A Brief History of Japan
The Japanese archipelago has been inhabited since the Paleolithic Age, and by the eighth century ce it had become a powerful and unified state ruled by an emperor. Beginning at the end of the 12th century, a less centralized form of government emerged, with a warrior class of samurai, led by a military commander called the shogun, effectively governing the nation. In this era, Japan was a feudal society, with peasants working the land in return for protection by the samurai.
The office of the shogun was subject to competition and coups, and rather than being strictly hereditary, the shogunate passed through a variety of powerful families. Beginning in the 1630s, the shogunate led by the Tokugawa family enacted a series of foreign policy measures that effectively closed Japan’s borders, preventing immigration and emigration, strictly limiting foreign trade to a small number of designated locations, and prohibiting Christianity. This policy was known as sakoku, or “closed country,” and its effects on Japan were significant. On the one hand, the Tokugawa shogunate was able to concentrate on domestic issues and ushered in a 300-year era of peace; on the other, their foreign policy prolonged the existence of the feudal system and isolated the country from the industrial developments of the rest of the world.
The policy of sakoku ended only after intense pressure from the West, which was very keen to engage Japan in foreign trade. In 1853, the U.S. Navy, led by Commodore Matthew Perry, infiltrated Tokyo harbor with four warships. Under the implied threat of military action, Perry requested that Japan initiate relations with America. Faced with warships of a kind they had never seen, the Japanese had no alternative but to sign the Kanagawa Treaty, which immediately opened two ports to U.S. trade and ended the country’s centuries-long isolation.
In 1868, not long after the Kanagawa Treaty, the age of the shogunate also came to an end, when a group of political reformers succeeded in re-establishing a centralized, imperial government. This restoration of power to the emperor is known as the Meiji Restoration, named after Emperor Meiji, who ruled until 1912. During the 45 years of the Meiji era, Japan experienced rapid industrialization, vastly increasing its wealth and power, and successfully avoided falling under the expansionist aspirations of the Western powers. The fictional events of Madama Butterfly take place during the Meiji era, when Japan was only just adapting to the presence of foreigners, of Christian missions, of international trade, and of the notion of emigration. All of these issues are at play in Madama Butterfly.
For most Western audiences, puppet theater is identified either with provocative comedy, à la Punch and Judy or Charlie McCarthy ventriloquism, or with educational entertainment for children, as in the Muppets or Sesame Street. But the puppets featured in the Met’s Madama Butterfly were inspired by Japanese Bunraku theater, a serious and sophisticated art form established in the late 17th century in the city of Osaka. The art of puppet plays accompanied by musical narration has a long history in Japan, appearing as early as the 11th century. Like the stylized theatrical genre of kabuki, which dates from close to the same time and shares many of the same stories, Bunraku was from its inception an entertainment created for ordinary people, unlike other dramatic forms of the time that were performed exclusively for the nobility and samurai class.
Bunraku puppeteers go through lengthy apprenticeships to master the form, which may account for the gradual waning of its popularity in the 19th century. But there are still a number of practitioners today in Japan, and interest has revived in recent years, including in the West. Mark Down and Nick Barnes, the founders of Blind Summit Theatre, take inspiration from this tradition for their puppet-theater presentations. For Anthony Minghella’s production of Madama Butterfly, they created Bunraku-style puppets to represent Cio-Cio-San’s child, her servants, and, in a dream sequence, Cio-Cio-San herself. Generally one-half to two-thirds life size, a Bunraku puppet has no strings and is operated by three puppeteers, dressed in black and discreetly visible to the audience, each responsible for a different body part.
One of many wide-ranging effects of the opening of Japan to foreign trade in 1853 was the surge of interest on the part of Western artists in the decorative arts, aesthetics, costumes, and crafts of Japan. The London Exposition of 1862 and the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1867 showcased Japan’s arts to Europeans for the first time, but even before this many visual artists were already collectors of Japanese fans, kimonos, bronzes, and examples of the rich Japanese tradition of woodblock prints known as ukiyo-e. Artists such as Édouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Mary Cassatt, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Vincent Van Gogh, among many others, began incorporating Japanese motifs and props into their own artworks, and many developed a visual style influenced by Japanese art in its use of asymmetrical composition, lack of perspective, bold colors, and clarity of line. As a stylistic movement, this interest in Japan and its arts is usually referenced using the French term “Japonisme” because of its prevalence among French artists.
Japonisme influenced the most important French writers of the day, such as Stéphane Mallarmé and Marcel Proust, and popular interest in Japan also helped make the works of Pierre Loti wildly successful—including the novel Madame Chrysanthème (1887), one of the sources for Madama Butterfly. In music, examples of Japonisme can be found in the opera La Princesse Jaune (“The Yellow Princess,” 1872) by Camille Saint-Saëns, Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado (1885), and the operettas The Geisha (1896) and San Toy (1899) by Sydney Jones.
The premiere of Madama Butterfly at Milan’s La Scala in 1904 was a disaster that has become notorious in theater history. Although audiences a century ago tended to be more vocally demonstrative than today’s operagoers, the pandemonium during the opera’s first performance was overwhelming even by historical standards. According to contemporary reports, there were animal and bird calls from the audience during the dawn scene, laughter when Butterfly presented her child to Sharpless, and shouts of “She is pregnant!” when a draught caught and billowed the lead singer’s costume—all in addition to the typical whistles, hisses, and boos. The professional critics were no less hostile, with several reviewers repeating the claim that Puccini had plagiarized himself by reusing melodies from La Bohème in the new opera.
Puccini was convinced that this extremely negative reaction had been orchestrated by someone. A likely candidate for such a villain may have been Edoardo Sonzogno, owner of the music publishing firm that was the main competitor of Ricordi, which represented Puccini. Sonzogno had previously acted as impresario of La Scala, and his rivalry with Ricordi was so great that during his tenure, he forbade any operas published by Ricordi from appearing on the stage. His management of the opera house was disastrous and resulted in massive deficits, and after he was removed from office it was his turn to find few opportunities to put his operas on stage. When the premiere of Madama Butterfly was delayed due to the injuries Puccini suffered in an automobile accident and his subsequent slow recovery, Sonzogno managed to put forward one of the operas from his own roster to fill the resulting void: the now-forgotten Siberia by Umberto Giordano. Sonzogno, who was known for his unscrupulous business tactics, would have been keen to ensure that the success of his opera was not eclipsed by Puccini’s new work, which immediately followed it on stage. It would not have been the first or the last time that a discreet bribe before a premiere produced a disruptive claque that carried the rest of the public along with it.
After the disaster of the opening night and Madama Butterfly was withdrawn from the stage, an article appeared in the newspaper Il Secolo. It reflected,
“A second performance would have provoked a scandal among the Milanese, who do not relish being made fun of. The opera … shows that Maestro Puccini was in a hurry. Importuned as he was to bring out the work this season, sick as he was, he failed to find original inspiration and had recourse to melodies from his previous operas and even helped himself to melodies by other composers. His opera is dead.”
It is worth mentioning that the owner of Il Secolo was none other than Edoardo Sonzogno.