Exotism in 19th and Early 20th Century Opera Term Paper

Excerpt from Term Paper :

Exoticism in 19th & 20th Century Opera

The Exoticism of Madame Butterfly, Carmen, & Aida

This paper will use three examples of 19th and 20th century opera to examine and interpret the term "exoticism." The paper will take time to clarify the relativity of the term exoticism and how it manifests in these three works. What is exoticism and how does it work? What is the function of exoticism in culture, in art, and in general? What does it reflect about a culture and what desires does exoticism express? The paper will attempt to ask and answer more questions utilizing Madame Butterfly, Carmen, and Aida as examples of the exotic at work in art.

We must first consider that exoticism is a relative term. When referring to three operas from the west, readers must take into account that what is exotic in the west is not what is universally exotic. Therefore the representations of the exotic in the three pieces are interpretations from a western perspective. In other parts of the world, the west and western culture is exotic and would be interpreted as such through that culture's perspective. More specifically, these operas reflect the concept of the exotic from the perspective of the western male. The composers of each play are male and each male is from a patriarchal society. This adds another layer through which we view the operas. These operas that concentrate on the exotic are from the perspective of western men. This is what we mean when stating that the word "exoticism" is a relative term. Exoticism is relative to the perspective from which it is interpreted and contextualized.

Though the narratives of each opera vary, what each work does share in common is the presence of an exotic woman as a leading character. Exoticism in 19th and 20th century opera displays itself in the form of a sexualized foreign female. Exoticism is an expression of the western male for the unknown and the unfamiliar. The desire for the unknown and for the exotic is sexualized via the leading (title) female roles. Thus for the western male of the 19th and 20th century, opera was a method by which they could access new culture through sexuality, but through women specifically:

"While reaffirming the paramount precedence of white heterosexual marriage, the film lingers lovingly over scenes of Butterfly's and Pinkerton's domesticity. We hear Puccini's joyful 'flower duet' music as we observe Butterfly's ideal feminine behaviour -- removing her husband's shoes, mixing his drink, preparing his pipe. The intended moral of the Madame Butterfly story has never been concerned with the behaviour of American men overseas. Rather, the real cultural work of this perennial narrative has been to provide an exotic fantasy for the American male and a model of feminine subservience for the American woman." (Sheppard, "Cinematic realism, reflexivity, and the American 'Madame Butterfly' narratives," Page 80)

Exoticism is expressed through the presence of exotic women, and through the materiality of the production itself. This would include expressing the exotic through costume design, make up and hair, set/production design, lighting design, as well as the instruments used in the orchestra and perhaps even the arrangement of the music itself.

The exoticism in opera as in other cultural forms expresses and reflects the politics of the time and of that culture in which the opera was written. For many cultures, the exotic is associated with the primitive and with savagery. This can make the (often) colonial culture in which the opera was composed feel superior and safe. This is the case for Verdi and Aida:

"…[Verdi was] driven by the ideological desire to 'stage' (p. 89) Egypt for European cultural consumption. His scenario constructs an Egypt that is a locus of satisfactorily grand European origins but, more important, an Egypt that has been orientalised - rendered exotic - so that it can find its appropriately subordinate place in Europe's imperial imagination. Said makes the ingenious speculation that the settings and costumes Mariette proposed for the opera were directly inspired by the idealised reconstructions of ancient Egypt contained in the anthropological volumes of Napoleon's Description de l'Egypte, perhaps the first great document to package Egypt for Europe's imperial consumption." (Robinson, "Is Aida an Orientalist Opera, Page 134)

The statement declares that the culture was hungry for the exotic, but in order to express the exotic without inducing anxiety in the European mind, the exotic was subordinated. The locale of the opera was modified to seem more akin to a European aesthetic, making the narrative somewhat familiar and safe. Verdi made the situation further exotic by modifying the exotic itself. The scenario is not exactly Egyptian, as a powerful African threatened the security of the European colonial framework. The aesthetic has hints of the Eastern and the Asian, a relatively more obedient and subservient culture.

