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2006-03-21 Japanese Inspirations

I have always harboured an almost inexplicable fascination for all things Japanese, and one of my many unfulfilled travel ambitions is to spend some time in that alluringly modern, yet ancient, country.

 

Japonisme is the influence Japan has had on the West, in particular on European art. Japonaiserie engulfs the many stylistic characteristics in art, décor and film directly influenced by Japanese culture and tradition, an almost superficial fashion for Japanese exoticism.

 

If I was pushed to choose one favourite opera from the repertory, it would be Puccinis Madama Butterfly. For me, it is the beautifully-crafted role of Cho-Cho San, the teenage Geisha girl, who, despite being full of charm, humour, faith, dignity, pathos and romance, still becomes operas iconic doomed heroine. Having performed the role of Lieutenant Pinkerton (that most untraditional of tenor roles), as well as the role of Goro (the obsequious marriage broker) hundreds of times, Madama Butterfly is the opera I know best. Even before the title role makes her first sublimely special entrance onstage, Pinkerton has toasted his upcoming marriage to a real American bride, while racistly ridiculing the Japanese servants. After Butterfly and Pinkerton marry, they sing one of the most passionately exquisite duets in opera, before consummating the relationship.This graceful, charming, vulnerable, doll-like creature has given up everything to be with this total stranger - he leaves the following morning. Butterfly waits patiently for that one fine day when her husband returns. When Pinkerton eventually returns three years later, with his new wife, in order to claim his child, we realise Butterfly is alone in the world. She is penniless, her husband left her long ago while she remained faithful, she has renounced her religion, her family have turned their backs on her, she refuses to remarry, even her loyal maid Suzuki despairs of her. Butterfly bids farewell to her son and blindfolds him.As he plays, she kills herself with her fathers sword. As an audience we empathise with the little girl who suffers so cruelly for her devotion and love.

 

Despite Madama Butterfly being one of the most famous first-night disasters in musical history, it has gone on to become one the most ideal works for the opera virgin. What is particularly tragic is the fact that, in reality, Japanese ports in the 19th and 20th century were home to many temporary brides. This was the age of foreign travel. Japan was perceived as a society which had somehow achieved a high degree of aesthetic accomplishment. Japanese art was simple, pure but powerfully effective. Other composers such as Debussy, Mascagni and Arthur Sullivan fell under the Japonisme spell, as well as artists such as Whistler. Like us, they were fascinated with the exoticism of kimonos, screens, lanterns, flowers, the unique Japanese customs, samurai, the unsettling practices of harakiri and jigai, and the even more disturbing practice of sumo wrestling. Japanese orchestral colours and the pentatonic scale sound interestingly alien to our Western ears.

 

Recently I went to see the marvellous adaptation of Arthur Goldens award-winning novel Memoirs of a Geisha. I also read Mineko Iwasakis true story of The Geisha of Gion. Geisha girls have always been the object of speculation and misinterpretation, always seeming to carry false connotations of prostitution. Geisha literally means artist. They are professional artists / entertainers, trained for years to play flute, percussion and shamisen, to sing and dance, to perform the traditional Tea Ceremony, flower arranging, poetry and conversation. Dressed in three-layered precious kimonos, heavy white make-up and flat-soled sandals or raised wooden clogs, these porcelain doll-like creatures seem to symbolise the exotic Orient. Despite appearing enchanting, erotic to some, there is sadly an exploitative and degrading side to geisha. Many young girls were snatched from poor families to train as maikos (apprentice geishas/ maids). In the war years, at times desperate for money, some were forced into prostitution. Numbers have dwindled - now there are less than one thousand geishas left in Japan. Most are in the Tokyo and Kyoto areas (I never realised before that they were anagrams of each other).

 

In the 21st Century, it does seem strange to see girls entertaining men at parties, tea-houses and restaurants, behind closed doors, while abstaining from sex. It is sad, but inevitable, that this will soon be relegated to the past, but Japonisme will live on.