• Crossed Cultures





STEPS Many Italian operas of the 19th and early 20th centuries take place in other lands, at other historical times. Madama Butterfly stands out for three reasons. First, it premiered in 1904 and it takes place in 1904, giving the work an almost journalistic quality. Second, although written and composed by Italians, in the Italian language and in a distinctly Italian form of the operatic art, it’s entirely about the interaction of two “exotic” cultures: set in Japan with none but Japanese and a smattering of English-speaking American “Yankee” characters. (They even occasionally speak Italianized versions of their native tongues!) Third, the creators worked hard to present these two cultures “authentically,” incorporating both words and music that were (at least intended to be) genuinely Japanese and American.

This activity offers students an opportunity to listen closely and consider whether Puccini and his librettists were simply using foreign cultures because they’re interesting, or whether they were making a more substantive point.

Step 1: Madama Butterfly is broadly about the interaction of Americans with Japanese people in Nagasaki, Japan. The major characters are:

  • Pinkerton, an American man visiting Japan
  • Sharpless, an American man based permanently in Japan, representing the U.S. government
  • Cio-Cio-San, a Japanese woman who, by changing her religion and name, tries to cross into American society (while remaining, undeniably, in Japan)
  • A variety of other Japanese characters, including
    – Suzuki, Cio-Cio-San’s companion, worldly but grounded in Japanese tradition
    – Goro, who represents Japanese culture to Americans and seeks the participation of his compatriots
    – Yamadori, a wealthy Japanese with no obvious interest in the United States. (Cio-Cio-San’s family, especially her uncle Bonze, also represent aspects of Japanese culture, though no examples of their music happen to be included in this activity.)

This activity presents musical selections associated with each of these characters with a specific purpose in mind—to ask whether Puccini and his collaborators intended not only to tell a moving tale, but to say something broader about Japan, the United States, and the relationships between their cultures in the year the opera premiered, 1904. Students will engage in detective work. The music will provide the evidence; students should keep notes as they listen and discuss.

The first step involves moments in Madama Butterfly where Puccini presents “sounds of America.” By and large, that means reference to a single song. See if your students can recognize it in Track 1.

Hard to miss, right? The orchestra plays the first few notes of “The Star-Spangled Banner” right before Pinkerton, then Sharpless, sing “America Forever.” But it’s the context that makes this especially interesting. Pinkerton has just told Sharpless that, under Japanese law, he will be “married for 999 years,” but can annul the marriage any month he wants. Sharpless tells him that’s an easy-going attitude: Track 2. Why do your students think Illica and Giacosa have Pinkerton and Sharpless toast the U.S. here? Why might Puccini have chosen this point to bring in a patriotic American song?


A few minutes later, Sharpless tells Pinkerton that he should be careful and not trifle with Cio-Cio-San’s affections. Pinkerton interrupts him to offer a glass of whiskey, and in Track 3, Sharpless follows through with a toast: “Bevo alla vostra famiglia lontana” (“Let’s drink to your faraway  family”). Have your students listen carefully to the orchestration beneath Sharpless’s toast. Do the first few notes sound familiar...like the line about “and the home of the brave” in “The Star-Spangled Banner?” Why might Puccini fold this bit of music into Sharpless’s toast? Homesickness? A reminder? Some kind of warning?

The next bit of evidence turns up in Act II. Goro, Yamadori and Sharpless are discussing the fact that Cio-Cio-San still believes herself married to Pinkerton, who left Japan many years ago. Goro tells Cio-Cio-San that, as an abandoned wife, she is divorced according to the law. She replies in Track 4: “La legge giapponese non gia del mio paese” (“Japanese law doesn’t apply in my country”). Notice the melody to which she sings “non gia del mio paese.” Goro asks what country she’s referring to, and Cio-Cio-San replies, at the end of the track, “Gli stati uniti” (“the United States”).

America becomes increasingly prominent in Cio-Cio-San’s sense of herself, communicated musically. It takes about ten more minutes for her to understand that Sharpless is telling her Pinkerton has abandoned her,  and she responds in disbelief, in Track 5: “Ah!...m’ha scordata?”(“He forgot me?”). An orchestral flourish follows, and she continues, “E questo?” (“And this one?”)—referring to her and Pinkerton’s son. She repeats that phrase three times. Students should pay close attention to the bars of music between the second and third “E questo?”—a rushed, cataclysmic rendition of the line “that our flag was still there,” again from “The Star- Spangled Banner.” Might Puccini have been comparing the persistence extolled in the American song to Cio-Cio-San’s insistence that Pinkerton would return? Do your students believe the sentiment to be sincere? Ironic? Insulting?

Moments later, Cio-Cio-San begs Sharpless to write Pinkerton and tell him about their son: “Ma voi gli scriverete che l’aspetta un figlio senza pari” (“You must write and tell him that an incomparable son awaits him”). “E mi saprete dir s’ei non s’affretta per le terre e pei mari!” (“As soon as he hears that, he’ll rush here by land and sea”). In Track 6, listen carefully to the accompaniment in the second line as she sings “mi saprete”—a strain of “by the dawn’s early light” which wells up like a typhoon at the end of the track.

