April 12, 1933. Madison-born Nobu Kitagawa held a senior piano recital for the prestigious MacPhail School of Music in Minneapolis. Her ruffled evening gown draped elegantly to the floor as she drew out a Beethoven moonlit fantasy. Later as she played Mendelssohn’s “On the Wings of Song,” her audience might have imagined themselves flying over the sea to faraway Japan, a land that Nobu had not seen since age 3. Minneapolis Tribune music critic and University of Minnesota faculty James Davies wrote, “Nobu-ko Kitagawa . . . although born in the city, appears as a true daughter of the Orient. The program had additional fascination since Miss Kitagawa was dressed in Japanese costume for the last part.” Nobu’s furisode kimono was probably fancier than those her father sold alongside Mandarin coats, lunch cloths, and handwoven baskets in his Japanese gift shop downtown. Davies seemed captivated by Nobu’s “delicate sensitiveness” handling Chopin and her command of the presto agitato movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. He concluded that Nobu’s “attitude toward her music is altogether occidental, touched a little by romantic mysticism.” At the same time, he expressed doubts about Nobu’s future as a musician: “[S]he will play with greater force in days to come, but when that time comes she will probably have lost some of the youthful charm and simplicity that made her interpretation at this concert distinctive.” Although Nobu had studied for years at MacPhail and performed on the radio, Davies wrote as if she contributed little to Minneapolis classical music beyond her “youthful charm” and her kimono-wrapped Asian body. He imagined Nobu fading like Cho-Cho-San from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly,not thriving as a mature musician. Cho-Cho-San, too, never aged either on stage or in white industrialized imaginations.
What parts existed in classical music for Nobu and other Black, Indigenous, and other people of color in the early twentieth-century United States?
Long before Nobu’s concert, African American composer Scott Joplin and Native American artist Zitkala-Ša (also known as Gertrude Bonnin) wrote operas that did not make it into the American classical music canon. These works did not succeed in their own time in part due to the roles Black and Indigenous cultures played in the industrializing United States. The stories of Nobu, Scott Joplin, and Zitkala-Ša converge at the 1893 Colombian Exposition in Chicago, a celebration of American industry named after the European who initiated the subjugation of the Americas. Such nineteenth- and early twentieth-century world fairs contrasted the power and accomplishment of industrialized nations with the lack thereof in non-industrialized peoples.
At the Colombian Exposition Nobu’s ancestral culture was displayed for both white amusement and promotion of the Japanese Empire, which was poised to expand to Korea and beyond. Japanese merchants could increase their profits by broadening Americans’ understanding of Japan. Merchant Buhach Hayashi brought Japanese goods to the Colombian Exposition. He became the first Japanese to sell Japanese goods in Minneapolis when he took over a white businessman’s Japanese store. In a Sunday paper ad, Hayashi enticed the old customers: “We sell everything from 25 to 50 per cent cheaper than under the former management, as we import direct.” Afterwards, other Japanese businessmen sold Japanese goods in Minneapolis, including Nobu’s father. To succeed, they all had to make peace with images found in Western industrialized popular culture such as The Mikado (1885), A Japanese Nightingale (1901), and Madame Butterfly (1904).
During the Colombian Exposition, Zitkala-Ša was a seventeen-year-old violin student at White’s Indiana Manual Labor Institute about 135 miles southeast of Chicago. At that exposition Buffalo Bill Cody, having grown rich from his Wild West shows touring Europe and the continental United States, had his biggest show ever. These shows featured European-American sharpshooters and a large cast of Native Americans to reenact battles through a white man’s lens. For the Quarterly Journal of the Society of American Indians adopted Onondaga clansman E. H. Gohl noted, “Both sides lose, the white as well as the red man. The spectator gains no real knowledge of the manners, costumes, and institutions of the Indian. Show managers compel the red man to act the white man’s idea of the war dance. All is burlesque.” Zitkala-Ša felt the influence of Wild West shows on her white teachers and peers as she walked through the halls of her Quaker Native American boarding school, and later Quaker-run Earlham College. Zitkala-Ša herself later played the violin for the 1900 Paris Exposition alongside Native American students and fellow teachers of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. In a world that expected either assimilated Indians or savage caricatures, Zitkala-Ša sought a path between the Indigenous world and the white man’s world to win rights for all First Nations people.
