Kabuki, the Japanese Art vs. Puccini´s Madame Butterfly.

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Lisa Silberhorn


Classical Asian Theatre

Dr. Debra Martin

Kabuki vs. Puccini

'One fine day' in 1854 an ominous black ship sailed into Nagasaki harbor, prying open the wall that stood between the East and the West. On another 'fine day' in 1904 European audiences saw the premiere of what was to become one of the most beloved operas ever known, using a combination of music from both east and west. Puccini's Madama Butterfly has captivated opera lovers through its exotic sounding music. Said music, is actually a western interpretation of the music found within the treasured Japanese art of Kabuki. This is not so far fetched as one might think. Both cultures have a love of melodramatic musical dramas. Kabuki and Opera are each cultures form of drama, music, and dance combined. When looking at them 'under the microscope' they are not so different from each other. Perhaps the most difficult reconciliation between the two is their music, as both Western and Eastern Music can sound totally different from each other, yet when listening to the music of Madama Butterfly one can find a common ground between the two cultures.

Before discussing the opera itself, one must first 'orient' themselves with the music of Kabuki. The orchestra that performs alongside Kabuki is called the Nagauta. It is said that, "The growth of nagauta is intimately connected with the evolution of the kabuki theatre in Tokyo." (Malm 205) The first recorded performance of Kabuki occurred in 15 96 when Okuni, a priestess performed a lively version of a Buddhist festival dance, accompanied by the drums and flute used in Noh theatre, as well as a small gong which she, herself, played. As Kabuki's popularity grew it became a form of entertainment and advertising used by brothels and geisha houses.

Most Geishas and prostitutes were already proficient in the samisen genre of kouta or "short songs." These were lyrical yet sometimes erotic poems accompanied by the samisen, a double stringed instrument played similarly to a banjo. Most likely, the samisen was first used in a kabuki performance sometime before 1629, when women were banned from the stage, in order to incorporate kouta within a performance. As dances within kabuki were being extended, these "short songs" became insufficient. Thus, longer pieces were written and by 1740, the samisen had become one of the principle instruments of the nagauta. In addition to kouta, the nagauta began to incorporate several other genres of samisen music including joruri, which is where the role of sung narration or commentating began within kabuki. Thus, "the nagauta emerged from combining the lyricism of shorter songs with the sustaining power of longer, narrative music." (Willoughby, 165)

Today the Nagauta consists of the samisen, the Noh flute, the bamboo flute (taken from folk traditions,) and various drums and other percussive instruments borrowed predominantly from Noh or religious rituals. During a performance the Nagauta can be classified into two main groups: the onstage orchestra or debayashi, or the offstage orchestra, also called the geza. The debayashi consists of a row of singers and a row of samisen at the back of the stage. (Eight of each) and the drums and flutes, sometimes referred to as the hayashi are seated in front of them. In Contrast, the geza is in a room in the corner, off of stage- right. This room is sectioned off by a bamboo curtain, hiding the geza from the audiences view, yet allowing the geza to watch the action on stage for cues. Most of the time the geza consists of several samisens and singers of the debayashi, in addition to a myriad of percussive instruments ranging from the temple drums to castanets and xylophones. Each of these instruments is used to produce a desired ambience, or aural setting.

The instrumentation of music for the Nagauta has no dogmatic rules per-say, though generally the singer and samisen perform the principle melodies. The bamboo flute...
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