A cheat’s guide to the beautiful opera Madama Butterfly.
Who was the composer?
One of the grand old men of Italian opera, Puccini composed some of the world’s most famous operas: La bohème, Tosca, Turandot and Madama Butterfly.
You know you’re listening to Puccini when the music is full of big, sweeping melodies, and the stories are about ordinary people – someone you or I might know, or be, if we were in another situation.
Prepare to cry your eyes out – the composer himself once said his success as an opera composer was due to putting “great sorrows in little souls”, and he wasn’t wrong.
What happens in the story?
The American businessman, Pinkerton is exploring the world in the name of business and pleasure. “Life is not worth living if I can’t win the best and fairest of each country,” he declares. He sets his sights on the best and fairest of this land: the stunning Japanese beauty Cio-Cio-San.
Pinkerton is fascinated by her exotic beauty and marries her on sight, while Cio-Cio-San, enthralled by his American ways and promise of a modern life in America, falls wholeheartedly in love with the stranger. But Pinkerton already has a foot out the door, looking forward to the day he will marry “a real wife, a wife from America.”
Years pass, and Cio-Cio-San waits faithfully for her husband’s return from distant shores. Long abandoned by her family, she is alone with her servant Suzuki and a living memento of her American love. She refuses all offers of marriage, singing of her great hope for the day Pinkerton will return. The faithful Suzuki tries in vain to convince her to abandon hope.
But when his ship comes in, Pinkerton is not alone. As dawn breaks, what will become of Butterfly’s great hope?
Who are the main players?
Cio-Cio-San: (nickname Butterfly), a former geisha.
B.F. Pinkerton: an American businessman.
Suzuki: Butterfly’s devoted maid.
Sharpless: The US Consul in Japan.
What’s the big hit?
The heartbreaking Un Bel Di Vedremo (One Beautiful Day) is the aria that every soprano dreams of singing. Butterfly is imagining the day her beloved Pinkerton will return – but even as the music soars with her eternal optimism, there is a suggestion of melancholy in Puccini’s score, foreshadowing the morning.
Where have I heard that?
Butterfly’s music is used to startling effect in Fatal Attraction.
Something to listen out for?
You can’t miss the famous strains of The Star Spangled Banner, which plays as the American Pinkerton waits for his Japanese bride and again as Butterfly dreams of her American life.
There’s plenty of Japanese influence in Puccini’s score, too – he includes Japanese bells and tam-tams in the orchestra and uses the pentatonic scale to create an “exotic” sound.
This production is…?
… a special creation for this year’s Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour.
Spanish creative powerhouse La Fura dels Baus has created a stunning contemporary world for Puccini’s tragic opera, believing the story of Madama Butterfly is one that could take place anywhere in the world today.
Director Àlex Ollé says Cio-Cio-San is today’s young woman. “She happens to fall in love with the wrong person – Pinkerton is perhaps today’s businessman or developer – who thinks everything has a price and can be purchased.”
You can read more about the creative vision here.
A little history
Puccini was in the audience in London to see David Balasco’s one-act play Madam Butterfly in 1900. He was captivated, and wrote to the publisher, “The more I think about Butterfly, the more exited I become. Ah, if only I had it here with me to work on!”
The resulting opera gathers together Balasco’s play (based on John Luther Long’s short story) and material from Pierre Loti’s novel Madama Chrysanthème to create the full, three-act tale of Cio-Cio-San’s betrayal.
When Butterfly premiered in 1904, it was a fiasco. Puccini described it as “a real lynching… an orgy of lunatics, drunk on hate”.
He reworked the opera, adding Pinkerton’s agonised “Addio, fiorito asil” aria to the music and making theatrical changes to give Butterfly both more dignity and a greater isolation, to add to the final tragedy.
Puccini rewrote it five times – and the fifth and final is the one usually performed around the world.
- Puccini was quite the Pinkerton himself – a womaniser who had quite a reputation among the ladies.
- He wrote the opera at a time when his marriage was falling apart, as news of his recent affairs broke.
- The composer himself believed it was his best: “the most heartfelt and evocative opera I have ever conceived”.
You can find a wonderful overview of the opera here.
For more information and tickets to this production, click here.
Charlotte Moore helped research this resource.