October 23, 2017

Puccini's "Girl": the convoluted history of a melody

In Act I of Puccini’s The Girl of the Golden West, the miner’s poker games are interrupted by the arrival of the camp minstrel, Jake Wallace. Jake sings the opera’s first real vocal solo, a nostalgic song with chorus called “Che farrano i vecchi miei” (What will my old folks do). The miners are touched by this song, one heavy with nostalgia for family and home. Remember: going to the California Gold Rush territory was an arduous challenge. This was undeveloped wilderness accessible only by overland stage (a journey filled with dangers of many types) or by sea. Once there, gold-seekers were stuck in a harsh physical environment with few comforts. Homesickness was common, a phenomenon Jake exploits in his solo.

A member of the Zuni tribe, 1903
In it’s opening strains, one could be forgiven for assuming that Puccini had adapted a song from the Stephen Foster catalogue, Italian words notwithstanding. In fact, the David Belasco stage play on which Puccini based the opera actually did use various Foster songs, similarly nostalgic ballads like “Old Dog Tray” and “Camptown Races”. While in New York to oversee rehearsals for the world premiere at the Metropolitan Opera House, Puccini is said to have received a lot of unsolicited advice from well-meaning Americans unfamiliar with Italian opera: “Mr. Puccini, if you want this-here opera to have an authentic American sound, you should stick in some good old American numbers like "My Old Kentucky Home" – people like that one!” I’m sure Puccini smiled as tolerantly as he could manage. Following the first performances, many critics leapt to the assumption that Jake Wallace’s song was an adaptation of Foster. It's almost understandable, given that Jake's tune has a simple, artless singability not far removed from Foster classics like "Swanee River":

The truth is that “Che farrano” has a much different origin, as was revealed by the scholar Allan W. Atlas in a 1991 article in Musical Quarterly, "Belasco and Puccini: 'Old Dog Tray' and the Zuni Indians".

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?