Outside the Chicago World’s Fair gates, Scott Joplin was playing the cornet in a quarter known for liquor, prostitution, and gambling. The exposition proper excluded African Americans and their music, but Black performers outside drew crowds of visitors nonetheless. Some historians believe that the Colombian Exposition paved the way for the popularity of Black music among white people. After the exposition Scott Joplin moved to Sedalia, Missouri, and launched a successful career as a ragtime composer and performer. The original 1902 “Entertainer” sheet music published by Stark Music Company depicts a Black man performing in a suit and a top hat at a minstrel show, a burlesque of African American speech and behavior. From the stage he leans forward, grinning with exaggerated lips as his white audience gazes up from their velvet seats with subdued Victorian expressions. These images, like Buffalo Bill’s shows, also traveled abroad. A modern reprint of “The Entertainer” shows an ad from the Shanghai English language China Press dated December 20, no year. In it an expatriate selling ragtime music in Shanghai asserts, “The ‘Stark rags’ are known wherever civilization has found a foothold,” even as sheet music illustrations portray Black performers as uncivilized.
Scott Joplin knew that he could do more. In 1911 he published a piano-vocal score for Treemonisha, a three-act opera that took over a decade to complete. Treemonisha was ahead of its time. In an interview for History Makers composer T. J. Anderson noted that Treemonisha drew from the African and European roots of American music twenty years before Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. In Joplin’s own time, a review in the American Musician and Art Journal affirmed, “[Treemonisha] has sprung from our soil practically of its own accord. Its composer . . . has hewn an entirely new form of operatic art.” The revival of classical music with folk music had a precedent in Europe; the Romantic period of Beethoven and Chopin swelled with polkas, mazurkas, and arabesques penned by people who shared neither geography nor ancestry with Bohemian, Polish, or Arab people. American composers such as Edward MacDowell had borrowed Indigenous and Black American musical motifs without understanding their cultural context. In Joplin’s hands, however, classical music served a story by and for his people. In the opera, the educated Treemonisha saved her people, not through assimilation into white society, but through compassion and self-expression. In the Texarkana Black community portrayed by Joplin, superstition peddled by conjurers caused division and harm. The conjurers kidnapped Treemonisha and tried to throw her into a wasp’s nest, but community members rescued her. Demonstrating moral, educated leadership, Treemonisha urged her rescuers to forgive the conjurers. In the final number, Treemonisha led her community toward a future brightened by education and Black culture celebrated in a distinctive slow march.
Joplin spent his final years promoting Treemonisha and trying to get it staged. He performed the music solo on the piano even as he was dying from syphilis. It was never fully staged until 1972, long after he died. Even if Joplin had lived longer, racial segregation would have kept Treemonisha out of the American classical music canon. As early as 1916 the MacPhail School of Music offered instruction in mandolin, banjo, and ukulele, but those instruments never appeared in classical music recitals alongside Nobu and her peers. One could learn ragtime or jazz at the Christensen School of Popular Music run by Axel Christensen, the self-dubbed “Vaudeville’s ‘Czar of Ragtime.’” His ads promised, “You Can Learn RAGTIME Piano Playing in 20 Lessons If You Don’t Know a Single Note. . . . Everybody ought to play Ragtime . . . because Ragtime is HAPPINESS.” After the Great War, American clubs across Europe played ragtime for that very reason—to war-battered Europeans, ragtime represented American freedom, even as Jim Crow laws and continued oppression denied it to its inventors. If Treemonisha had been successful, there might have been a broader field for nonwhite creativity in the classical music world. Black audience members might sip prosecco in the mezzanine, write music reviews for Minneapolis newspapers, and teach music at the MacPhail School and beyond.
