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The Story Behind the Opera "Madama Butterfly" by Pucchini

Giacomo Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” is a three-act opera, which was originally intended to have two acts. It is accompanied by an Italian libretto crafted by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica.


The opera is based on John Luther Long’s 1898 short story with the same title “Madame Butterfly.” Luther’s story was based on “Madame Chrysanthème,” a French novel by Pierre Loti. David Belasco dramatized Long’s version and crafted a one-act play titled “Madame Butterfly: A Tragedy of Japan.” In 1900, Puccini came across one of its London performances in New York and decided to work on it.

History & Performances 

Madama Butterfly poster

Puccini crafted the first version of the opera in two acts. It premiered in 1904 in Milan but received a poor response, despite the performance of notable soprano artists Giuseppe De Luca and Giovanni Zenatello. Puccini subsequently revised the original opera and created the third act by splitting the second. Soon, success followed, and the first revised performance in Brescia received widespread critical acclaim.

Puccini had crafted a total of five different versions of “Madama Butterfly.” The second version was the first to be staged across the Atlantic as it premiered in Washington D.C. in 1906, with subsequent performances in New York. During the America tour, Puccini wrote the third version for New York’s Metropolitan Opera. He made further modifications in the vocal and orchestral scores and created a fourth version that premiered in Paris. In 1907, he made final alterations to create the fifth version, which is the standard version performed all around the world. The original version (two-acts) is also occasionally performed.

The Play

Solomiya_Krushelnytska as Butterfly

Act I

The Act starts off with a short orchestral prelude. A fast, fugal opening theme is followed by another displaying Japanese musical essence. The first scene takes place in 1904, in Nagasaki, Japan. Pinkerton, a U.S. naval officer, is looking to rent a hill-house for himself and his fiance Cio-Cio-san (derived from the Japanese word for “Butterfly”). Goro, a marriage broker, shows him about the property, as the song “And ceiling and walls” plays in the background. The American consul “Sharpless” accompanies him as they enjoy the view of the Nagasaki port. Pinkerton sings praises of the Yankee through the song “Throughout the world” and how they who travel the world and take pleasure at every shore. 

Sharpless asks Pinkerton whether he is really in love. Pinkerton replies through the song “Love or fancy” that he isn’t sure. However, he must chase and capture his delicate bride, even if that leads to breaking her heart. Butterfly is only 15, and Pinkerton plans to abandon her once he finds a more suitable American match. He also plans to take advantage of lax Japanese divorce laws. As Butterfly and her attendants enter the scene, the song “One step more” is performed as Pinkerton becomes enchanted by her simplicity. Butterfly greets Pinkerton with the song “May good fortune attend you,” and continues complimenting him.

The arrival of the Registrar and Commissioner is announced through the song “The Imperial Commissioner.” The relatives and cousins of Butterfly are amazed at the sight of the American groom and bow to him. Sharpless warns Pinkerton about the sins he is committing, which the latter ignores. He takes his bride into the house for some private conversation. Butterfly shows him her treasured possessions, which include a sash, a mirror, and a few handkerchiefs while singing the song, “Come, my love!” She also shows a narrow case, whose contents she cannot divulge. Goro reveals to Pinkerton that the case contains a knife with which her father had committed ritual suicide. Butterfly further divulges that she has converted to Christianity for her fiance, as she performs the aria, “Yesterday, I went all alone.”

The marriage ceremony is held as “Quiet everyone” is played in the background. The wedding celebrations begin with the song “Madam Butterfly,” as Sharpless again advises caution to Pinkerton, before leaving. Unfortunately, Bonze, Butterfly’s uncle, overhears the conversation and accuses her of being an abomination. He leaves with all the guests, cursing the bride as “Cio-Cio San” is performed. Pinkerton consoles his wife through the aria “Sweetheart, sweetheart, do not weep.” Soon, the couple is all alone and sing the duet, “Night is falling.” The duet continues with “Sweetheart, with eyes..” as the couple becomes consumed with desire. Butterfly sings, “Love me, please” as Pinkerton gently kisses her hands, embracing her.

