Madama Butterfly’s Journey to the West … and Back


Madama Butterfly, like Giacomo Puccini’s previous blockbuster Tosca, was born out of a visit to the theatre. In 1900, the composer was in London for six weeks to oversee the opening of Tosca at Covent Garden on 12 July, when he was persuaded to go to the Duke of York’s Theatre for a double-bill of one act plays, including one called “Madam Butterfly”.


This essay was written for the programme of the 7-9 December production of Madama Butterfly by Musica Viva.

Puccini could speak little of anything except Italian, yet although he could hardly understand a word, he burst into tears. Once the curtain came down, he hurried backstage and begged the American playwright David Belasco to let him to turn the play into an opera.

Or so Belasco recounted a few years later. He agreed immediately, he said, because “it was impos­si­ble to dis­cuss arrange­ments with an impul­sive Ital­ian who has tears in his eyes and both of his arms around your neck.”

Geraldine Farrar, who sang the first Butterfly at the Metropolitan Opera
Geraldine Farrar, who sang the first Butterfly at the Metropolitan Opera

It took almost four years, until February 1904, for this story of this ill-fated East-West romance to debut as an opera at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala. It did not go well: a “fiasco”, in fact, with hissing and mockery. Puccini immediately withdrew the score.

The composer undertook substantial revisions, and re-introduced the opera a few months later at Brescia where it was received with audience demands for seven encores and 32 curtain calls. The next year Madame Butterfly was back in London, this time as an opera. In 1907, after some other revisions, it opened at New York’s Metropolitan Opera with the composer himself in attendance. Madama Butterfly has rarely if ever left the hearts of opera-goers in the 111 years since.

Madame Chrysanthème by Pierre Loti (1926 edition, National Library of the Netherlands)
Madame Chrysanthème by Pierre Loti (1926 edition, National Library of the Netherlands)

The story’s origins in fact reach back a decade or so earlier to 1887 and the loosely-autobiographical novel Madame Chrysanthème by Frenchman Pierre Loti, in which a young naval officer enters into a temporary marriage with a geisha while stationed in Nagasaki.

The Courtesan, Vincent van Gogh (after Eisen)
The Courtesan, Vincent van Gogh (after Eisen)

France, of course, had been in the throes of japonisme for a couple of decades by then; kimonos, fans, lacquerware, silks and bronzes had begun flooding into Europe, affecting popular taste and culture. The French impressionists had begun collecting Japanese woodcuts. Vincent van Gogh was painting oils under the influence of these Japanese prints as Loti’s novel hit the street.

The immediate success of Madame Chrysanthème meant that it was soon translated into English and, by 1893, adapted into an opera by André Messager. Messager was not the first French composer with a Japanese-themed opera: Camille Saint-Saëns’s La princesse jaune premiered in 1872. In other countries, Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta The Mikado dates from 1885 and Italy’s Pietro Mascagni’s Iris came along in 1898.

An illustration from Long's Madame Butterfly
An illustration from Long’s Madame Butterfly

But the direct antecedent for Puccini’s opera was, however, not a cultural import into Europe but an eponymous story by American lawyer John Luther Long, published in Century Magazine in 1898. Although reportedly based on recollections of his sister Jennie, the wife of a Methodist Episcopal missionary in Japan, the similarity in the plots indicate that Long must have known of Loti’s earlier work. Nevertheless, it was Long who introduced the world to Cio-Cio-San and Pinkerton and thus was, via the dramatic intermediary of Belasco’s play, the source of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.


The opera opens when American naval officer Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton finds himself in Nagasaki for a long layover. To amuse himself, he buys himself a house and a 15-year-old wife, both on flexible terms, renewable monthly. The American Consul Sharpless, who is of a certain age, tries to warns him that the girl is taking it all completely seriously — she has even converted to Christianity. Pinkerton waves it off, proposing instead to drink to the day of his “proper wedding” to a “real American wife”.

The wedding ceremony collapses as Butterfly’s uncle, a local priest, shows up uninvited and curses her for renouncing her traditions. But Puccini ends the first Act with one of the most beautiful love duets in opera: maybe, we dare to hope, Pinkerton loves her after all.

Whether he does or not, the trajectory of his life and career are immutable. His ship leaves and Butterfly waits… with a small, blond son of whom Pinkerton is ignorant. Pinkerton, of course, does return, three years later, but not alone, leading to what may be the most heart-rending ending in musical theatre.

Madama Butterfly is unusually set in what was, for those first audiences, the “present day”.

ButterflyIt’s hard to deny that Madama Butterfly is an exercise in orientalism: Asia seen through Western eyes. It is less clear, however, whether this is the ethnocentrism of which the opera is sometimes accused or a dramatic device. The accusation is usually based on the work’s perceived portrayal of Cio-cio-san—Madama Butterfly—as a submissive reinforcement of racial stereotypes. Opera, however, has no shortage of self-sacrificing, put-upon women—Gilda in Rigoletto, the eponymous Luisa Miller and Suor Angelica, Marguerite in Faust, none of whom are Asian. And Puccini’s other Asian heroine—Turandot—is anything but submissive.

There is little doubt that Pinkerton has internalized these orientalist stereotypes. He makes no secret of them. But it remains a leap to assume that the composer himself concurred. Indeed, in the portrayal of Pinkerton as almost a caricature of the expat white male in Asia, entitled and self-centred, one might read an anti-Western, anti-imperialist message. Even the more thoughtful Sharpless colludes with a shrug, only expressing serious disapproval when it is becomes clear that that “damned Pinkerton” has left him with a #MeToo mess to clean up.

A period postcard with sailors
A period postcard with sailors

It’s worth remembering here that Madama Butterfly is unusually set in what was, for those first audiences, the “present day”: the opera was meant to be happening as they watched. And in the original La Scala version, Pinkerton is even more obviously odious, making snide remarks about his new in-laws and denied the aria of regretful self-awareness, “Addio fiorito asil”, that he now has in Act III; he is left telling the US Consul Sharpless to give Butterfly money.

It is Cio-Cio San that has inspired numerous spin-offs in musicals, theatre, film and literature. Who is she? Is she a naive, delicate creature “off a Japanese screen”, as Pinkerton would have it, deceived and broken like the butterflies she worries Westerners stick with a pin? Or might she instead be only one of the three with any spine, a young woman who knowingly breaks with tradition fully aware of the possible consequences? One can watch the opera time and again and never know for certain.

Here, the story is less exotic than typical.

It might just be that Madama Butterfly, despite Puccini’s incorporation of actual Japanese melodies for musical verisimilitude, isn’t about Japan at all. It might instead be about a young mother having to make the hardest sacrifice imaginable: giving up her child in the face of social pressure. Puccini returned to this theme a few years later in Suor Angelica which, while set in a convent, perhaps isn’t about nuns either.

Madama Butterfly can have particular resonance when performed in Asia where it can cut particularly close to the bone. Here, the story is less exotic than typical.


Madama Butterfly will play at the Hong Kong City Hall for four performances from 7-9 December.


Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books. He contributed the programmes notes and subtitles for the upcoming production.