Primary Document (180 KB)
Paper: “Butterfly’s Suicide: The Gender and Power Dynamics Behind It,” by Hannah Van Huss (second year, major in Biology)
Hannah explores the intersectional dynamics of gender and exoticism in one of Puccini’s best-known operas, Madama Butterfly. She shows that despite Puccini’s good intentions, the composer projected Western cultural values onto the character of Butterfly. Each of his three revisions of the opera increasingly turns her into a “stereotypical Causcasion male vision of a Japanese woman: submissive, delicate, a sexual object.” These revisions, likely made with an eye toward pleasing Western audiences, project a sense of shame onto women who train as geishas or take part in temporary marriages. Hannah points out that Puccini’s misperception of geishas led to the opera’s culturally implausible ending, in which Butterfly, feeling ashamed at the prospect of becoming a geisha again, commits seppuku—itself an extremely rare act for Japanese women. She further describes how the opera uses exotic signifiers to establish hierarchies of power and assimilation among the characters. In the conclusion, Hannah reveals how Japanese productions of Madama Butterfly seek to redress its misrepresentations of Japanese culture by substituting or removing parts of the text and incorporating more culturally appropriate music.
Madama Butterfly, Giacomo Puccini, gender representation, culture
Musicology | Music Performance
Van Huss, Hannah, "Butterfly’s Suicide: The Gender and Power Dynamics Behind It" (2016). Music 134: Songbirds and Sirens. 5.