Act II

Three years have passed, as Suzuki (Butterfly’s maid) prays to the Japanese gods for the safe return of Pinkerton. They are running out of resources and haven’t seen Pinkerton in three years. However, Butterfly is convinced that her husband will return as the song “And Izanagi and Izanami” is performed. However, Suzuki believes that foreign husbands seldom return, and starts to weep. Butterfly comforts her by singing the aria “One fine day we shall see,” saying that her husband’s ship will land in the harbor soon.

Sharpless arrives at the scene, accompanied by the song “She is there. Go in.” He conveys the message that Pinkerton has provided through a letter announcing his marriage to an American woman. However, Butterfly ignores the message and complains about Goro, who has been heckling her with marriage offers from the moment Pinkerton left. One of her suitors, the wealthy Prince Yamadori, enters the house with his entourage. He repeats his proposal, but Butterfly rejects his advances through the aria “Yamadori, are you not yet…” and requests him to stop pursuing her. Goro reminds the bride that Japanese laws, her husband’s abandonment is considered equivalent to a divorce. However, Butterfly states that she is now under the jurisdiction of the United States, where a judge would sentence any erring husband behind bars. Sharpless tells Yamadori that Pinkerton will be arriving soon, but is too ashamed to visit her bride as the latter leaves with a heavy heart.

In the next scene, the aria “Now for us” is performed as Sharpless finally reads Pinkerton’s letter. Butterfly, visibly excited and interrupts joyfully with several questions, as they sing the duet “Two things I could do.” She believes her husband is finally returning. Sharpless, exasperated with Pinkerton’s betrayal, is filled with sorrow and requests Butterfly to consider Yamadori’s proposal. However, the bride is hurt and asks him to leave, lamenting her sorrows through the aria “Ah! He has forgotten me?” She also confesses that she gave birth to Pinkerton’s child shortly after he left. She has named him “Sorrow” but will duly rename him “Joy” once his father returns. He urges Sharpless to convey the news to Pinkerton. Sharpless reciprocates by singing the song “I will go now” and leaves. A cannon shot is heard as the Flower duet “The cannon at the harbor!” announces the arrival of Pinkerton’s ship. Suzuki and Butterfly decorate the house with flowers as they sing, “All the flowers?” Butterfly puts on her wedding dress and awaits Pinkerton’s arrival as the “Humming Chorus” is performed.


The scene starts with the chorus “Heave-ho! Heave-ho!” as the sailors disembark, and the sun rises. “The Sun’s come up!” is heard next as Suzuki awakens. Butterfly still believes his husband will come. She carries her sleeping child inside and falls asleep herself. Sharpless and Pinkerton arrive at the house, accompanied by Kate, Pinkerton’s American wife. The aria “I know that her pain” is rendered as Pinkerton reminisces his first wife. Sharpless urges Suzuki to help them and persuade Butterfly to give her child to Kate, as they cannot help her anymore, but can save the child. He also has stern words for Pinkerton and reminds him of the warning he had meted out years back. The Naval officer is filled with remorse and leaves the house singing, “Farewell, flowery refuge.” 

Kate Pinkerton comes into the room to offer her condolences. Soon, the aria “Suzuki! Suzuki!” is performed as Butterfly calls for Suzuki. Kate instantly leaves as Butterfly enters the room to find a crying Suzuki. She notices Sharpless with an unknown woman in the garden but finds no trace of Pinkerton. As Suzuki tearfully conveys that Pinkerton is alive but will not meet her, she suddenly realizes that the woman is indeed his husband’s new wife. She further perceives that Pinkerton wants her son and offers a counter-proposal which Pinkerton must meet her alone within 30 minutes if he wants his child. She orders Suzuki to take care of the child as the song “Like a little fly” is rendered in the background. She takes out her father’s case and the knife inside and reads the inscription that read - One must die with honor if they fail to live with honor while singing the aria “To die with honor.”

At that moment, her son enters, and she subsequently drops the knife, crying. She sings the aria, “You? You? My little god!’ while taking him in her arms, cuddling and kissing him. She tearfully bids him farewell and gives him an American flag while blindfolding him. She then stabs herself as falls beside him as Pinkerton’s voice is heard outside, calling for her. Sharpless also rushes inside with Pinkerton, but it’s already too late. As Pinkerton falls to his knees, sobbing, Butterfly passes away.

