Plot & Creation: Madama Butterfly
An opera in two acts, sung in Italian
Music by Giacomo Puccini
Libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica
The play Madame Butterfly by David Belasco
David Belasco was a Broadway impresario and playwright whose innovations in theater technology, including the use of spotlights and variations in colored lighting, were groundbreaking for the age. His 1900 stage play Madame Butterfly was based on a short story by John Luther Long, which itself was modeled after the novel Madame Chrysanthème by Pierre Loti. Drawing on his experience as a French naval officer, Loti structured Madame Chrysanthème as a semi-autobiographical work detailing his service in Nagasaki and dalliance with a local “temporary wife.” Loti’s works are typically set in exotic locales in the Near or Far East and frequently explore the conflict between romantic distractions and duty. Long’s short story similarly features a lieutenant in the U.S. navy who marries a young geisha and then leaves her. Both Loti and Belasco have Butterfly communicate in a primitive, pidgin English. Unlike its literary predecessors, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly casts its heroine in a fully sympathetic light, free from the caricature that mars Loti, Long, and Belasco’s works.
Act I: Japan, early 20th century
Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton of the U.S. Navy inspects a house overlooking Nagasaki harbor that he is leasing from Goro, a marriage broker. The house comes with three servants and a geisha wife named Cio-Cio-San, known as Madame Butterfly. The lease runs for 999 years, subject to monthly renewal. The American consul Sharpless arrives breathless from climbing the hill. Pinkerton describes his philosophy of the fearless Yankee roaming the world in search of experience and pleasure. He is not sure whether his feelings for the young girl are love or a whim, but he intends to go through with the marriage ceremony. Sharpless warns him that the girl may view the marriage differently, but Pinkerton brushes off such concerns and says that someday he will take a “real,” American wife. He offers the consul whiskey and proposes a toast. Cio-Cio-San is heard climbing the hill with her friends for the ceremony. In casual conversation after the formal introduction, she admits her age, 15, and explains that her family was once prominent but lost its position, and she has had to earn her living as a geisha. Her relatives arrive and gossip about the marriage. Cio-Cio-San shows Pinkerton her very few possessions, and quietly tells him she has been to the Christian mission and will embrace her husband’s religion. The Imperial Commissioner reads the marriage agreement, and the relatives congratulate the couple. Suddenly, a threatening voice is heard from afar—it is the Bonze, Cio-Cio-San’s uncle, a priest. He curses the girl for going to the Christian mission and rejecting her ancestral religion. Pinkerton orders the guests to leave, and as they go, the Bonze and the shocked relatives denounce Cio-Cio-San. Pinkerton tries to console her with sweet words. She is helped by Suzuki into her wedding kimono, and she joins Pinkerton in the house.
Act II—Part 1
Three years have passed, and Cio-Cio-San awaits her husband’s return. Suzuki prays to the gods for help, but Cio-Cio-San berates her for believing in lazy Japanese gods rather than in Pinkerton’s promise to return one day. Sharpless appears with a letter from Pinkerton, but before he can read it to Cio-Cio-San, Goro arrives with the latest potential husband for her, the wealthy Prince Yamadori. Cio-Cio-San politely serves the guests tea but insists she is not available for marriage—her American husband has not deserted her. She dismisses Goro and Yamadori. Sharpless attempts to read Pinkerton’s letter, but Cio-Cio-San keeps interrupting him with questions. He then asks her what she would do if Pinkerton never came back. With dark foreboding, she responds that she could do one of two things: go back to her life as a geisha, or better yet, die. Sharpless suggests that perhaps Cio-Cio-San should reconsider Yamadori’s offer. “And this?” asks the outraged Cio-Cio-San, showing the consul her small son. Sharpless is too upset to tell her more of the letter’s contents. He leaves, promising to tell Pinkerton of the child. A cannon shot is heard in the harbor announcing the arrival of a ship. Cio-Cio-San and Suzuki take a telescope to the terrace and read the name of Pinkerton’s ship. Overjoyed, Cio-Cio-San joins Suzuki in strewing the house with flower petals from the garden. Night falls, and Cio-Cio-San, Suzuki, and the child settle into a vigil watching over the harbor.
