Madama Butterfly is Puccini at his most restrained. A single setting, a relatively simple plot, and a
strongly drawn lead pair around whom the narrative spins. There are a fair number of smaller roles, but don’t worry
about keeping track of them, especially all of Butterfly’s relatives - even Puccini unnamed some of them while
revising the story. There is also very limited chorus action, so if you are familiar with other Puccini operas,
such as Turandot, don’t go in expecting such
spectacle, you may be disappointed.
Madama Butterfly at the Royal Opera House
That said, it’s a highly accessible and listenable opera, much more so than Turandot on the first go,
and there are plenty of top draw tunes to be heard. Pick of the bunch, at least in fame terms, is “Un Bel Di
Vedremo,” which means “One good day, we will see.” This gets wheeled out by many a soprano for recital purposes
but in context, right at the start of Act II, it’s as sad as it is beautiful. The tenor’s music is somewhat less
subtle and in fact rather potently blunt. The first big number of the evening is the absolutely thriling tune
“Dovunque al mondo,” or “Throughout the world.” It is built on top of “The Star Spangled Banner”, which you
should be able to pick out fairly easily in the clip below.
The opening passage of Dovunque al mondo
Other highlights include the endings of all three acts which comprise an extended love duet, a beautiful chorus,
and an operatic staple, the suicide aria.
A Lieutenant in the US Navy. A morally dubious type who marries Cio-Cio San on what he considers a
short term lease.
The title role. A naive, 15 year old Japanese girl.
Nominally a match-maker but apparently a real estate agent as well. Rather a slimey chap with little
sympathy or care for Cio-Cio San.
Pinkerton’s new American wife. Only pitches up briefly in the second half, likeable but you’re
unlikely to like her anyway.
A wealthy chap whom Cio-Cio San rather rudely dismisses
The US Consul to Nagasaki. A kindly man and the voice of reason to Pinkerton but sadly
Pinkerton and Butterfly’s son.
Cio-Cio San’s maid. Fiercely loyal to Butterfly and vastly more aware of the tragedy unfolding.
Cio-Cio San’s Uncle. A small role only, he only briefly appears to chastise Cio-Cio San for
abandoning her religion in converting to Pinkerton’s Christianity.
Act I - Running Time: 55 mins
The curtain rises on Lieutenant Pinkerton and Goro inspecting the house that Pinkerton
has leased in Nagasaki while he is stationed in Japan. Goro shows him around, there’s
much fuss made over the sliding walls, and introduces him to the household staff
including Suzuki, Butterfly’s maid.
Sharpless, the US Consul, arrives, all out of breath from climbing the hill to the house.
They discuss Pinkerton’s situation and the topic of Butterfly soon arises. Sharpless
warns Pinkerton that Butterfly is taking the marriage very seriously but Pinkerton
dismisses these concerns with a good whack of American bravura and whiskey (in the
roistering good tune “Dovunque al mondo”). Despite his Butterfly infatuation, he is
already thinking of his future American bride. The scene is set for our tragedy!
We hear Madam Butterfly for the first time. She is coming up the hill full of joy for her
impending wedding. She arrives with her friends and approaches Pinkerton. In the ensuing
dialogue we learn that Butterfly comes from a wealthy family but now makes a living
working as a Geisha, which it should be pointed out doesn’t mean prostitute.
Butterfly arrives, San Antonio Opera
The relatives all arrive and amongst much wittering it becomes clear there is some
serious friction. Pinkerton delivers yet more crass lines about how brief he is
expecting the marriage to be, whilst Butterfly professes to her family how deeply she is
in love. Just before the wedding Butterfly tells Pinkerton that she has converted to
Christianity for him and shows him some of her most important possessions including a
box whose contents she will not reveal. Goro tells him it contains the dagger that was
sent to her father from the Mikado to commit seppuku (a rather nasty form of suicide
that’s meant to maintain one’s honour).
The wedding begins and ends rather efficiently and Sharpless, offering one final warning to
Pinkerton about Butterfly’s love, leaves the party. The celebrations don’t last long before
Butterfly’s uncle, the Bonze, storms in and starts hurling insults. He has learned of her
conversion and curses her for it. Pinkerton tries to protect her and in the process all the
rest of the relatives turn on her, leaving with few good words said.
We now move into epic love duet mode with “Bimba, Bimba, non piangere” which takes us all the
way to the interval. Pinkerton consoles Butterfly and the two get entirely mushy for several
minutes. He describes her as a butterfly and she worries because she has heard they pin
butterfly’s wings to tables in the West. He dispels her fears and the Act closes as they
leave to consummate their marriage...
