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In the Wings

Backstage glimpses with Boston Lyric Opera

Pucciniana #11

Nov 7, 2012 10:01:00 AM
By BLO Staff

A very interesting article from The New York Times entitled "Music Box as Muse to Puccini's Butterfly" was published on June 15, 2012. We have reprinted most of it, but encourage you to read the entire article.

"The Murtogh D. Guinness Collection of mechanical musical instruments and automata at the Morris Museum here received national attention after Martin Scorsese’s film “Hugo,” which appeared last November. The museum’s Clown Illusionist, with a disappearing and reappearing head accompanied by a cheery tune, was featured on “CBS Sunday Morning.”
Even now few visitors spend much time in the room where the Swiss music boxes are displayed. Yet, being a musicologist, I lingered there alone last January as my children ran ahead. I kept listening to one box in particular, a harmoniphone from around 1877, equipped with a reed organ and able to play six Chinese tunes from a cylinder.
Confused at first, I suddenly realized that I had stumbled on the key to a musicological mystery many decades old. Scholars have long known that Puccini used Chinese tunes in his opera “Turandot” (set in China and left incomplete on Puccini’s death in 1924). But they have been puzzled by the origins of two “Japanese” tunes in his “Madama Butterfly” (set in Japan and first performed in 1904). What I had found were Chinese sources for two major themes in “Butterfly” and a surprising connection between that opera and “Turandot.”
Was it possible that Puccini had heard this very box in Italy and that it provided crucial inspiration for “Madama Butterfly”?

We know that he heard a “Chinese” music box in 1920 at the Bagni di Lucca home of Baron Edoardo Fassini-Camossi, a veteran of the 1900 Boxer Rebellion in China and of a military operation there at the end of World War I, and an amateur composer with published pieces to his credit. The baron probably acquired this box and other souvenirs in China at the notorious “loot auctions” that followed the suppression of the Boxers.

Puccini’s visit was leaked to the press and later reported in the librettist Giuseppe Adami’s books on the composer, so opera lovers have long known that three tunes from the Fassini music box, now in the private collection of Lionello Ghiotti in Italy, were prominently featured in “Turandot.” The most famous Chinese song, commonly called “Mo Li Hua” (“Jasmine Flower”), signals the seductive and glorious aspects of the fairy-tale Chinese princess Turandot; another tune accompanies the entrance of the three ministers; a third serves as an imperial hymn." read more... 

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