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Reviewed by:
  • A Vision of the Orient: Texts, Intertexts and Contexts of Madame Butterfly
  • Natalie Rewa
Jonathan Wisenthal, Sherrill Grace, Melinda Boyd, Brian McIlroy, and Vera Micznik, editors. A Vision of the Orient: Texts, Intertexts and Contexts of Madame Butterfly. University of Toronto Press. xiii, 262. $55.00

This volume is conceived as a lively record of intense research by a group of scholars at the University of British Columbia in 1997. What might at first seem unwieldy is precisely its strength. As the five editors for this [End Page 295] 238-page volume make very clear in the preface, their 'principle . . . is to resist any pressure for consensus, and to allow contradictory positions to stand and issues to remain unresolved,' and thereby they maintain not only the identification of the orientalist tropes but also their interrogation as essential to the discourse of the research. Two of the editors come from University of British Columbia's Department of English, the others from the School of Music and the Department of Theatre, Film, and Creative Writing at UBC, and the contributors include colleagues from these departments as well as others from the Department of Asian Studies and Women and Gender Studies, and a few invited guests. The structure of the volume is helpful to the reader, as the thirteen essays are organized into four main sections: 'Pre-texts,' 'Texts,' 'Intertexts,' and 'Contexts.' Throughout the volume the reader is made aware of the links between essays by bold typeface of an author's name to signal a response within the immediate discussion to another contributor. The effect of this cross-referencing is positive, encouraging one to read the essays across the sections, and they thereby productively probe concepts of genre, gender, race, and empire. Moreover, these essays offer insights into the modes of orientalist fictionalizing and how different disciplines have conceived critical approaches to the forms of narration and conceptualized its genre.

The figure of Madame Butterfly in opera, drama, and film is the focus, and the group established as its point of departure Madame Chrysanthème by Pierre Loti in 1887, from which it traces her presence primarily, but not exclusively, in Puccini's Madama Butterfly of the early twentieth century, and her re-inscriptions in David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly in 1988, and David Cronenberg's film of the same name five years later. The essays take up how the orientalism operates: Susan McClary sets the tone by the musico-cultural interrogations of the opera and its deconstructions by composers, and Vera Micznik explores the 'transformation/distortion of the[se] defining characteristics of the geisha/hired wife in the myth of Madame Butterfly.' Other essayists provide stimulating interrogations of colonized subjectivities: Richard Cavell traces the cultural repositioning of the butterfly trope and concept of empire, pointing to the 'ambiguities of the colonialist enterprise,' and Joshua Mostow's brings to the volume a juxtaposition of Puccini's opera with the cultural adjustments during the European tours by the Kawakami troupe to the acclaimed performances of geisha by Sadayacco in the early twentieth century. This thread of genderization in performance is re-inscribed by Joy James, who traces sexual ambiguities in Loti's own biography and writings.

The late-twentieth-century consciousness of narration of gender and race is considered in the essays concerning the deconstructive plays and film. Bart Testa effectively argues a reading of Cronenberg's film as the instrument of a technologically induced mutation of the originary [End Page 296] concept of tragedy of the trope; Sherrill Grace introduces Robert Lepage's epic Seven Streams of the River Ota into the discussion as part of her succinct examination of a North American rewriting of the trope; Maria Ng provides a critical refinement of the homogenizing 'orientalism,' sorting out its distinct forms in the attitudes to Japan and China evident in operas Madama Butterfly and Turandot. The final essay in the volume is the sole insight into the contemporary production practice by theatre artists themselves, and so the commentary by Rachel Ditor and Jan Selman is a valuable confrontation for the reader of the critical momentby moment encounter with the processes of thought involved in the cultural contextualization within...


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