Different interpretations – costume designs for Madama Butterfly at the La Scala Museum, Milan.

madama-butterfly-foujita-1951Last November I was visiting Milan and had the opportunity to go to the opera at La Scala to see a semi-staged version of ‘Porgy and Bess’. It was intense and moving and very dramatic. The next morning I went back to La Scala to visit their museum to see their temporary exhibition featuring costumes from previous productions of Puccini’s ‘Madama Butterfly’.

Sketches for the 1904 première of Madama Butterfly at La Scala, Milan. Costume designs by Giuseppe Palanti.

The première of ‘Madama Butterfly’ took place at La Scala 1904. The above sketch and the poster (below) comes from this production with costumes by Giuseppe Palanti (1881-1946).  The drawings for his designs were on display showing an interesting interpretation of a Japanese aesthetic as seen through the eyes of a late-nineteenth-century Western artist.

Naturally, costume designs for a staged performance are always going to be larger than life and to be visually effective they have to work for the front row to those in the gods. There was plenty of colour from the costume designer Luigi Sapelli (aka Caramba, 1865-1936) in La Scala’s 1925 production for those seated at the back to appreciate.

Costume by Luigi Sapelli (aka Caramba, 1865-1936) for 1925 production.

Fast forward to 1951 and La Scala invites the Japanese artist, Foujita (1886-1968 ) to work with them on their latest Madama Butterfly production. Interestingly, his costumes were more muted with stylised motifs. Foujita was born in Tokyo and studied both in Japan and Paris. He lived most of his life in Paris becoming a French citizen in 1955. I can’t help but feel that maybe he was very well placed to create a ‘fusion’ collection of costumes for the opera.

By the time we see the costumes for the 1985 production, there is a change in sensibility resulting in a more contemporary less overtly historical look.

This is hardly surprising as the famous Japanese fashion designer, Hanae Mori (born 1926) created the costumes. I think her work gives us a more subtle interpretation with a nod to the historical. Indeed, one costume features a traditional Ukiyo-e image adding interest to a dramatic black costume.

Author: agnesashe

Artisan, blogger and passionate East Anglian working from home.

20 thoughts on “Different interpretations – costume designs for Madama Butterfly at the La Scala Museum, Milan.”

    1. Thank you for your comment – sorry for such a tardy reply have just temporarily moved in with my elderly father. Loving your recent tile work.

    1. I don’t know about you, but I find commenting on other culture’s history tricky. And, Madama Butterfly, is a bit problematic with it’s very old fashioned Western, somewhat blinkered view of Japanese society. I’ve not seen a recent version to see how they manage it, but a couple of years ago I saw South Pacific, I thought ‘mmm maybe not anymore’ despite all the fab tunes.
      Thank you for your comment – sorry for such a tardy reply have just temporarily moved in with my elderly father.

      1. Oh dear. I guess that means you have tricky times ahead. Good luck. And yes, we’re not really equipped to take on cultuarl difference in a positive way.

  1. Amazing story with these incredible images Agnes. Madama Butterfly is a favourite of mine. I am a Japan freak as my Japanese friends call me and I think the traditional costumes of the ancient courts and of the Geisha are mind blowing. I have seen Kimonos in Osaka valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars, they were exquisite .

    1. I love Madama Butterly too. However, I think it is a little awkward with its sentiment, but I guess we have to remember that it is essentially a very early 20th-century viewpoint. How wonderful to see those Kimonos. I just love every fabric design. And, don’t you just love all the Ukiyo-e Period woodblocks.

  2. So interesting to follow the evolution, isn’t it? You have reminded me that Red Ramia Trading, the eclectic store in Myrtleford, had dozens of ceremonial silk kimonos, obis, and plainer, mostly cotton, yukatas. The kimonos were dazzling. I am not sure who buys them though. The yukatas could be worn as a bathrobe, but not the kimonos. Unless people buy them for the material? The obis, at a stretch, could be used as table runners. And for a “real” Madame Butterfly story, some of your followers might be interested to read “Sword and Blossom: A British Officer’s Enduring Love for a Japanese Woman”. I wouldn’t call it an enduring love though, he ultimately abandoned his Japanese “wife” and son, leaving them in a precarious position, both financially and socially. The officer was injured in the first world war, and married his English nurse!

