Other’hood as Accessory–The Case of Madama Butterfly (Part One)

Other’hood as Accessory—The Case of Madama Butterfly

The problem is that music today is as massively organized a masculine domain as it was in the past. Without significant exceptions, women play a crucial but subaltern role. [Emphasis Added]
Edward Said, Music at the Limits, 44.

Unlike Carmen, Salomé, or Aida, which have undergone succinct, even biting, criticism that shows their classist, Eurocentric, and sexist bias, Madama Butterfly, a protean modern myth that centers on an original domestic tragedy in Nagasaki (Japan) between 1892 and 1894, has yet to submit to a minute dissection that will enable us to trace the origins, and indeed beginnings, of the opera in the system of Western white male power, knowledge, and pleasure. So far, the attention has been centered on the purely musicological. It is obvious that the libretto lends itself to one such focus, but there is another one that must be taken into consideration—namely, reading the score from the bottom up (i.e. from the point of view of the victim not of the victimizer). This take will permit us to enjoy, by some other way of enjoying, the music, if at all, because an argument can be made about the kind of art that sets out to deliberately disfigure other people simply because they are not like “us.” My suggestion, and much the most important, is that underlying Madama Butterfly are issues of typecast that carry deeply-rooted cultural and social contradictions regarding West versus East. Moreover, in the course of the opera, issues of race and gender become inextricably linked to broader notions of shame versus control, as well as imperialist assumptions about the East. One can also attribute this seemingly complex libretto to a Western fantasy through which the Asian female (she could be African) is made available. It tells us in what way(s) Cio-Cio-San is exotic, passive, mysterious, and above all, Oriental, with all the connotations the label carries. So we are left, in effect, with a celebration of misogyny—woman as the source of a male pleasure that can quite easily turn into hatred. Thus the opera as a whole stands at the farther limits of humanity.