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10th January 2003 at 00:00
In 1885, a French naval officer called Julien Marie Viaud got a posting to Nagasaki and, following the custom of the time, was allotted a temporary "wife". But he got little pleasure from his marriage to 17-year-old Okane-san, whom he dutifully provided with an apartment plus servant, and for whose sexual attentions he paid a monthly fee: he was a romantic, and the heartlessness of the contract chilled him.

He was also chilled by the way traditional Japanese culture was becoming eclipsed by the culture of the West: he hated seeing Japanese men topping off their kimonos with bowler hats. He put all these contradictions into a novel which he wrote under the pen-name Pierre Loti and entitled Madame Chrysantheme (English edition published by KPI). This is full of fascinating observations on Japanese manners, but its hero and heroine part without shedding a tear. "I took you to amuse myself," he muses as the shore recedes into the distance. "You have not perhaps succeeded very well, but you have been pleasant enough in your Japanese way. Who knows, I may even think of you sometimes."

But the novel inspired a short story called "Madame Butterfly" by John Luther Long, an American lawyer who had never been to Japan. Long enriched the mixture with several new characters, including the arrogant Lieutenant Pinkerton, and playwright David Belasco adapted it for the stage. When the play hit London, Giacomo Puccini, who was in the audience, was fired with the idea of turning it into opera.

But Puccini's own philanderings had left him with terrible sexual guilt and he injected this into his opera. Long's ending was not fatal but Puccini's work climaxes in an orgy of grief and self-laceration (I think it's best caught in the Mirella FreniLuciano Pavarotti version for Decca,417 577-2). And that's not the end of the story, because Miss Saigon has now reset the drama in Vietnam.

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