Exoticism in 19th & 20th Century Opera Research Paper

  • Length: 6 pages
  • Subject: Plays
  • Type: Research Paper
  • Paper: #78019635

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Exoticism in 19th & 20th Century Opera

Exoticism in 19th and 20th Century Opera

Exoticism was a cultural invention of the 17th Century, enjoying resurgence in the 19th and 20th Centuries due to increased travel and trade by Europeans in foreign, intriguing continents. The "West," eventually including the United States, adapted and recreated elements of those alluring cultures according to Western bias, creating escapist art forms that blended fantasy with reality. Two examples of Exoticism in Opera are Georges Bizet's "Carmen," portraying cultural bias toward gypsies and Basques, and Giacomo Puccini's "Madama Butterfly," portraying cultural bias toward the Far East. "Carmen" was developed from a single original source while "Madama Butterfly" was a fusion of several sources that developed successively; nevertheless, both operas remain distinguished examples of Exoticism in Opera.

Exoticism in History and Culture

Meaning "that which is introduced from or originating in a foreign (especially tropical) country or as something which is attractively strange or remarkably unusual" (Boyd, n.d.), Exoticism originated in the 17th Century but enjoyed a resurgence in the late 19th and early 20th centuries due to increased travel and trade by Europeans in Asia, Australia and other foreign continents. Relying on an imbalance of power between cultures, Exoticism was dominated by Europeans, allowing them to create escapist portrayals based on European biases about foreign cultures. European interest in and biased representations of foreign cultures was expressed in art forms such as painting, interior design, fashion design, instruments, lore, literature, music and theater. While Exoticism originated in Europe, it quickly spread to the United States, broadly influencing 19th and 20th century American art forms, as well (New York City Opera Project, n.d.; Metropolitan Opera, 2011).

3. Exoticism in Georges Bizet's "Carmen"

a. Original Source Material: Prosper Merimee's Novella, "Carmen"

The seeds of Bizet's "Carmen" were sown in Prosper Merimee's novella of the same name, published in 1845 and revised in 1847. Merimee was a French civil servant and intellectual who traveled to Spain in 1830, befriended the Montijo family of Spanish aristocrats and was reportedly told of an incident involving an immoral woman and a male deserter by the Countess Montijo. Using the socially marginalized figures of a gypsy and a Basque, the novella was a "travelogue, adventure story and romantic novel" that freely blended fantasy and reality. The use of a gypsy woman in the novella is telling, as the 19th century European stereotype of gypsy women -- who were believed to originate from the Middle East -- placed them in direct contrast to the Victorian model of femininity. In the 19th century European mind, the ideal Victorian woman was dignified, disciplined, virginal and deferential, while the gypsy woman was non-Christian, immoral, indecent, unbounded, robust, perverse, challenging, sexually provocative, captivating, and insolent. In a clear example of Exoticism, the Gypsy stereotype predictably bred a European 'oriental' fascination with the Gypsy. Enter "Carmen," a Latin word signifying a song, poetry or a supernatural spell. Fittingly, the story recounts Carmen's seductive singing, dancing and "Gypsy magic" that tragically seduce Don Jose, leading to his downfall, his romantic overthrow for the toreador, and Carmen's murder by Don Jose (New York City Opera Project, n.d.; Metropolitan Opera, 2011).

b. The Opera

Georges Bizet (1838 -- 1875) was one of several French librettists hired by Camille Du Locle, co-director of Paris' Opera-Comique, to rejuvenate the theater. Despite the failure of Bizet's first effort, "Djamileh" (1872), Du Locle gave Bizet a second chance, which resulted in "Carmen." Collaborating with fellow librettist, Ludovic Halevy, Bizet created a "softer, tamer Carmen," in keeping with the spirit of Opera-Comique. Though there is little underlying documentation of Bizet's and Halevy's collaboration, some alterations of the original novella are evident: Carmen is demoted from bandit leader to bandit member, to reduce her criminality; Micaela is added as a "pure, innocent and family-oriented" contrast to Carmen; we see Don Jose's downfall rather than meeting him after he has already become an outlaw; the narrator is eliminated, making Carmen and her voice more arresting and audacious central foci. Even as some plot elements are changed to create tamer fare, the tools at the librettist's disposal -- such as alluring costumes, colorful sets and music, singing, dancing and particularly Carmen's three seductive numbers, the "Habanera," "Seguidilla" and "Chanson Boheme" -- all considerably heighten exoticism.

