Opera North Blog

Madama Butterfly in a nutshell

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Everything you need to know about Madama Butterfly in one place – right here!

What is the story?

Madama Butterfly is a heartbreaking tale of love crushed between two utterly different cultures. In Nagasaki, Japan, Lieutenant Pinkerton of the US Navy is purchasing a house which comes with a bride – the young geisha girl Cio-Cio-San. This is a conveniently non-committal arrangement for him as, according to Japanese law, a marriage is declared over if the husband has been absent for more than a month. The US Consul Sharpless warns Pinkerton that although he is not taking the marriage seriously, to Cio-Cio-San it is real.

At the wedding, the high priest denounces Cio-Cio-San for converting to Christianity in order to marry Pinkerton, and her family and friends follow suit and turn against her, but Butterfly – naïve and deeply in love – is content with her new husband and new life.

Three years later, Pinkerton has long since vanished, and Cio-Cio-San, her young son and loyal servant Suzuki are living in poverty. In spite of appearances, she is utterly convinced that he will return – and at long last, he does, but with a new American wife and devastating consequences…

For a full synopsis, visit the Madama Butterfly webpage » The Story​

Who are the characters?

Cio-Cio-San, Madama Butterfly (soprano)
B.F. Pinkerton, Lieutenant in the US Navy (tenor)
Sharpless, US Consul at Nagasaki (baritone)
Suzuki, Cio-Cio-San’s servant (mezzo-soprano)
Goro, a matchmaker (tenor)

Members of the chorus take the role of Cio-Cio-San’s relatives and friends, and we also meet the Bonze (high priest), Pinkerton’s American wife Kate and Cio-Cio-San’s son Sorrow, who is played by a child.

What is the music like?

Just like the story, Madama Butterfly’s music is a fusion of East and West. As well as delicate, oriental colours in the orchestra, Puccini weaves in traditional Japanese tunes, including ‘Miyasan’ (heard at the arrival of Butterfly’s suitor Yamadori) and ‘The Lion of Echigo Province’ (associated with Cio-Cio-San throughout the opera). By contrast, Pinkerton is characterised by snippets of the American national anthem ‘The Star Spangled Banner’.

The opera’s big hit is ‘Un bel dì’ (‘One fine day’), in which Cio-Cio-San describes what it will be like when Pinkerton finally returns. It opens with a hushed soprano line floating high above the orchestra, just like the smoke above the horizon from Pinkerton's returning ship. But the aria gathers incredible force and passion, showing Butterfly’s strength and determination at the devastating climax ‘aspetto’ (I wait), backed up by the full orchestra.

Listen out for the famous ‘Humming Chorus’ hummed by the Chorus (as it the name suggests!) offstage while Cio-Cio-San, her son and Suzuki keep their all-night vigil, waiting for Pinkerton to arrive. The interlude provides a moment of serenity in the opera — the calm before the storm… 

What is this production like?

Tim Albery’s critically acclaimed production of Madama Butterfly (new in 2007) focusses on telling the story of this classic tragedy. The set has an authentically Japanese feel with clean, uncluttered lines and in Act I, Cio-Cio-San’s friends wear traditional, colourful Japanese dress – all without false oriental glamour.

In Act II, however, we see that in Pinkerton’s absence Cio-Cio-San has embraced Western culture in her quest to be a real ‘American woman’, adopting a 1920s hairstyle and dress with fashion magazine cuttings and a US flag adorning her walls – a device with incredible pathos. And although the opera centres around a hideous abuse of local customs, this production reveals a two-way cultural exchange, as indicated by the Western suit worn by marriage broker Goro and the Japanese footwear worn by Sharpless... 

To see more photos, visit the Madama Butterfly webpage » Gallery

Who was the composer?

Madama Butterfly was written by possibly the most famous operatic composer of all – Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924). The libretto is by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, who both also worked with Puccini on his huge successes La bohème and Tosca.

On a trip to a London theatre in 1900, Puccini saw US playwright David Belasco’s Madame Butterfly: A Tragedy of Japan, and despite speaking no English, immediately recognized the story’s dramatic potential. This play had been inspired by a short story by John Luther Long – a story based on a real-life incident witnessed by the author’s sister, who had encountered a Japanese girl nicknamed ‘Miss Butterfly’ who was deserted by an American lover (so at the opera’s heart is a true story!)

Puccini’s Madama Butterfly premiered in 1904, but incredibly, it was a disaster and he withdrew it. Ever the perfectionist, he revised the opera not once, but four times until in 1907, it became the version we know and love today.

Did you know?

  • Madama Butterfly is now one of most popular operas of all time. According to Operabase, it is the sixth most most frequently performed opera worldwide! 
  • Puccini’s opera has influenced a myriad of different responses in popular culture, including Boublil and Schönberg’s musical phenomenon Miss Saigon (which is to Butterfly what West Side Story is to Romeo and Juliet) and less famously, indie rock band Weezer’s album Pinkerton (which draws interesting parallels between the life of a touring musician and Cio-Cio-San's absent husband).  
  • When asked what makes Madama Butterfly such an emotionally resonant piece, Puccini replied 'Great griefs in small souls... not too much psychology but sympathetic understanding of human grief. To make the world weep – therein lies everything'. Bring your tissues!

Madama Butterfly is sung in Italian with English titles, and lasts approximately 2 hours 30 minutes. For more info, visit the Madama Butterfly webpage. Join in on social media with #ONButterfly and #FatalPassions.

In a nutshell is a blog series devised by Opera North.


Images:
Madama Butterfly artwork © Opera North 2017
Pamela Tobin as 'Sorrow' and Anne Sophie Duprels as Cio-Cio-San © Robert Workman 2011
Anne Sophie Duprels as Cio-Cio-San and Noah Stewart as Pinkerton © Robert Workman 2011
Geraldine Farrar as Madama Butterfly, 1907

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