Italian Japonism: a weighted analysis or a trend?

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Just less than ten years before the first performance of the well-known opera by Giacomo Puccini, Madame Buttefly, another Italian composer presented his way to see the East. The Mascagni’s opera called Iris was the first Italian opera set in Japan, performed for the first time in Rome in 1898.  The story, written by the famous and active writer of Opera’s texts Luigi Illica, is originally based on a Japanese legend and inspired by Hokusai’s ukiyo-e The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife. Iris is a young innocent Japanese girl who lives in Fujiyama with her blind father. The first scene starts with the bright sunrise hitting the beautiful girl, woken by a nightmare in which monsters sought to injure her doll. Eventually she draws attention of a noble called Osaka, who wants to possess her. Helped by Kyoto, a questionable brothel keeper, he tries to enchant Iris with a marionette show and finally conducts her, fascinated and still confused, to Yoshiwara, district of pleasure and perdition. After several failed attempts act to seduce the young girl, he becomes impatient: in her purity, she remain unconscious of the significance of his words and caresses. At first she thought he was Tor, the sun god, because of his brilliant attire, but he tells her he is Pleasure. Since one day, in the temple, a priest told her that pleasure and death were one, the words of Osaka frightens her. He finally leaves her and Kyoto turns her into a “ghèshua”, showed in the “Green House”. Her father finds Iris and unaware of everything curses his daughter, who, shamed, leaps from a window into the sewer below. Dying, she praises the sanctity of the Sun, which embraces her with its warmth and light before she was absorbed by the blooming Nature.

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Iris was composed during the most active period of the Italian and European lyric world: a century of constant changes not only of musical trends but artistic in general[1], influenced by historical events and international relations. The Romantic period, characterized by the will of the composers to convey strong messages of social and political unity, trying to teach a moral lesson, and the realism/naturalism in which the main aid was to depict the daily life of common people, especially the poverty of the south Italy’s people. At the end of the XIX century another movement developed in contrast to the previous one, the Decadents: all hopes of redemption were abandoned together with optimism.

The audience of the Opera at that time embraced all social levels: since it described changing social conditions of all kinds of people, it became a social and costume phenomenon, drawing attention of the upper class as well as the middle and lower class. Editors and composers paid attention to the trends of the period and tried to satisfy the expectations of the audience.

That was the period of colonialism as well, and even if western countries already knew the East, thanks to the shipments of Portuguese missionaries two centuries before, it was in the XIX century that the idea of “Orientalism” spread. As it is said by Gilles de Van, the more general term of “Exoticism” is nothing else but the notion of the difference; a process of knowledge that transform into a metaphor of desire as a wish to escape from a unsatisfactory bourgeois civilization as it was developing at that time. This dissatisfaction gave rise to boredom and the desire for a more attractive elsewhere. The fact that were mostly man (writers, musicians, literates and travelers) searching for exotic woman, can be seen as a reaction for bourgeois Puritanism to the moral strictness of the period. The more brutal but healthier energy of unknown countries were more stimulating to the imagination.[2] In the areas of literature and opera (and by extension, of librettos) the shift was very rapid: spatiotemporal vagueness was replaced by a more precise citing of local with details of local colors; at the same time characters became more individualized and described with signs of their place of origin. However, a traveler as a writer or a musician was not necessarily an anthropologist and could observe behavior without being aware of its historical and social contexts. Hence, each country or city acquired a certain number of clichés which made it seem exotic[3].

The opera of Mascagni is not the first Oriental based work of the century in the western world: Saint-Saens’s La Princesse jaune (1872), Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado (1885) with the traditional japanese song Ton’yarebushi, Pierre Loti’s novel Madame Chrysathème (1893) are just some of those which touched on Japan.[4] However, compared with others, and especially with Madame Butterfly, Iris seems to be the opera less involved in Orientalism, or at least, that one which needs more efforts to see or recognize Japan in it, starting from the title.

