My personal reaction to the opera is tinged by my own family history. My maternal grandmother, Sadako McMahon, married an American soldier, Thomas McMahon, at the end of World War II. When Americans think of the Pacific theater, they mostly think of atomic bombs, kamikaze suicide bombers, and maybe Iwojima. They tend to gloss over the fact that America did to Tokyo what Germany did to London, if indeed they know about the firebombings at all. Oba-Chan (my grandmother) barely ever talked about that time in her life, but when she did it was clear she was in desperate straights. So, in some small way, my grandmother's story is a little bit like Cio-Cio's, except with a happier ending.
It's curious to me, then, that Madame Butterfly is considered a love story. When Cio-Cio is introduced, she makes it pointedly clear to Pinkerton that she is poor. Heck, it should have been clear before that, considering Pinkerton bought her from a wedding arranger. She's also *checks notes* 15 years old? I know age of majority has changed a lot in the intervening years, and I don't want to get into that, but have you met 15 year-olds? There's a reason we don't trust them with driving cars.
Anyways, this is a roundabout way to get to my point: she may be in love, but she is absolutely driven by survival. Especially when her family disowns her, Cio-Cio is just about to fall off Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Which, you know, complicates my understanding of my grandparents. Did they love each other? Surely so. Oba-chan spoke of him fondly, and kept her wedding photo near her bed. She also never remarried. But was she also motivated to secure her own future? Undoubtedly. Oba-chan was far from the only Japanese woman to take the path she did.
So watching Madame Butterfly is, for me, lets say... uncomfortable. And that's even before we get to the issue of yellowface.
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Tamaki Miura was a Japanese soprano, the first to achieve global fame. Her success rests largely on her performances as Cio-Cio-san in Madame Butterfly. When I first read about her, I was excited to hear what she sounded like. Reviewers extolled her as one of the greats. When I first listened to her, I was... a bit disappointed. She has a very pleasant voice, but it didn't quite match my expectations. How could this happen, I wondered. Maybe a difference in attitudes about quality changing over time? It is not uncommon for contemporary musicians, hearing a missed note or rhythm in old recordings, to chuckle a bit at great musicians of times gone by.
But it's complicated. When I did some reading, it seemed more of the reviews focused on her quality of performance not from a perspective of technical vocal prowess, but from the simple fact that she was a Japanese woman playing the part of a Japanese character. Indeed, many reviewers noted she had a weak voice, but her performances as Cio-Cio were seen as more authentic simply by virtue of her race.
And yet... It is clear Mrs. Tamaki had her own ideas about how to present Madame Butterfly. Not only did she fight to ensure the style of clothes was correct (Cio-Cio and other Japanese characters were often presented in Chinese garb) and that elements of stage design were accurate representations of Japanese styles, but she also participated in a number of projects which worked to present a more "Japanese" version of the opera. One of them, a 1930 production translated into Japanese by Horuichu Keizo, made significant changes and adaptations to make a version which was more true to how the Japanese saw the Japanese. Another was a short animated film, Madame Butterfly's Illusion, which includes music written by Tamaki.
So who can say? We don't have video of her performances to make judgment, obviously. We simply have to make do with old cylinder recordings. With that said, here's a recording of Tamaki Miura singing "Un bel di," recorded in 1917.