Musical Overview 

The music of “Madama Butterfly” can be described as an emotional rollercoaster. Magnificently crafted pieces of melody that successfully draw out with equal parts nuance, enthusiasm, and sorrow. The whole opera is an aesthetical tableau, a truly exceptional intersection of beauty, emotion, and art. The composer’s effort is visible throughout the journey of all five versions. The fifth and final version is a ruthless and precise exploration of the social exploitation of women by the pleasure-seeking dominant gender. The lack of usage of English allowed him to transcend the inherent humanity of his protagonist “Butterfly” through music.    

Puccini’s score has duly worked its charms, complemented by some fabulous orchestra commentary. In Pinkerton, he has fleshed out one of the most morally bankrupt characters to grace opera. He even expanded the role out of sympathy, as tenors refused to perform it initially. The libretto is unapologetically unequivocal, which further increases the importance of Puccini’s orchestral beauty. The result is a savage masterpiece. It joins the pantheon of operas that profused unquestioning admiration but also faced questions in the more enlightened modern generation. The composer’s work offers one of the most convincing and complete portrayals of music with its brooding, dark and rich tones - and also characters that are somewhat boisterous and laddish, yet vulnerable.

Usage In Popular Culture 

The Toll of the Sea scene

  • In 1915, Sidney Olcott directed a silent film using the same title, starring Mary Pickford.
  • In 1919, Fritz Lang directed “Harakiri,” another silent film version of the opera. It starred Niels Prien, Georg John, and Paul Biensfeldt. 
  • In 1922, “The Toll of the Sea,” another silent film (color) was released based on this opera. The movie was the first to utilize the “Technicolor Process” and the second-ever “Technicolor motion picture.”   
  • In 1931, “Takarazuka Revue,” the all-female Japanese musical group adapted the opera as “Concise Chōchō-san.” 
  • In 1932, a black & white drama was produced by Paramount titled “Madame Butterfly.” This non-singing movie starred Cary Grant and Sylvia Sidney, utilizing major portions of Puccini's original score. 
  • In 1940, a Japanese short film titled “Madame Butterfly's Illusion,” was released. Wagorō Arai directed this 12-minute animated movie. 
  • In 1954, Carmine Gallone directed another screen adaptation of the “Madame Butterfly.” This movie was also shot in Technicolor and starred Japanese actress Kaoru Yachigusa. The film used as Italian opera singers for dubbing. 
  • In 1974, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle directed a German television adaptation of the same title, which starred Plácido Domingo and Mirella Freni. 
  • In 1989, “Miss Saigon,” a Broadway and West End musical, was partly based on the opera. However, the story was set against the backdrop of the Fall of Saigon and the Vietnam War. 
  • In 1995, another movie version of “Madame Butterfly” was directed by Frédéric Mitterrand in Tunisia. The movie starred Ying Huang and Richard Troxell. 
  • In 1995, Stanton Welch, a choreographer, created a ballet version of the opera for The Australian Ballet.
  • In 1996, the rock band drew inspiration from the opera while creating their album titled “Pinkerton.” Masahiko Shimada wrote the libretto. 
  • In 2013, Daniel Keene directed the musical drama “Cho Cho,” based on the opera.

“Madama Butterfly” is now a staple of the operatic repertoire, and can easily be placed in the upper echelons of the greatest ever works in the field. One has to keep in mind; this is the work of a white European man about the death and exploitation of an Asian woman, a person who has never visited Japan. It must also be remembered as one of the most iconic examples of Orientalism. It’s also important to continue grappling with the stories of Madama Butterflies in our society, much like Puccini himself - to honor the empathetic instinct that inspired him to create it. Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” will long continue reducing the audience weep. The display of moral cowardice and remorse in the final scenes are gloriously and empathetically realized. He duly delivers his signature sonorous and vibrant baritone. It’s really an elusive and delicate perfection, the reason we are attracted to operas.


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