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"One fine day we'll notice
a thread of smoke arising
on the sea, in the far horizon,
and then the ship appearing;
Then the trim white vessel
glides into the harbour,
thunders forth her cannon."
~ "Un bel di, vedremo" English translation, Madama Butterfly, Giacomo Puccini, 1907
In Puccini's tragic opera, Lieutenant BF Pinkerton, a naval officer from the USS Lincoln, is posted in Nagasaki. While there, aided by Goro, an unscrupulous Japanese marriage broker, he lures the fatherless, impoverished 15-year-old Butterfly into a temporary union. Thinking she is legally married, Butterfly abandons her Buddhist faith for Christianity and is renounced by her family and friends. Despite his strong attraction to her, and the warnings of the local US consul, Pinkerton then deserts Butterfly, but tells her he will return to take her back to America. Three years of waiting pass, during which time Butterfly secretly gives birth to his child with no one but her servant and companion Suzuki for support. When Pinkerton finally returns to Japan it is with his “real” American wife, Kate. On discovering the existence of his son they decide to take the child from Butterfly and back to America. Butterfly agrees to what she sees as a better life for her son and kills herself so he is not tormented in his adult years by his mother’s abandonment. This opera is based on a short story by American lawyer and writer John Luther Long from the recollections of his sister who had been to Japan with her husband, a Methodist missionary. A recent author claims Long's story is loosely based on the birth-mother of Tomisaburo, the British-Japanese adopted son of Scot Thomas Blake Glover and his Japanese wife. Glover, known as the "Scottish Samurai," also was the inspiration for the character Jamie McFay in the James Clavell novel Gai-Jin. In the tartan, Black, White and Red together represent the traditional colours of the Geisha; black for the hair, white for the powdered skin, red for the painted lips, (and the solid blood red pivot importantly symbolising Butterfly's suicidal death strike). The two pinks with the khaki green portray the withering cherry blossom, representative of the transient nature of all things. The tartan's theme of doomed love is further represented by Black, a funereal colour, balanced with pure White, a colour in Japan known to represent joyful life events. 🦋
February 8th is Opera Day, a celebration of drama set to music, popular since the 16th century.
This tartan commemorates Giacomo Puccini's beautiful and heartbreaking opera Madama Butterfly. The tartan, designed with Japanese inspired geometry, is a tribute to the opera, a doomed love story set in a Japanese village in Nagasaki at the turn of the century.
The tartan acknowledges over 100 years of performances, portraying the tragic and sorrowful tale of Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly), a beautiful and fragile young Geisha bride who kills herself after abandonment and betrayal by her husband, a US naval lieutenant temporarily stationed in Japan.
Released in 1907, the opera has long been associated with the famous Scottish merchant Sir Thomas Blake Glover. Born in Fraserburgh, Glover was a key figure in the industrialisation and modernisation of Japan, and his common-law marital relationship with the Japanese woman Awajiya Tsuru, through her son by another father, is said to have been the inspiration for Madama Butterfly.
Glover at one time was the most famous foreigner in Japan, known as the "Scottish Samurai."
The tragic story follows Cio-Cio-San ( Butterfly), a Japanese geisha who marries an American naval officer named Pinkerton, only to be abandoned by him, after which she bears his son. She waits for Pinkerton faithfully and though he returns three years later, he now has an American wife, and wants to take the boy back to America. Butterfly's humiliation is too much to bear, and as she attempts to commit suicide her boy is pushed into the room to distract and stop her. Butterfly bids a farewell to her son and sends him off to play. As she stabs herself, Pinkerton's voice is heard far off in the distance calling Butterfly's name.
From the official register's notes:
"The tartan's colours and geometry represent both the Geisha and the Japanese Cherry Blossom. Colours: black, white and red together represent the traditional colours of the Geisha, black for the hair, white for the powdered skin and red for the painted lips (the solid red pivot importantly symbolising the blood of Butterfly's suicidal death strike). The two shades of pink with the muted khaki green represent withering cherry blossom (in Japanese culture the transient nature of cherry blossom is richly symbolic, the intense beauty and abrupt death, being associated with mortality). The tartan's theme of doomed love and death is further represented by the funeral colour black, yet this is equally balanced with pure white, a colour in Japan known to represent joyful life events. Importantly the tartan celebrates a historical industrial relationship between Scotland and Japan."
For more the story's origins, click here.
One of opera's most famous arias is Butterfly's "Un bel dì vedremo," sung in response to friend and housekeeper's Suzuki's expressed doubts that Pinkerton will ever return to Japan.
Click the opera poster from the 1914 production at La Scala, in Milan, for a truly beautiful rendition (with English translation) of the aria "Un bel di vedremo" sung by Kiri Te Kanawa.