Spotlight on: MADAME BUTTERFLY

Madame Butterfly

At Seattle Opera August 2017

Music by Giacomo Puccini
Libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica

The Story

Long Story Short

Japanese maiden weds American sailor, then chooses death over dishonor when he abandons her.

Same Story/New Lens

Seattle Opera has presented Madame Butterfly eight times, most recently in 2012. Since then our community has raised a larger discussion about works in which the composer/librettist team is writing about a culture other than their own (Madame Butterfly is one example, The Mikado is another). This cultural appropriation raises some red flags and is hurtful to some, who see in these operas a perpetuation of stereotypes and a misrepresentation of Japan, Japanese people, and Japanese culture. The company is seizing this opportunity to encourage discussion and deepen its understanding about this important subject matter. Please look for our community events leading up to the performances and please look for our series of blog interviews that open up dialogue and elevate Asian voices in our immediate Seattle community and in the wider artistic community. (For more on this topic, see our “Projection and/or Cultural Appropriation” section below.)

Who’s Who?

Cio-Cio-San, known as Madama Butterfly, is an impoverished 15-year-old.

Suzuki is Butterfly’s faithful servant.

Sharpless is the American Consul in Nagasaki.

Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton is an American naval officer.

Sorrow is Butterfly’s child by Pinkerton.

The Bonze, Butterfly’s uncle, is an unusually intolerant Buddhist priest.

Kate, an American woman, becomes Pinkerton’s “other” wife.

Goro calls himself a “marriage-broker,” though he is really exploiting poor young women.

What's Going On?

While stationed in Nagasaki, Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, a self-styled Casanova, entered into a contract with Goro, who arranges temporary marriages with poor Japanese women for a fee. Goro arranged for Pinkerton to marry Cio-Cio-San and sold him a beautiful house overlooking Nagasaki harbor. As the opera begins, Pinkerton explains the arrangement over drinks with Consul Sharpless, the guest he has invited to his Japanese “wedding.” Sharpless raises a suspicious eyebrow when Pinkerton toasts the day when he’ll finally marry a real American woman.

Cio-Cio-San does not understand that Pinkerton considers their marriage a temporary affair. Her relatives—including her widowed mother, her drunken uncle, and some sisters and cousins —are all happy to have a strong, wealthy man in the family once again; Cio-Cio-San’s father had killed himself, on orders from the Mikado. But another uncle, the Bonze (a Buddhist priest), storms in, interrupts the wedding, and curses Cio-Cio-San for marrying a Christian. The Bonze expels her from the family and leaves with all her relatives in tow. Pinkerton comforts the traumatized Cio-Cio-San, and the two of them express their love.

Three years pass in Nagasaki, during which Cio-Cio-San’s child by Pinkerton grows to be a toddler. Pinkerton departed not long after the wedding. Cio-Cio-San still has faith that he will return for her. Despite the advice of Suzuki and Sharpless and passionate declarations of love from Goro’s latest client, Prince Yamadori, she believes that her marriage is legitimate.

When Cio-Cio-San sights Pinkerton’s ship entering Nagasaki harbor, she strews her house with flowers and stays up all night long waiting for him. He arrives the next morning, with his American wife, Kate. They’ve come to collect Pinkerton’s son in order to raise him in America. No one is brave enough to tell Cio-Cio-San why Pinkerton has returned. When she figures it out, she says goodbye to her son, then takes her most precious family heirloom—the dagger the Mikado had sent to her father—and uses it as he did.

Listen For

Huge voices, titanic passions

Puccini wrote for a big, post-Wagner orchestra, a sizeable chorus, and singers with voices powerful enough to slice through the thick tapestry the orchestra is weaving.

The Cast

Cio-Cio-San sings a dazzling entrance, her famous and familiar “Un bel di,” the heartbreaking aria “Che tua madre,” her devastating death scene, and lots more. Pinkerton never leaves the stage in Act One; he must be suave and seductive, callous and cold. Suzuki and Sharpless don’t sing arias, but both sing crucial duets with the leads and a trio (with each other and Pinkerton).

Eastern & Western music

Puccini studied up on traditional Japanese music, based on the five-note pentatonic scale, and incorporated some authentic Japanese melodies into his score to characterize Cio-Cio-San and her world. (For Pinkerton he uses our brash “Star-Spangled Banner”—America’s naval hymn, not national anthem, at the time this opera was composed.) Consider possible pitfalls for an opera composer using the music of another culture.

Butterfly Up All Night

Acts Two and Three of Madame Butterfly are played without a break; we hear the famous pentatonic “Humming Chorus” (sung offstage by the chorus), then an extended orchestral passage detailing first Cio-Cio-San’s turbulent emotional state and then the sounds of Nagasaki waking up at dawn, complete with noisy birdcalls. Meanwhile, onstage, Butterfly has been up all night waiting for Pinkerton to return.