Yankton Sioux writer Zitkala-Ša also wrote her own opera, The Sun Dance, collaborating with music teacher William F. Hanson. In her introduction to the libretto, scholar P. Jane Hafen noted that Zitkala-Ša played Indigenous melodies on the violin, but Hanson denatured them when he transcribed them using the Western notation system. In the 1913 performances white singers played the lead roles, and indigenous Ute also performed intermittently throughout the opera. Zitala-Ša’s community might not have heard themselves in the music, but perhaps they saw themselves in the storyline. The central conflict arises when an outsider Shoshone tries to win over the Sioux Winona, but the climax melts into a fabric of Sun Dance invocations, not a battle between the Shoshone outsider and the Sioux man that Winona loves. In 1913 First Nations people did not enjoy the freedom to practice their own religion, so the Sun Dance itself violated US law. The storyline upholds the social contract by centering the healing power of both Shoshone and Sioux communities, and by extension all First Nations communities. Zitkala-Ša hints that healing within her community comes from neither assimilation nor selling out: it comes from addressing the conflict within, and turning to Indigenous practices. The initial performances enjoyed positive reviews, but The Sun Dance never entered the American musical canon. Afterwards, Zitkala-Ša found her voice in writing and activism; she never collaborated with Hanson or any other musician again. We have no evidence that she objected when Hanson took full credit for the opera when it was staged in New York in 1938.
Although Scott Joplin and Zitkala-Ša created distinctive American operas, conservatories such as MacPhail took little notice. In origin and content, Treemonisha and The Sun Dance show some striking parallels. Both Joplin and Zitkala-Ša benefited from education centered on white standards, but neither artist chose assimilation to solve the conflicts in their storylines: they chose solutions originating in their own communities, from norms rejected by white society. The cultural landscape exemplified in industrial expositions provided only two options, assimilation or burlesque. In such a framework, the voices of Scott Joplin and Zitkala-Ša could not be heard.
In this context what options could Nobu, a child of immigrants, apprehend for herself?
Puccini’s masterpiece Madame Butterfly framed Nobu’s years in Minneapolis. In October 1919, six months after her family moved from Japan, the Chicago Opera Company performed Madame Butterfly at the Saint Paul Municipal Auditorium. Arts patrons eagerly anticipated the “Japanese Nightingale” Tamaki Miura as Cho-Cho-San, but a vaguely stated “transportation mishap” delayed her arrival, so her understudy sang the title role. Although only the most privileged patronized the opera, newspaper ads suggest that the growing consumer class easily associated Japan with exotic kimono-clad women and Madame Butterfly. Just in time for Christmas, the boudoir shop at Young-Quinlan Co. advertised “Direct from the Orient Teeming with Witchery and Mythology, From Japan Exquisite Gifts . . . Silk Kimonos from the Land of ‘Madame Butterfly.’” In his holiday sale ads that year Mr. Kitagawa never invoked Madame Butterfly by name, but he did feature a Japanese woman peering up playfully as she placed an ornament in her hair. As he raised his three young girls in the upright Methodist Episcopal tradition in which he himself grew up, he betrayed no fear in his diary that they might be seen as geishas too.
In 1919 Mr. Kitagawa and other Japanese probably had broader concerns while walking in white-dominated spaces. The US and Japan remained in tense imperial competition even as they cooperated to build Pacific empires with the Taft–Katsura Agreement and to fight the Triple Alliance in the Great War. This tension surfaced in reviews of Madame Butterfly. The Minneapolis Journal ran a positive review of Butterfly,but Minneapolis Tribune reviewer William J. McNally objected on both political and artistic grounds. He hinted that Madame Butterfly had no place amidst the “stormy” dispute between Japan and the US over influence in China. (Chinese self-determination lay beyond the scope of his review.) McNally also explained, “Of course, [Cho-Cho-San] is not a true daughter of Japan; her exterior only is Oriental; her whole psychology is Occidental.” In this spirit he criticized understudy Myrna Sharlow’s failure to capture the rapidly shifting palette of Cho-Cho-San’s “mannerisms, her coquettries, her flashes of self-satisfaction, her glints of humor, her moments of abasement, and her flares of temper”— a burlesque of Western womanhood compacted into a Japanese body.
McNally recognized Cho-Cho-San as Western, but would he have recognized “a true daughter of Japan” if he encountered one? And in such an encounter, would he have shunned her, citing imperial rivalry with Japan? Would he have listened if she sang a beautiful song from her own heart?