Bizet's "Carmen" debuted on March 3, 1874 at the Opera-Comique, to mixed reviews. Jean Henri Dupin, another librettist stated:

I won't mince words. Your Carmen is a flop, a disaster! It will never play more than twenty times. The music goes on and on. It never stops. There's not even time to applaud. That's not music! And your play -- that's not a play! A man meets a woman. He finds her pretty. That's the first act. He loves her, she loves him. That's the second act. She doesn't love him anymore. That's the third act. He kills her. That's the fourth! And you call that a play? It's a crime, do you hear me, a crime! (New York City Opera Project, n.d.).

"Carmen's" run at Opera-Comique totaled only 17 performances. Fortunately, it was well received in Vienna, Brussels, St. Petersburg, London, New York and Naples, and was eventually deemed a brilliant masterpiece (New York City Opera Project, n.d.; Metropolitan Opera, 2011).

4. Exoticism in Giacomo Puccini's "Madama Butterfly"

a. Original Source Material: Pierre Loti's book, "Madame Chrysantheme," John Luther Long's story, "Madam Butterfly" and David Belasco's One-Act Play, "Madam Butterfly"

Loti, Long, Belasco and Puccini all worked during a long period of international fascination with Japan. After trade agreements were reached between the U.S. And Japan in the 1850's, Britain, France, the Netherlands and America were all caught in a Japanese "craze" of Exoticism that significantly influenced artists of the 18th and 19th centuries. Though Pierre Loti's "Madame Chrysantheme" sustained several metamorphoses before emerging as Puccini's "Madama Butterfly," the novel is widely acknowledged to be the opera's genesis. Published in 1887, the semi-autobiography of Loti's brief marriage to a geisha focuses on Pierre, the naval officer stationed in Nagasaki, and his "little adventure" there, including hiring a marriage broker, marrying Chrysantheme, and leaving her amicably as she tests the silver dollars paid to her for the arranged marriage (New York City Opera Project, n.d.; Metropolitan Opera, 2011).

John Luther Long, an American attorney, used the novel's framework but focused on the geisha in his 18-page story, "Madam Butterfly." Long's adaptation, published in "Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine" in January 1898, renames "Pierre" as the American interloper, "Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton," while "Chrysantheme" is renamed "Cho-Cho-San," nicknamed "Madam Butterfly." Unlike the businesslike geisha of Loti's novel, Cho-Cho-San is portrayed as a young, naive romantic who believes her marriage is real. Pinkerton retains Pierre's emotional distance but here his remoteness, cruelty and deceit cause dire consequences for Cho-Cho-San. Forced by Pinkerton to abandon her family ties, Cho-Cho-San clings to him even in his absence, naming their baby "Trouble" but planning to rename him "Joy" upon Pinkerton's promised return. When Pinkerton returns, Cho-Cho-San learns that he has married an American and intends to take their child back to the U.S., whereupon Cho-Cho-San attempts suicide but survives and is bandaged. The American public's 19th century attraction to Exoticism, particularly regarding the Far East, significantly contributed to the story's popularity (New York City Opera Project, n.d.; Metropolitan Opera, 2011).

Due to the exotic popularity of Long's story, playwright and theatrical producer, David Belasco, bought the rights and adapted "Madam Butterfly" for the stage. Belasco's one-act play borrows liberally from Long's dialogue but focuses primarily on "Madam Butterfly" and her maid 2 years after Pinkerton left Butterfly. Featuring Butterfly's silent 14-minute vigil awaiting Pinkerton's return, the play used innovative lighting to create night shadows. Upon Pinkerton's return near the play's end, he witnesses Butterfly's successful suicide. Coupling innovative lighting with tragedy and Exoticism's insular bias about the Far East, Belasco's play deeply impressed its audiences, including Giacomo Puccini, who attended the play in 1900 (New York City Opera Project, n.d.; Metropolitan Opera, 2011).

b. The Opera

Giacomo Puccini (1856 -- 1924), was an Italian librettist closely associated with the Scapigliati, a group of bohemian artists. After seeing Belasco's one-act play in London in 1900, Puccini was told by the wife of Japan's ambassador to Rome that "Madam Butterfly" was very similar to a true incident. Puccini was reportedly impassioned by the play and was determined to create a work that was at once his own creation yet faithful to its exotic roots. Bathed in the Exoticism of that period, Madam Butterfly became "an archetypical myth of the encounter between Japan and the West." In creating his opera, Puccini retained much of Belasco's plot and expanded it to include Pinkerton's encounter and use of the marriage broker, through the marriage to "Madama Butterfly," through Butterfly's vigil in Pinkerton's absence, and the tragic circumstances after Pinkerton's return. Using the fantasy/reality mix of Exoticism, Puccini also collaborated with Giuseppe Giacosa, who composed Italian verses and dialogue superior to the source material. In addition, Puccini…

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