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Cinematic realism, reflexivity and the American ‘Madame Butterfly’ narratives


This article focuses on two cinematic versions of the ‘Madame Butterfly’ tale. Produced near the beginning of the sound era, the 1932 Madame Butterfly struggles to co-opt Puccini's opera and thereby create a fully cinematic Butterfly. My Geisha, created three decades later, aspires to subvert Orientalist representation by reflecting back upon Puccini's and Hollywood's Butterflies with hip sophistication. Both films work simultaneously with and against the Butterfly canon in intriguing ways and both are shaped by prevailing American perceptions of race and gender. In investigating the relationship between these films and Puccini's opera, I raise broader issues of comparative genre analysis, focusing particularly on exotic representation on stage and screen. Does film, in its bid to project exotic realism in both sound and image, succeed in surpassing the experience of staged Orientalist opera?

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Preliminary versions of this article were delivered at the University of California at Berkeley in March 2001, the American Music Research Center in August 2001, and the Oakley Center for the Humanities and Social Sciences at Williams College in October 2003. I am grateful for comments made by participants at each of these events and for the expert editorial work of Emanuele Senici and Mary Ann Smart.
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Cambridge Opera Journal
  • ISSN: 0954-5867
  • EISSN: 1474-0621
  • URL: /core/journals/cambridge-opera-journal
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