In the December before Nobu’s senior concert, Cho-Cho-San returned to Minneapolis and reached broader audiences: the Hollywood film Madame Butterfly starring Sylvia Sidney appeared in movie houses throughout the nation and topped box office sales at the Century Theater downtown. Second-run theaters showed Madame Butterfly through the spring, and University of Minnesota music students studied its “atmosphere” to prepare their own production of Butterfly. Mr. Kitagawa did not take his family to see Madame Butterfly either in theaters or at the U, but people who visited his shop probably could not avoid thinking of it.
Indeed, as he reviewed Nobu’s concert James Davies looked forward to seeing his own three-year-old daughter play Cho-Cho-San’s child “Little Trouble” in the University’s performance the following month. In his Tribune column he praised his own daughter: “Diane Davies . . . was making her first operatic experience and did remarkably well. She looked the part and for so small a person she acted naturally and sweetly.” Davies’s older daughter, too, played the same part at age 4 in March 1930 with the Chicago Civic Opera Company. Before Nobu’s concert, had Davies seen anyone wear a kimono outside the context of Madame Butterfly?
Davies’s white daughter needed only a kimono to transform into a Japanese child for the opera. In 1933, what would it have taken for a young Japanese American woman to play a budding concert pianist? Should she have stuck with her evening gown, since Japanese women in kimono do not last long on stage?
After the recital Nobu’s parents held a reception at their spacious home. Nobu’s friends presided as hostesses, assisted by other young white women in her sisters’ circles. “Jonquils, snapdragons and tea roses centered the tea table, which was lighted with yellow tapers,” reported the Tribune. Nobu’s parents invited the founding members of the Minneapolis Orchestra and other luminaries of the Twin Cities classical music world. They were preparing Nobu to enter the classical music world too. Before Nobu registered for classes at the U, she and her parents discussed “her work” with her MacPhail teacher, and then met “Ferguson, piano teacher at U.” Perhaps Ferguson only repeated his colleague Davies’s review: she plays well, but her distinctive charm may dissipate with age. After that meeting Nobu studied at MacPhail for another year, but not at the University. In Minnesota Nobu’s classical music voice fell silent.
Classical and popular music remained segregated in the years Nobu lived in Minneapolis. In the 1920s and 1930s, known for the rise of jazz and later swing dance, organizations such as the National Federation of Music Clubs that convened in Duluth in May 1931 sought to broaden appreciation for the “best music” by means of “intelligent and selective listening to radio programs” and subsidizing “opera, symphony orchestras and music schools, and county music festivals.” These words propose Eurocentric classical music as a defense against popular and vaudeville radio programs tastefully left unnamed. Madame Butterfly, Puccini’s most popular opera, belonged to this protected class of music, while the operas of Scott Joplin and Zitkala-Ša remained unknown or obscure. In this way, American music restricted its artistic scope and the bodies designated to excel.
After over a century of racial segregation in the classical music canon, classical music, particularly opera, seems to be declining along with its older white patron base. On the other hand, Black, Indigenous, and other people of color today are still writing operas or material adapted into operas. Minnesota-based librettist and multi-genre writer Douglas Kearney wrote the critically acclaimed Sweet Land, which was named Opera of the Year by the Music Critics Association of North America in 2021. Kao Kalia Yang’s award-winning memoir The Song Poet will be performed by the Minnesota Opera in March 2023 at Saint Paul’s Ordway Center, which staged both Madame Butterfly and its successor Miss Saigon. At this writing all five performances of Yang’s story have sold out. Writers such as Yang and Kearney transform opera and ensure its relevance and longevity.
May these works create a climate that allows us all to grow old.
Anderson, T.J. “T.J. Anderson describes the history of the opera ‘Treemonisha’” (The HistoryMakers A2012.045). Interviewed by Larry Crowe, February 19, 2012. The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 3.
Berlin, Edward A. King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and Hist Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Zitkala-Ša. Dreams and Thunder: Stories, Poems, and the Sun Dance Opera. Edited by P. Jane Hafen. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.