|A member of the Zuni tribe, 1903|
Once he decided to make an opera of Belasco’s play, Puccini asked his close friend and confidante Sybil Seligman to procure a collection of authentic American Indian tunes. His previous work, Madama Butterfly (also from a Belasco play!), had successfully incorporated a number of Japanese folk tunes. The composer felt such material was vital to convey a sense of time and place to his scenarios. Seligman’s samples included a transcription of a “Festive Sun Dance” from the Zuni Indian Tribe. As notated and translated by Carlos Troyer, this is the excerpt that caught Puccini’s eye: The contour of Jake’s vocal line is clearly seen.
Puccini doubtless considered his use of an authentic Native American tune to be a gesture of respect to an alien culture. Through the prism of 21st-century values, however, our notions of respect for diverse cultures have led us to regard his gesture as problematic.
For one thing, the Zuni tribe was located in Arizona, not California; lumping all "American Indians" into an interchangeable single group without respect to geography is less than respectful. For another, the original melody has been transformed by Western harmonic procedures, adding a sophisticated European sensuousness at odds with the original. And finally, the reality is that the first performance of the opera on December 10, 1910 featured an Italian bass - in blackface! - portraying an American singing a Zuni tribal tune.
Yikes. The blackface element was soon abandoned, but the conflicting messages remained.
But 1910 was a different era, with notions of political correctness in an embryonic stage of development. Jim Crow laws were still in play, and the women’s suffrage movement would not secure the right to vote for another decade. Puccini’s transformation of a Native American hymn to the Zuni sun god is just another, if stirringly beautiful, example of the early 20th-century struggle to treat every sector of human society with equal dignity. In 2017 we need to be cautious about being too judgemental of Puccini's choices. Can we say that we've succeeded in treating every sector of human society with equal dignity?