This exoticism, though largely inaccurate, allowed European audience to access and experience the foreign without significant threat to their colonial perspective, position, and power. The goal of exotic representation in art or in opera specifically is not exclusively to convey realism. The goal of exoticism is to display what is foreign and threatening in the western mind in a safe, easily accessible, and somewhat familiar fashion:

"Throughout the entire history of Hollywood japonisme, however, this potential for enhancing musical exotic realism has rarely been realised.76 In fact, opportunities for including the Other and the Other's music were routinely turned down. Why did the creators of the 1932 Madame Butterfly not choose to include footage of actual dancing geishas? Why has Hollywood repeatedly turned to composers such as Harling and Waxman -- or to Puccini -- for 'Japanese music'? Perhaps these film-makers feared that the presence of the 'real' would prove too disruptive. Perhaps they intuited that actual Japanese traditional music and Japanese actors would undermine the representational style of exotic realism. In studying Hollywood Orientalism, it soon becomes apparent that the legendary 'authentic' exotic is not really wanted even if it can be had, despite the vociferous protestations by film-makers to the contrary. This is particularly true of music." (Sheppard, "Cinematic realism, reflexivity, and the American 'Madame Butterfly narratives," Page 93)

Sheppard argues for more authenticity in artistic representations of the foreign and the exotic. What is exotic is what is unfamiliar, and as consumers of art and of media, we value the authentic. Sheppard is asking and indirectly answering his question in regards to the lack of authenticity, or more specifically, the lack of the western, in expressions of exoticism. He asks why there is not more? Why does the west go to the west for what is exotic? Why not go to the source of the exoticism and utilize what has already been firmly established? Perhaps the artisans, such as composers and filmmakers (in Sheppard's case) believe audiences will not accept the purely exotic. Perhaps they believe that audiences will more heartily consume the watered-down exotic, the westernized exotic, or the exotic as interpretation and not as direct interaction. This practice is due in part to cultural fear/anxiety/xenophobia, and due part to the attitude of colonial superiority. For Sheppard, there is no guarantee that one artistic expression of exoticism will be more accurate than other. There is no "more authentic version" of examples of exoticism as seen through the eyes of the west:

"Madame Butterfly' may come to us straight from the heart of Japan'. This assumption of film's ability to bring realism to opera and of the allegedly more 'natural' dramatic pace of cinema has been common over the past century, from a 1919 article on the superiority of the screen over the stage for the presentation of opera to Jeongwon Joe's 1998 reference to the 'clash between cinematic realism and operatic theatricality.' However, filmed versions of the 'Madame Butterfly' tale reveal that cinematic exoticism proves no more realistic than does operatic representation of exotic others." (Sheppard, "Cinematic realism, reflexivity, and the American "Madame Butterfly' narratives," Page 61)

The exotic can serve to calm cultural fears and anxieties as well as convince the colonial culture that the foreign culture is safe and not a threat. Exoticism, in art, is sometimes used as a method of persuasion, manipulation, or cultural propaganda, such as the case of Madame Butterfly:

"How do film and opera differ in their methods of exotic representation and in their approach to manufacturing realism? And to what extent does the inherent reflexivity faced by new versions of the tale undermine attempts at realism? In addressing such questions, it is important first to consider what the ultimate aims of veristic exoticism might be. Attention to details of local colour is rarely -- if ever -- motivated solely by entertainment values. Rather, creating persuasive exoticism is more generally useful to the art of persuasion. For example, if a film can convince its audience of the authenticity of its depiction of the Japanese landscape and soundscape, then perhaps the audience is that much more likely to respond with credulity to its portrayal of…

Sources Used in Document:


Crebas, Aya & Dick Pels. "The Character of Carmen and the Social Construction of a New Feminine Myth." Center for European Studies, Working Paper Series #5, December 12, 1987.

Harwood, Buie, Bridget May, Phd, & Curt Sherman. "Exoticism: 1830s -- 1920s." Architecture and Interior Design from the 19th Century: An Integrated History, Volume 2,-Page 212 -- 235. Prentice Hall, 2009.

Locke, Ralph P. "A Broader View of Musical Exoticism." The Journal of Musicology, Volume 24, No. 4, Pages 477 -- 521. University of California Press, 2007.

Locke, Ralph P. "Beyond the exotic: How 'Eastern' is Aida?" Cambridge Opera Journal, Volume 17, No. 2, Pages 105 -- 139. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2005.

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