Poor Butterfly: From Belasco to Katy Perry
'Poor Butterfly': From Belasco to Katy Perry
Longyear Lecture by Puccini scholar W. Anthony Sheppard (Williams College)
Systems of exotic representation rely on repetition. The "Madame Butterfly" narrative has had an astonishingly persistent presence in American popular culture, appearing in multiple musical genres, in addition to innumerable performances of Puccini's opera, over the past dozen decades. I will trace the appearance of this tale and of Puccini's music in popular songs, plays, and films within the context of ever-shifting perceptions of race and gender in the U.S., and focusing on periods nearly a century apart.
Butterfly appears in numerous Tin Pan Alley era songs, both in comic renditions of racialized ragtime and in more sentimental pieces such as the 1916 hit "Poor Butterfly." I will reconstruct the original extravagant japonisme of the Hippodrome's premiere of this song and will note its role in rehabilitating Pinkerton in numerous songs it inspired and in the 1932 film Madame Butterfly. This narrative has continued to provide a vehicle for male characters to reassert masculinity and numerous re-workings, including David Henry Hwang's 1988 M. Butterfly and Weezer's 1996 concept album Pinkerton, have presented Pinkerton as the tragic victim. Inspired in part by the 1997 novel Memoirs of a Geisha, the image of the exotic Japanese woman has been assumed by a number of prominent white female popular musicians since the turn of the twenty-first century, including Madonna and Katy Perry. Butterfly's lament continues to reverberate across genres, propagating multiple intertextual echoes.
Reception following the lecture
Supporting UK Opera Theatre's Madama Butterfly (March 1-3)
Sponsored by UK Opera Research Alliance, UK Opera Theatre, and the Musicology/Ethnomusicology Division and School of Music.