But Cio-Cio-San understands full well that she is not fully American. A bit earlier in Act II, she and Suzuki smoke a traditional Japanese pipe together. She offers Sharpless a puff. When he demurs, she realizes he might “prefer American cigarettes.” But listen in Track 7 as this thought dawns on her: she’s thinking about American culture, but her perspective, expressed musically, is entirely Japanese.

Step 2: Cio-Cio-San’s offer of American cigarettes to a Japanese melody is something of a transitional moment in Madama Butterfly. More often, Puccini employs Japanese-style music to associate sentiments directly with Japan itself. Take for example the moment, shortly after the offer of cigarettes, when Cio-Cio-San describes herself as “the happiest woman in Japan”: “Io son la donna più lieta del Giappone,” Track 8, sung to a merry snatch of Asian melody.

A bit later, Cio-Cio-San’s Japanese suitor, Yamadori, enters to a jaunty theme borrowed from the Imperial Japanese Army: Track 9.

Puccini does not always use Japanese music to convey such merriment. Listen to Track 10, from early in Act I. Here, the officious Goro is making  a somewhat off-color insinuation about Pinkerton’s upcoming encounter with Cio-Cio-San: “Quanto alla discendenza, provvederanno assai Vostra Grazia e la bella Butterfly” (“As regards descendents, Your Grace and the beautiful Butterfly will take care of those”). Is this a simple joke between him and Pinkerton? Is there a nasty undertone? Why do your students think Puccini set this particular comment to a Japanese melody?

Cio-Cio-San sings a similar melody in Act II, reporting to Sharpless how Goro has been trying to marry her off ever since Pinkerton sailed away: Track 11. “Goro, appena B.F. Pinkerton fu in mare, mi venne ad assediare con ciarle e con presenti per ridarmi ora questo or quel marito” (“As soon as B.F. Pinkerton set off to sea, Goro has come every day with sweet words and gifts, suggesting each time this or that husband”). Do your students find any significance in Puccini’s decision to use Japanese melodies in connection with the convention of arranged (if temporary) marriage?

These are not the darkest associations to Japan in Puccini’s music. Back in Act I, before their wedding, Cio-Cio-San tells Pinkerton and the assembled a bit of her family history, in Track 12. Here are the words and translation:

Nessuno si confessa mai nato in povertà
e non c’è vagabondo che a sentirlo non sia di gran prosapia.
Eppure conobbi la ricchezza.
Ma il turbine rovescia le quercie più robuste.

No one admits that he was born poor,
and the humblest vagabond will say he was born of nobility.
The fact is that we were once rich.
But when storms begin to rage, even mighty oaks fall down.

The melody, in a minor key, indicates that all has not always been happiness for the happiest woman in Japan. A few minutes later, when the time comes to show Pinkerton her few personal possessions, a melancholy strain underlies her offer, “Io vorrei … pochi oggetti … da donna … sono qui … vi dispiace” (“I’d like … a few small things … a woman’s … they’re right here … you don’t mind?”): Track 13.

Ultimately, when Cio-Cio-San faces the worst, her thoughts sound entirely Japanese. Not long after “The Star-Spangled Banner” ornamented  her thoughts of Pinkerton swiftly returning to see his beautiful son, she contemplates the possibility that he may indeed never come. In Track 14, she imagines begging on the street: “E alle impietosite genti, la man tremante stenderà” (“A trembling hand will stretch out to the heartless people”). The melody is both plaintive and unmistakably Asian.

That melody recurs moments later, in Track 15, as Cio-Cio-San imagines herself returning to the life of a dancing, singing geisha: “E Butterfly, orribile destino, danzerà per te! È come fece già—la geisha canterà!” (“And so Butterfly—with horrific destiny—will dance for you, and as in the past, the geisha will sing!”).

This is not the most ominous note Puccini associates with Japan. In Act I, when Cio-Cio-San shows Pinkerton the dagger with which her father committed ritual suicide, Puccini underscores the moment with the dark theme heard in Track 16.

That theme recurs powerfully in Act III, as Cio-Cio-San herself prepares to use the ritual dagger: Track 17. Her words here are, “Con onor muore chi non può serbar vita con onore” (“Let one who cannot live with honor, die with honor”).

The dagger melody actually concludes the entire opera—after Pinkerton discovers that she has killed herself: Track 18.

Step 3: Having listened to all the selections, now might be a good time to review—and to consider any underlying messages. Why might Cio-Cio- San’s sad refrains be so unmistakably Japanese in tone? Why do her more hopeful moments involve the same bits of American music as Pinkerton’s macho boasting? Can differences be heard between “The Star-Spangled Banner” accents of Pinkerton’s, Sharpless’s, and Cio-Cio-San’s music? In short, do your students believe Puccini is telling us something—or is he simply using Japanese-ish melodies for Japanese characters and American bits for born and would-be Americans?

FOLLOW-UP: Your students may enjoy arguing their viewpoints on Puccini’s multicultural music. As appropriate, you might assign them essays or have them prepare a debate on the topic for a future class session. A more pointed approach might be to have them debate one of these questions:

  • Was Giacomo Puccini anti-American?

  • Is Madama Butterfly culturally insensitive to Japan and its people?