Act II—Part 2
Dawn breaks, and Suzuki insists that Cio-Cio-San get some sleep. Cio-Cio-San carries the child into another room. Sharpless appears with Pinkerton and Kate, Pinkerton’s new wife. Suzuki realizes who the American woman is and agrees to help break the news to Cio-Cio-San. Pinkerton is overcome with guilt and runs from the scene, pausing to remember his days in the little house. Cio-Cio-San rushes in hoping to find Pinkerton—only to find Kate instead. Grasping the situation, she agrees to give up the child but insists Pinkerton return for him. Dismissing everyone, Butterfly takes out the dagger with which her father committed suicide, choosing to die with honor rather than live in shame. She is interrupted momentarily when the child comes in, but Butterfly says goodbye to him and blindfolds him. She stabs herself as Pinkerton calls her name.
Japan establishes the policy of sakoku, which closes the country to immigration and emigration and strictly limits foreign trade to a small number of designated locations. The only location open to trade with Europe is a Dutch trading post at Dejima, a man-made island off the coast of Nagasaki.
Japan is compelled to open two of its ports to U.S. trade through the Kanagawa Treaty, after the U.S. Navy, led by Commodore Matthew Perry, infiltrates Tokyo harbor with four warships. The Kanagawa Treaty effectively ends Japan’s century-long foreign policy of seclusion and border closure.
Giacomo Puccini is born on December 22 in Lucca, Tuscany, to a family of church musicians.
Puccini begins training in music at the local music institute, studying with his uncle, Fortunato Magi. He soon begins learning the scores of Verdi’s operas.
Puccini’s exemplary musical gifts earn him entry to the Milan Conservatory, the most prestigious musical academy in Italy. In addition to his formal studies, he comes into contact with the bohemian and anti-conformist group of artists known as the Scapigliati (literally “the disheveled ones”). There, he meets many of the leading writers and intellectuals of the day.
Puccini composes his first opera, Le Villi, which is first performed in a private recital at the home of a member of the Scapigliati. Among those present are the composer Pietro Mascagni, who plays double bass in the orchestra, and Arrigo Boito, who had just become Verdi’s collaborator and was working on the libretto to Otello. Impressed with Puccini’s talent, the music publisher Giulio Ricordi enters an exclusive contract with the composer and provides him with a monthly stipend to concentrate on composition. For the rest of Puccini’s life, Ricordi acts as mentor and friend to the composer.
The French naval officer and travel writer Pierre Loti publishes Madame Chrysanthème, a semi-autobiographical account of his brief relationship with a geisha while stationed in Nagasaki. Loti’s work colors the popular Western understanding of Japan for years to come.
Puccini achieves his first major success with the premiere of Manon Lescaut on February 1 at the Teatro Regio in Turin.
John Luther Long publishes the short story Madame Butterfly, which is adapted from Madame Chrysanthème, in the periodical Century Magazine.
Puccini visits London for the Covent Garden premiere of Tosca on July 12. While there, he attends a performance at the Duke of York’s theater of the play Madame Butterfly, written by the American impresario David Belasco and based on Long’s story. Immediately upon returning home to Milan, Puccini asks his publisher to obtain the rights to Belasco’s play.
Puccini officially acquires the rights to Madame Butterfly from Belasco in September and begins developing a scenario with his frequent collaborators Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica.
Puccini’s work on Madama Butterfly is interrupted when he is seriously injured in a car accident. (A lifelong technology enthusiast, he was among the first Italians to own a car.) The long duration of his convalescence with a broken leg is due, as he would learn later, to an undiagnosed case of diabetes.
Madama Butterfly premieres at La Scala in Milan on February 17. Despite a starry cast, the performance is a disaster, with critics accusing Puccini of plagiarism. He immediately withdraws the score. After a series of revisions, Madama Butterfly finds great success elsewhere in Italy and abroad, although it is never again seen at La Scala during Puccini’s lifetime.
Puccini’s fourth revision of Madama Butterfly is performed at the Opéra Comique in Paris on December 28. This is the version commonly performed today.
While in Brussels for treatment of throat cancer, Puccini dies on November 29. His funeral at Milan's cathedral is attended by fellow musicians, dignitaries, and ambassadors from around the globe.