    1. Ah yes that romantic view of the East, ‘Madama Butterfly’ and ‘Sword and Blossom’, kinda now historical itself. I really love the ceremonial kimonos. The fabric designs and colour combinations are glorious. It’s interesting that so much of the traditional Japanese design has been so popular and influential in the West from the French Impressionists onwards.

      Sorry, I hadn’t replied to your thoughtful comment earlier, but as I said down the comments somewhere, I have just temporarily moved in with my elderly father. Finally, managed to set up the work computer and have brought all my silk painting materials and equipment with me. I feel like the clock has been wound back to my first fashion show at St Martin’s three decades ago when I managed to paint silk for my small collection on the floor of my tiny bedsit!!!

      1. Don’t worry at all about replies – I keep going in fits and starts too. You must have such a lot on your plate at the moment. You have often spoken fondly of your father in the past, so I hope this time is a wonderful experience for you both, even though it has probably been triggered by a negative event. Perhaps a change of space will also deliver a change of perspective in your creative work.

      2. Thank you for such a positive viewpoint. All but essentials and business stuff has gone into storage and I’ve sold my house. It’s been an exhausting week packing everything up, dismantling furniture and clearing the loft. My daughter came to help at the weekend otherwise I don’t know how I would have managed! Hopefully, when I’ve recharged my batteries, I will have a surge of creativity.

      3. I wondered if you had sold your house. It can’t have been on the market long, or else you have been a bit of a dark horse about your plans when blogging. May I ask where you are now, or would you prefer not to broadcast? Hopefully you managed to de-clutter a little in the move. It is such an uplifting process. I don’t mean your creative tools though!

      4. Oh how I wish I had de-cluttered more. It was all too much. I made five trips down to the recycling centre with the my car bursting. Garage and garden were a nightmare. I am temporarily round the corner and we are hoping to move back to Suffolk. I am trying to get a place where I can have a proper studio that I can simply close the door on at the end of the day. Working from home I find it hard to shut off. I sold my house over Christmas, but it takes so long for the sale to grind through. Didn’t want to jinx it before I had actually moved on.

      5. You must have found a buyer quickly by the sounds of it. I imagine it was a wrench to leave your garden, but I hope you are looking forward to this next stage of your life. I am a big fan of de-cluttering, perhaps when things settle down, you could go through your storage boxes one at a time every other week and see if they whittle down. Good luck with the house + studio hunting. Maybe a job for ‘Escape to the Country’? 🙂

      6. What a thought – I’d like the opposite actually, escape to the city. I used to live in a small village and it can be quite an isolating experience if most people are out away at work all day and you work from home.
        Oh yes how I want to seriously de-clutter!

      7. We did a home-swap once. We went to a 500 person village in Germany and they came to our inner city Sydney apartment. We did forest walks and they did museums, etc. It was a win-win. But I can imagine the isolation in a very small village, and what a struggle if you don’t get on with the neighbours!

      8. Yes, our village was very quiet and truly chocolate box romantic to visit. Neighbours very nice and friendly, but just never around much. Village school shut, no post office and the only pub was on its last legs. Also I don’t think many people really consider the reality of retiring to an idyllic village. It’s all well and good whilst you’re still in good health, but if you require a home visit from a nurse or a trip to hospital it rapidly becomes problematic. The NHS is not set up for many remote patients living in a standard, rural English county.

      9. I have friends living in one in Lancashire/Yorkshire – somewhere right on the border there, and I know what you mean. The village shop is run by volunteers, and my friend is very busy on the parish council just trying to keep basic things happening. And the medical issue is a very important one. Part of the reason we are living here – we are healthy now, but who knows what the future holds?

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