Where, When, & Why was this Opera Written?

Madame Butterfly was based on the play by David Belasco (pictured above).

Opera titan Giacomo Puccini wrote Madame Butterfly in the first few years of the twentieth century, for La Scala, the big opera house in Milan.

Puccini was blown away when he watched David Belasco’s play dramatizing this story, even though he didn’t understand English. He asked Belasco for permission to turn the play into an opera that very night. The composer found the character of Cio-Cio-San extremely sympathetic and appealing, and knew that her tragedy would inspire his musical creativity. The Japanese setting also struck him as new and intriguing. He had written several operas with subjects drawn from European history and was leery of repeating himself.

Butterfly’s premiere was a disaster. Puccini’s two previous operas, La bohème and Tosca, had been so successful he now had many enemies, who booed and hissed and disrupted the performance. Also, Italian operagoers were used to tenors playing loveable romantic heroes, not immature cowards like Pinkerton, and many had trouble accepting the character. Puccini revised the opera extensively, making Pinkerton less overtly racist and softening his character somewhat by giving him an aria (for the final scene) of nostalgia and remorse.

Where'd They get this Story?

In the late 1800s, stories about romances (doomed or not) between western men and eastern women became extremely popular in the West. This Italian opera derives from an American play, which was itself based on an American novella loosely inspired by something that really happened.

The story became increasingly sentimental and tragic as it evolved from life to prose to drama to opera:

Life

In Pierre Loti’s autobiographical Madame Chrysanthemum (1893), the French sailor leaves his Japanese wife, but the wife has no problem with the husband’s departure. He’s the one with the regrets. “The fear that I might be leaving her in some sadness had almost given me a pang, and I infinitely prefer that this marriage should end as it had begun, in a joke.”

Prose

In John Luther Long’s novella, Madame Butterfly (1898) Cho-Cho-San considers suicide, and goes so far as to put a dagger to her neck; but she reconsiders, and disappears with her son so Mrs. Pinkerton cannot take him.

Drama

In David Belasco’s one-act play, Madame Butterfly (1900), the heroine commits suicide; Pinkerton cradles her, calling out her name, and the last line is hers as she dies: “Too bad those robins didn’t nes’ again.”

Opera

In Puccini’s opera, she commits suicide. Pinkerton runs in, crying “Butterfly! Butterfly!” The orchestra thunders out a pentatonic tune we heard in Act Two, ending it with an unexpected, and terrifyingly unresolved, major chord.

Projection and/or Cultural Appropriation

La Japonaise (Camille Monet in Japanese Costume) by Claude Monet

Like much European art that uses Asian cultures, Madame Butterfly involves both cultural appropriation—where the creators helped themselves to elements of a foreign culture—and projection—where the characters may be from distant lands, but the creators are really writing about their own culture.

Puccini was curious about Japan, but didn’t have much access to Japanese people or Japanese culture. Instead, he projected; using a character who was superficially Japanese, he wrote music exploring his own feelings about men and women and sex and motherhood and marriage. The sexual politics of Puccini’s Catholic Italy, with its images of the Cross and two Marys, shine through his Japan. Orientalism—indulging in romantic notions about faraway places—was hugely popular in Puccini’s world, since it allowed European artists to deal with issues (particularly despotism, sexuality, and their intersection) otherwise taboo in European society.

However, an artist who helps himself to images originating from a different culture (i.e., appropriating that culture) is likely to misrepresent that culture, or perpetuate stereotypes, or even encourage racism. Some examples from Butterfly: Cio-Cio-San seems to think that being a geisha is dancing in the streets for money and living a vagabond lifestyle, when really the role in Japan is a highly refined entertainer. Her intolerant uncle, the Bonze, is a plot point borrowed from other western operas, not an authentic representation of Japanese religious attitudes. And Puccini’s concept of honor suicide draws more from ancient Rome than it does from contemporary Japan.

Since Puccini’s day, Western artists have created dozens of variations on Butterfly’s stereotypical east-west romance, including the hit musical Miss Saigon by Boublil and Schönberg. The King and I, by Rodgers and Hammerstein, swaps the genders (it concerns a European woman and an Asian man), but the story’s chauvinistic sex-role stereotypes are still in place. It took Asian American playwright David Henry Hwang’s thought-provoking M. Butterfly to turn this old myth on its head. In Hwang’s version, based on a true story, a French diplomat with a Chinese mistress incorrectly assumes his lover is a woman (when he’s really a man, and a spy).

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