Act II - Running Time: 50 mins
3 Years have passed and Pinkerton is long gone. Butterfly is running desperately short of
money and believing Pinkerton will return, as he said he would, refuses to marry again. She
sings the very famous “Un Bel Di Vedremo”, her dream of how Pinkerton will return.
Sharpless and Goro arrive. Sharpless wishes to read Butterfly a letter from Pinkerton but
has no luck, as Goro is in the process of urging her to marry Prince Yamadori, a very
wealthy man with multiple wives. Butterfly quickly rejects him. She is still married she
says, under American law if not Japanese.
Offended, Yamadori and Goro leave. Sharpless returns to the letter, in which Pinkerton
tries to prepare Butterfly for his return including the fact that he has remarried.
Butterfly gets overexcited at the idea of his return and Sharpless tries to convince her
of the reality of the situation in as gentle a manner as possible. She gets upset and
brings out her blond-haired, blue-eyed son.
Ana María Martínez as Butterfly, Houston Grand Opera
This comes as a bit of a shock to Sharpless, and he asks if Pinkerton knows of his
son. He doesn’t, Butterfly says, and she want to send him a letter. Sharpless,
dejected, promises to do so, and leaves. Susuki appears dragging Goro, who has been
hiding. Goro shouts abuse at Butterfly, calling her son a bastard (in the
old-fashioned sense of the word). She almost stabs Goro with her dagger but he
A cannon shot is heard. A ship has entered the harbour. Butterfly looks down and sees
it is the Abraham Lincoln, Pinkerton’s ship. Cue a lot of flower throwing and
general preparation for his arrival. Suzuki, Butterfly and her son settle down for a
long night waiting, accompanied by the beautiful Coro a bocca chiusa, or “Humming
The Humming Chorus, Orchestra and Chorus of La Scala, 1955,
conducted by Herbert von Karajan
Act III - Running Time: 35 mins
The night has passed and Suzuki and the child are asleep. Butterfly remains awake,
waiting in silence. In the background sailors are heard and the sun finally rises.
Butterfly puts her son to bed and falls asleep herself.
Kate Pinkerton arrives, Cincinnati Opera
Pinkerton and Sharpless arrive with Kate, Pinkerton’s American wife. Suzuki meets them
and upon seeing Pinkerton’s new wife in the garden, she collapses in shock. Pinkerton is
his usual insensitive self, but Sharpless tells Suzuki that whilst they can do nothing
for Butterfly, Kate would like to adopt the child. Suzuki goes to speak with Kate and
Pinkerton selfishly sings of his own distress, admitting he is too much of a coward to
He flees, but Kate stays to reassure Suzuki that she will care for the child as her own.
Butterfly awakens and calls for Suzuki. She sees her maid crying and asks why, but then
notices Sharpless and the mystery woman in the garden. She realises Pinkerton is not
coming back. She agrees to hand over the child if and only if Pinkerton returns in half
an hour to pick him up himself.
Butterfly sends Suzuki away, prays and prepares to take her own life with her father’s
blade. Her son enters and Butterfly now more composed hugs him close and tells him not
to be sad at his mother abandoning him. She blindfolds him and gives him a little
American flag to wave as his father returns.
She takes the knife and stabs herself. As she falls dead the cries of Pinkerton are heard
Addio, fiorito asil
Dovunque al mondo
Tu, tu piccolo Iddio
Un bel dì vedremo
Where in the World
Madama Butterfly takes place entirely in a traditional house overlooking the bay of
Nagasaki. At the beginning of the 20th century, Nagasaki (marked in blue) was an industrial city with a huge
docklands, a major access point for the West. Today it is sadly best known as the site of a nuclear bombing at
the end of the Second World War.
Puccini got the idea for Madama Butterfly in 1900. He was in London, preparing for the British premiere
of his opera Tosca, and saw a one-act play called Madame Butterfly written by the well-known
American playwright David Belasco. (The Belasco Theater on 44th Street in New York City has been around for more
than 100 years.) That play was in turn based on a magazine article by Philadelphia lawyer John Luther Long, who
claimed that his sister related the story to him based on personal experience.
John Luther Long's Book
Puccini was sufficiently moved by Belasco's drama that upon his return to Italy
he immediately got to work on the opera with his librettists Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa (both of
whom he had worked with on La Boheme and Tosca). The wife of Japan's ambassador to
Italy assisted Puccini by familiarizing him with native Japanese songs.
