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Preparing for Pinkerton

Exploring Japanese history and culture

This weekend I ventured out to the Morikami Gardens and Museum to get a sense of Japanese culture firsthand in preparing for my role as Pinkerton this summer. The South Florida weather was in the 80s (sorry guys) and it seemed to me just like an August day, perfect as that's when the show is going up.
The gardens were expansive, and organized by era and subject. I learned about the progression of gardens from Chinese-imperial style, to the abstract rock-gardens, to the western influenced gardens, which was my personal favorite. The "Modern Romantic Garden" from the Meiji-period (1868-1912) (the setting for Madame Butterfly) was lush and filled with water features---a small bamboo footbridge, a waterfall, and a curved gravel path enclosed in tall hedges. From the Morikami site: "the design of the Modern Romantic Garden invokes the naturalist trend of the Meiji Period in its openness, both in terms of space and the garden designer’s choice of plants. The long-legged kotoji lantern mimics the form of the movable bridges of the koto, a Japanese stringed instrument." It was really amazing that I had the chance to be in a space true to the era, and see what the landscape and gardens would have looked like.
Upon entering the museum gallery, I was greeted by an exquisitely detailed bridal kimono. Just what I needed to see! This is an uchikake from the 20th century Showa period (1926-1989) which is two periods after Butterfly takes place. The full bridal outfit is made of two parts: a pure white shiro muku  which is worn under an elaborate silk-brocade robe, the uchikake. The uchikake originated during the Heian period (794-1185) and was reserved for ladies of the court. It eventually became adopted by wealthier citizens during the Edo period (1600-1868) and worn since then. They are usually decorated with "auspicious emblems," this particular piece is covered in flower carts which connotes a shower of coins to wish the bride and groom good fortune.
Japan's history is so dense and complex, yet it is wholly enthralling. To delve into the post-Westernization of Japan, a quick refresh is needed on the culture prior to 1863 (during the Edo period) when Matthew Perry arrived at Tokyo Bay. What is fascinating to me are the many parallels that developed in Japanese culture and political structure to that of the West that developed completely separately, like their feudal system. It is so much like that of post-Normand England with lords, serfs and fifes. However, completely independent and truly unique to Japan is that of their two branched system of rule prior to the Meiji era. There were essentially two rulers of Japan: the Emperor and the Shogun. While the Emperor was in charge of cultural and religious matters the true ruler of Japan was the Shogun, who was appointed by the Emperor. The Shogun was not only Japan's military leader but also it's chief executive and economic leader. The Shogun was a Samurai lord, or Daimyo, who was able to amass the most military power. Daimyo held power over armies of samurai warriors and used these armies in massive power struggles all through the warring states period, a turbulent time of civil war in Japan's Middle Ages. The last dynasty or Shogunate was the Tokogawa Shogunate. During the Bakumatsu (the end of the Edo period) the isolationist policy of sakoku gave way to the Meiji-period's "enlightenment" that opened up trades to the West.
During the Meiji Empire, the seat of the empire moved from Kyoto to Tokyo and the traditional feudal system was reformed with the aim to make Japan competitive with Western powers (rather than being overtaken and subjugated) after trade had opened up. Western-style education systems sprang up and the Daimyo had to dissolve their traditional militaristic power and holdings. Samurai were disbanded, which is an essential piece to understanding Cio Cio San's story in Butterfly. In the year 1904, she was a 15 year old daughter of a former samurai. She became a geisha to support herself and her family. The contemporary landscape was one that fetishized and admired the West, and was in the midst of "marrying" the deep-rooted Japanese culture, history, and customs to the new age. Bummeikaika is one name for the movement that encouraged rapid modernization and westernization. It's fascinating to look back and make these connections to a piece of work that was created contemporaneously to the upheavals and progressions.
As a "vagabond" Naval officer at the time, Lt Pinkerton would have been somewhat of a worldly man, but it doesn't stop him from greeting Japan's culture and customs with mockery and little interest beyond he and Cio Cio San's wedding night. In the original score of Madama Butterfly Pinkerton is an outright bigot and regards Cio Cio San's family as savages. Thankfully, when the work was brought to Paris' Opera Comique, Puccini was persuaded to cut much of Pinkerton's bigotry for a much more generalized section of poking fun at his new relatives. Puccini was also convinced along the way to drop other culturally insensitive material such as a wedding banquet that included candied flies.
If we go further back into the source material the character of Pinkerton changes considerably. In the very first adaptation of the tale, Madame Chrysanthemum, both parties separated under a mutual understanding much like that of Rodolfo and Mimi (senza rancor). When John Luther Long adapted the story, or wrote it if you believe his account, he dubbed his protagonist Pinkerton and made him more of a cad. In this adaptation, Pinkerton does leave Cio Cio San but the tale is far less dramatic or fatal. Cio Cio San's suicide does not succeed, and the tone is overall much lighter. In addition, Pinkerton is cleaver, suave and worldly. Take for instance his view of the marriage contract of nine hundred and ninety nine years that is terminable every month. In the opera Pinkerton mulls this over two arias and a duet finally exclaiming "and here is to the day that I marry my real American wife." In the Long piece, Pinkerton ruminates on the nature of such a contradictory arrangement to himself with the feel of a light chuckle or slight smile in it's humor.
After awhile, the 80 degrees starts to get to you! Cooling off in the shade. I ended the day picking up some Japanese candies and a sake set from the gift shop.  Thanks for reading!
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