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Reading the title, in fact, we cannot imagine that it is a Japanese based opera: the Iris is a common flower in Italy too and although it has symbolism also in Japan, this flower is not automatically associated with it. It is nevertheless significant if analyzed in the period context: the iris was a flower important in the Japanese decorative arts and became almost the emblematic image of art nouveau, so that the Japanese setting offered a rich vocabulary of visual and poetic images and the opera of Mascagni and Illica can be considered as the only Italian art nouveau opera as well. According to Illica’s description of his libretto as a Japanese subject taken from the legend “The girl in love with flowers”, even some eminent scholar of Japanese studies as Donald Keene struggled to find the Japanese origin of the story: it does not seem there are similar in any readily available collection of Japanese legend or folk tales, even if there were many phony Japanese stories in circulation at the time.[5] While Illica did efforts to create a Japanese atmosphere citing references to shamisen, kamuro and Edo’s Shimonoseki market, he had no truly interest in recreating an authentic Japanese environment. Moreover, the decision to name his leading characters with the Japanese most known cities at that time, Osaka and Kyoto, rather than give them credible Japanese names, and the pronunciation富士山(Fujisan) as “Fujiyama”, could be confused with ignorance and offhand gesture. However, it could be suggested that the writer, who travelled to Japan, although he was not a specialist, knew some basic aspects of Japan. That is why Mallach consider the choice as a deliberate reminder that Iris’s Japan is symbolic, metaphorical land, not to be confused with the real thing[6], considering also that originally the opera’s title was The Japanese girl (La Giapponese). Mascagni as well turned on into the study of Japanese music determined to reproduce with music the Land of the rising sun’s colors. His words reflect his ardor in the work of the opera: “I have had typical Japanese music up to here…I am thoroughly Japanesed (sono tutto ingiapponesato). [..] I have studied that type of music a great deal, and I believe that I’ve caught its spirit[7]”. He also had the chance to see and touch Japanese instruments he had never seen before from the collection of Kraus, an Australian writer interested in Oriental studies. He came out of there “with head on fire, with heart full of a strange emotion. […]. I know that in front of that splendid mass of Japanese instruments I glimpsed something grand, solemn, that won me over completely (25 October 1897)”.[8] However, his interest in Japanese music was limited to the creation of musical color reflected in the entrance of the puppet show in the first act and the opening of the second, where violin, flute and harp conjure up a mysterious oriental air, using the shamisen only as a visual decoration. There are no precise statements about it, but it can be assumed that the goal of Mascagni was to make the viewer feel unusual appearances as peculiar timbre of what is geographically distant from the Western audience, to involve him in the world where the small Iris lives. Other Japanese elements present in the opera are the gidayu (the style of chanting with shamisen) used in the puppet show section, and the nagauta (traditional Japanese music which accompanies the kabuki theater) as accompaniment for dance that makes use of a flute and three drums. But even in these cases there is not a realistic transposition of traditional Japanese music and culture because, despite the melodic idea and its treatment are well managed, no geisha would never dance the waltz acted from Beauty and the Vampire in Mascagni’s opera, not only out of shame but also because the ternary division was unknown to the Japanese at that time.[9]

It can be assumed than that setting the opera in Japan served many purposes considering that to Europe of XIX century, Japan was still more an imaginary and mysterious land that part of the modern world. That exotic setting allowed to make the story free of realistic associations and audience to free the imagination. This was probably a response to industrialized world’s censorship and permitted the downplaying of violence and struggle against the status quo. The intent of Opera composers was to move their audiences’ sensibility, make them reflect on the illusions and deception of the world they lived in. The exoticism metaphor of reality satisfies the double need of distancing while sending back to audience a reflection of their society problems and conflicts.[10]

From the reports of the time it seems that this aim has been achieved since audience (composed by all social classes), in contrast to critics, acclaimed the opera despite having been confused by the last act, with strange and far from western classical melodies atonale note. Iris soon won a substantial following in Italy and in Latin America, where Italian Opera was already well-known and where Italian artists, singers went in search of new fortune.  Although the conservative audiences of fin de siècle was captivated by a new and different opera, to today’s audiences it clearly belongs to its time and place, no longer part of the Italian repertory.

In Japan Iris is still today almost unknown, set up for the first time in 1984 and few others representations in 2008 and 2011, with the intent to give credit to Belle Époque Italian’s opera but with an almost different result as the original one presents many recited parts in Italian language which Japanese artists struggle to memorize.

Concluding this analysis, it can be said that Iris loses its value if taken out from its historical and social context in which this opera represented symbolically a visionary and imaginary world (as Japan was considered in XIX century with its many cultural cliché) that became real first of all in the minds of audience, consisting of people who want to share new ideas and social models.

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[1] Si bemolle – http://www.sibemolle.it/materie/storia_musica/tesi/tesi_22.aspx

[2]Cf. Gilles de Van, William Ashbrook (translator), “Fin de Siècle Exoticism and the meaning of the Far away, in Letteratura, musica e teatro al tempo di Ruggero Leoncavallo, Sonzogno, 1993, p. 79.

[3] Cf. Gilles de Van, William Ashbrook (translator), “Fin de Siècle Exoticism and the meaning of the Far away, in Letteratura, musica e teatro al tempo di Ruggero Leoncavallo, Sonzogno, 1993.

[4] Cf. Arthur Groos, “Cio-cio-san and Sadayakko: Japanese music-theater in Madama Butterfly”, Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 54, N.1 (Spring, 1999), pp. 43-44.

[5] Cf. Alan Mallach, Pietro Mascagni and his Operas, UPNE, 2002, pp. 124-125.

[6] Cf. Alan Mallach , Pietro Mascagni and his Operas, UPNE, 2002, pp. 125-126.

[7] Cf. Allan Mallach, Pietro Mascagni and his Operas, UPNE, 2002, pp. 114.

[8] Cf. Michele Girardi, Esotismo e dramma in Iris e Madama Butterfly, Atti della giornata di studi (Viareggio, 3 agosto 1995), Lucca, Pacini, 1996, pp. 37-54.

[9] Cf. Michele Girardi, Esotismo e dramma in Iris e Madama Butterfly, Atti della giornata di studi (Viareggio, 3 agosto 1995), Lucca, Pacini, 1996, pp. 37-54.

[10] Cf. Gilles de Van, William Ashbrook (translator) , “Fin de Siècle Exoticism and the meaning of the Far away, in Letteratura, musica e teatro al tempo di Ruggero Leoncavallo, Sonzogno, 1993.