Madama Butterfly premiered at La Scala in Milan, Italy on the 17th of February, 1904, and to say that it
was poorly received would be charitable. In fact, almost from the moment the curtain rose, it was hissed, jeered
and booed in a manner that probably wouldn’t be tolerated in most major opera houses today. (La Scala's playbill
history of the opera cites "reliable witnesses" who blame the opening night fiasco on a prearranged claque
hostile to Puccini.) The composer withdrew the score after that performance, modified it (mainly by dividing the
lengthy second act into two acts), and next presented the work 60 miles to the east in Brescia on the 28th May.
It was a rousing success and has since been viewed generally as a masterpiece.
From 2008 to 2013 Madama Butterfly was the 6th Most Performed Opera in the world according
to Operabase. Indeed despite the failure of its opening, it's been pretty consistently popular
since its composition.
Two interesting notes on character names:
Sorrow as a puppet in Anthony Minghella's production
Pinkerton’s forenames are the subject of some confusion. At the premieres in Milan and Brescia, he is
introduced as “Sir Francis Blummy Pinkerton,” but by the third revision of the libretto in 1906, he
is presented as “B.F. Pinkerton.” The 1907 Ricordi score, considered authoritative, lists the role
as “F.B. Pinkerton” but during the wedding ceremony, the Commissario refers to the Lieutenant as
“Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton.”
As for Pinkerton’s child with Butterfly, she introduces him to Sharpless as Dolore, the Italian word
for pain, sorrow, grief. Butterfly says that when his father returns, his name will be Gioia, or
joy. The English translation of the libretto refers to the child as Sorrow, which is used in many
play bills today; however some English productions refer to the child as Trouble, which is the name
used in Long’s original story.
Puccini revised the libretto for Madama Butterfly several times between 1904 and 1907. One of the
biggest changes, made after the Milan premiere, was dividing the second act into two parts,
inserting an intermission during Butterfly’s all-night vigil awaiting Pinkerton’s return. Some
productions today omit this interval and play Act Two straight through as Puccini originally
Attempts were also made to soften Pinkerton’s character, including removing some fairly offensive
language from him. Lines cut from the original include his reaction to the names of Butterfly’s
servants, which are naturalistic such as Morning Breeze. He mocks them as jokes and says he will
instead call them musi, or animal snouts. “First snout, second and third snout.” Despite Puccini’s
efforts, Pinkerton is still generally insensitive in the final score. The aria “Addio fiorito asil,”
only included in the later revisions, has Pinkerton say good-bye to the flowering refuge of love and
joy he shared with Butterfly. He adds, in typical fashion, that he can’t stand its bleakness and
squalor and he will flee because he is cowardly and weak.
Orientalism, and in fact Exoticism in general, was highly popular from the mid 19th century onwards
but few actually knew much about the real Asia. While Puccini’s drama may not always accurately
depict Japanese culture at the beginning of the 20th century, it is harder to criticize the
verisimilitude of the musical score. In fact Puccini incorporated many traditional Japanese songs
into Madama Butterfly. One possible source for these tunes is the Austrian Rudolf Dittrich, who
taught in Japan in the late 1800s and published piano scores of popular Japanese songs after
returning to Europe.
Below are two music clips which demonstrate the similarities: the first, an excerpt from Jizuki-Uta,
a Japanese work song, from the Dittrich arrangement; the second, an excerpt of the soprano Maria
Callas singing Butterfly’s aria Che tua madre from 1955.
Callas singing Che tua madre
The premiere of Madama Butterfly at the Metropolitan Opera came on 11 February 1907, and
Puccini oversaw the production. (Belasco also attended rehearsals.) The cast from that night
included Geraldine Farrar as Cio-Cio-San, Enrico Caruso as Pinkerton, Louise Homer as Suzuki and
Antonio Scotti as Sharpless. Astoundingly it is possible to get some idea of what the audience heard
that night as recordings with that same cast were made, several from 1907 to 1909, beginning with
Butterfly's entrance, recorded just two days after the Met premiere.
“O quanti occhi fisi,” from the end of Act 1, recorded 10 March 1908, sung by Caruso
Puccini was not completely satisfied with the Met premiere, writing that it "lacked the poetry [he]
put into it." Farrar was "not what she ought to have been" and Caruso, although "his voice is
magnificent," was "lazy" and "too pleased with himself.
Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil have shown themselves to be particular fans of this work.
Their musical Miss Saigon is directly based on it and “Bring Him Home” from Les
Miserables sounds an awful lot like the “Humming Chorus”...
Name Madama Butterfly
Translated name Madam Butterfly
Composer Giacomo Puccini
Librettist Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa
Date of premiere Feb. 17, 1904
Number of Acts 3
Music length 2 hours, 20 minutes
The sheer number of Madama Butterfly recordings that have been made over the last century is huge and just as
remarkable is how many of them are of extremely high quality. The DVD selection is less strong though there are a few of note.