Congratulations to Arthur Groos, Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities Emeritus, on the recent publication of his book Madama Butterfly/Madamu Batafurai: Transpositions of a “Japanese Tragedy” (Cambridge University Press, 2023). Prof. Groos – scholar of medieval and modern German literature as well as of opera, particularly and eminently of the works of Giacomo Puccini – draws on meticulous archival research and mobilizes his expertise as reader of texts and music to show how the practice of a “temporary marriage” between Western men and Japanese women in nineteenth-century treaty ports was transformed into the plot of Puccini’s famous opera Madama Butterfly (1904).
Madama Butterfly/Madamu Batafurai traces “the protean nature of this transcultural narrative of love and tragedy, with its cross-cultural constellation of ethnicity, race, gender, and sexual orientation” (Epilogue). This complicated story keeps provoking, as Groos shows, rewritings and recastings between identity politics and decolonizing transpositions, from original historical eyewitness account via opera to a transformation into puppet theater. Groos’ elegant study unfolds the rich possibilities for reading this tragedy, or as Groos argues, this “mythical bicultural tragedy.”
The book is currently being used by the Teatro Grande in Brescia, Italy, to reconstruct the version used for the second performance in 1904 (after the first performance, at La Scala, was a scandalous flop). In July, Prof. Groos will give a keynote speech on the opera’s ambivalent position between orientalism and the postcolonial.