song). I then show a transcription of the song as we know it today on a PowerPoint slide, inviting them to sing along if enough students have expressed familiarity with it (Figure 1). I then show the colorful cover page of Dittrich’s collection (Figure 2), present Dittrich’s piano arrangement of the song (Figure 3), and play a recording of the arrangement. On a separate handout (Handout 1), I highlight three events in Dittrich’s life pertinent to the discussion of the excerpt. The handout also includes the various literary sources that preceded the opera that provides yet another opportunity to discuss the historical context that warranted the presence of European and American individuals in Japan at the end of the 19th century, for instance Commodore Matthew Perry’s expedition to Japan in 1853 and 1854 that forced the Shogunate to sign the Treaty of Kanagawa that opened two ports to American vessels, ending its century-long policy of national isolation.

Figures 1–3
Handout 1

However, the more I teach this excerpt, often squeezed within a lecture on fin-de-siècle exoticism or on post-Verdian Italian opera, the more I become aware of the challenges of trying to delve deeply into the subject matter that requires a great deal of background information about Japanese history that students may or may not have. Additionally, the widely publicized, visually sensational, and frankly perplexing missteps that opera companies in the U.S. continue to make about the casting and make-up decisions for Madama Butterfly and its Gilbert and Sullivan companion piece The Mikado, have motivated me to devote some time to discuss the practical issues surrounding the performance of the opera rather than its genesis. In these discussions, I typically provide visual examples of various approaches to costume and make up employed by artists of different backgrounds. I also make the point of including discussion of historic singers of Japanese and Japanese American backgrounds such as Tamaki Miura (1884–1946) and Hizi Koyke (1903–1991) who had international careers during the early and mid-20th century (Figure 4). The inclusion of these two singers, who had to negotiate the necessity to contend with the image of a Japanese woman created an Italian composer and his collaborators and their own cultural knowledge and experiences make the discussion about exoticism a more nuanced and complicated one that goes beyond a celebration of Puccini’s compositional craft or a simple castigation of Puccini’s inability to accurately portray Japanese culture. Additionally, considering the careers of these musicians seems particularly pertinent since the passage included in the anthology from Act I dramatizes Cio-Cio-San adjusting her performance of “Japanese-ness,” expressed through Puccini’s use of modified Japanese melodies, in order to appeal to Pinkerton.  In other words, my interest in the pedagogical potential in Madama Butterfly has shifted from the history of the work itself to the history of its performance.

Figure 4

Change of Course

As Kira Thurman and Kristen Turner has argued in their 2017 Musicology Now blog post, highlighting performers of color courses we teach can be a powerful way to address the issue of inclusion and diversity in the music history classroom. Following their advice, I assigned a small writing project in the survey of Western music history course I taught at the University of South Carolina (MUSC 455: History of Western Music III, 1860 to the present) in Fall 2017 reproduced here with some modifications (Handout 2). The assignment asks the students to compare reviews of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly that featured three sopranos from different time periods with contrasting backgrounds in its title role, Geraldine Farrar (1882–1967), Tamaki Miura, and Leontyne Price (b. 1927), that appeared in the New York Times and the New York Amsterdam News. I provided access to multiple reviews for each singers, supplemented them with additional articles about the careers of the singers in general (all accessible on ProQuest Historical Newspapers), and gave students the option to choose reviews that best illustrate their points. I have listed the articles in Handout 3.

Handout 2
Handout 3

My hope was to provide an opportunity for students to think deeply about the layers of meanings that performers can bring to the stage not only because of their artistry but because of the expectations the reviewers had for the performers. The exercise challenges the facile idea of “authenticity” and “realism” often associated with Puccini’s works. For instance, reviews, such as the one from the February 12, 1907 issue of the New York Times, frequently praised Farrar’s ability to embody what they thought of as a realistic representation of a Japanese woman. On the other hand reviews of Miura, who was Japanese, expressed disappointment for what they understood to be her incomplete mastery of Italian bel canto style of singing. One reviewer described her as “Tiny Tamaki Miura” in the headline of the review appearing in the October 29, 1915 issue of the New York Times. The October 15, 1961 articles from the New York Times titled “Girl of the Golden Voice” about Price makes a startling comment that “the only role for which Miss Price whitens her translucent complexion is Butterfly, and her reason is elementary.” The article then relays Price commenting that “a geisha puts rice powder on her face.” Otherwise, the discussion about race tends to focus, rightfully, toward the celebration of her accomplishment as an African American singer.

Although the reviews are historic, the issues they bring to the surface, I believe, still resonate today. The exercise can be greatly augmented and adapted to include reviews published in other newspapers from other parts of the world (all three singers had international careers) or by bringing in reviews of other singers. Introducing contemporary reviews in the mix also has the benefit for the students to gauge the difference in the ways audiences have felt about representation of Japanese characters and locale on the operatic stage. The exercise can easily converted into a discussion-based activity rather than a written assignment. I hope that this kind of reflection will help students think deeply and historically when they engage with the work as a student, a performer, or an audience member.

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