versione italiana

La Geisha - The play

Operetta by Sidney Jones
Text by Idalberto Fei from Owen Hall

Exactly one century ago, in 1906 at the Valle Theatre in Rome, a parody of the most popular operetta, “The Geisha” was performed. On that occasion a six-year old child made his first appearance on stage: his name was Eduardo De Filippo.

That The Geisha had arrived as a parody in the capital just one year before makes it clear just how popular this operetta was. Its beautiful music was sung in theatres, homes, and in the streets, reflecting the Japanese fashion of those years which also gave birth to works such as “Mikado” by Gilbert and Sullivan and moreover, “Madame Butterfly” by Giacomo Puccini. It was also cited by Anton Checov in one of his most beloved tales, “The Woman With the Little Dog”, which was performed for years all over Europe. In Italy “The Geisha” has been performed in a variety of theatrical productions, (including performances with the famous Podrecca puppets), on radio, on television directed by Cesare Gallino, and recently, thanks to an integral version recorded in England by Arion, it has also been rediscovered by the international music market.

In keeping with the thirty-year old tradition of his company, the acclaimed Idalberto Fei and his group perform the play with puppets like other recent productions, “El Retablo de Maese Pedro” (Manuel De Falla), and “L’Impresario delle Canarie” (Pietro Metastasio). There is poetry, exoticism, music, and irony, but above all, it is the sheer pleasure of “entertainment” that constitutes the brightest part of operetta and its magic.

O Mimosa San is the most beautiful Geisha of the Poor Butterfly Teahouse. She loves and dances and sings like no one else but especially when she performs, “The Song of the Goldfish”. They all fall in love with her; the young Katana, handsome but poor; the vacuous British naval officer Reginald Fairfax, a typical flirt with a girl at every port; the frightening Marquis Imary, chief of police; vain, powerful and tyrannical. It is Marquis who unleashes the storm. When he discovers his beloved together with his hateful rivals, he orders the teahouse and all its contents to be sold; everything from the geishas: Mimosa, Golden Harp, Iris, Lilly, and Yellow Rose, to the astute Chinese director, Wun Chi. Fortunately though, the world belongs to women. Molly, Fairfax’s scatterbrained girlfriend who is looking for exotic excitement, (she tries to be a geisha but isn’t very good); Molly’s aunt, the energetic, rich Lady Constance who has arrived in Japan to study at the No theatre; and especially the hot tempered Parisian, Juliette Diamant, who is desperately searching for a rich husband, even an old one, all arrive to save the day.

The British composer and director, Sidney Jones (1861-1946), son of a band director began his career as a clarinet player and later became director of the Empire Theatre of London where he put his operettas on stage. The Geisha represents his masterpiece. He was a good and serious man, loyal to his wife Mary; the choir girl he married and with whom he spent all his evenings, preferring her company to that of the after theatre parties, but he had a strange habit. When an idea suddenly struck him, he wrote on napkins and shirt cuffs instead of music paper.

(unsustainable lightness of operetta)

“An operetta is a sure bet nowadays especially if it is performed with puppets. This I believe is because the purpose of the operetta is entertainment; song, dance, sparkling costumes, happy endings, humour, and nostalgia. The ancient Roman, Plinio the Young wrote: ‘It is only when I laugh, joke and play that I feel truly human’, and I agree with him. When we play we are freed from the trammels of daily life and I think that puppets with their poetry and abstractness give us the best of the operetta’s world. That is, a taste of life and the true pleasure of entertainment. And The Geisha is indeed entertainment at its best, back on stage again thanks to the cinema. This enigmatic figure, neither courtesan nor wife, is almost a living work of art. It seems to me that Jones has paid homage to her, intuiting her life and status while making the target of his irony the Europeans who go around the world searching for exotic experiences but who in the end understand nothing, and then the men who think they are the masters of the world but in reality it is the women who decide everything.