Puccini — MADAMA BUTTERFLY

756px-Farrarbutterfly

 

In June 1900 Gia­como Puc­cini (1858 – 1924) was in Lon­don to super­vise the Eng­lish pre­mière of his lat­est opera Tosca, at the time only six months old. Sev­eral peo­ple, includ­ing the Covent Gar­den stage direc­tor, Fran­cis Nielsen, urged him to go to the Duke of York The­atre to see David Belasco’s newest sen­sa­tion, the play Madame But­ter­fly — A Tragedy of Japan. In later years, Belasco would claim that after the per­for­mance, Puc­cini had rushed back­stage, embraced him, and pleaded to be allowed to turn Belasco’s play into an opera.

I agreed at once,” Belasco said, “and told him he could do any­thing he liked with the play, and make any sort of con­tract, 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.”

David Belasco

Like so many of Belasco’s rem­i­nis­cences, the scene he describes is dubi­ous, since on the composer’s way back to Italy he stopped off in Paris to talk with Emile Zola about turn­ing one of his nov­els into an opera, and a few weeks later he was enthu­si­as­tic about writ­ing his next opera based on Marie Antoinette. There is no doubt Belasco’s play had left a vivid impres­sion on Puc­cini, even though his Eng­lish was too poor to allow him to under­stand what the char­ac­ters were say­ing. But he cer­tainly under­stood the broad out­lines of the drama and espe­cially the char­ac­ter of But­ter­fly her­self — her world, her suf­fer­ing, and, espe­cially, her sui­cide at the end, in which Belasco had pulled out all the stops to wring every pos­si­ble tear from his audience.

Belasco’s play, which is in one act, was based on a story by John Luther Long that had been pub­lished in the Jan­u­ary 1898 issue of Cen­tury Illus­trated Monthly  Mag­a­zine. Long, a lawyer who had lit­er­ary aspi­ra­tions, claimed the story of Madame But­ter­fly had been told to him by his sis­ter, Jen­nie Cor­rell, the wife of a Methodist mis­sion­ary in Nagasaki, and that she knew the peo­ple involved first­hand. (See side­bar below.)

But the basic story had been told before that, most notably by Pierre Loti in his hugely suc­cess­ful novel Madame Chrysan­thème pub­lished in 1887. Loti, who had trav­eled quite widely dur­ing his career as a navel offi­cer, used his obser­va­tions and mem­o­ries of exotic lands as back­ground in a num­ber of nov­els. (His 1880 novel, Le mariage de Loti, was the basis of Leo Delibes’s opera Lakmé.)

Madame Chrysan­thème tells the story of a young navel offi­cer, Pierre, whose ship docks at Nagasaki for three months. To pass the time he enters into a tem­po­rary mar­riage with a young geisha named Madame Chrysan­the­mum. Unlike the later sto­ries, in Loti’s first-person novel (told by Pierre him­self) there is no tragedy, and when it’s time for his ship to leave the part­ing is straight­for­ward, with only a trace of sen­ti­ment. In Jan van Rij’s fas­ci­nat­ing book Madame But­ter­fly, Japon­isme, Puc­cini, and the Search for the Real Cho-Cho-San, he says that when Loti returned to Nagasaki in 1900, he heard from “Madame Chrysanthemum’s” mother that her daugh­ter had made a good mar­riage to a busi­ness­man from the area. (The mother even went so far as to give a din­ner in Loti’s honor, though she did not invite her daugh­ter to attend.)

What made Loti’s novel so extra­or­di­nar­ily suc­cess­ful was his atten­tion to descrip­tive detail. Not only the minu­tiae of Madame Chrysanthemum’s daily life, but of the coun­try­side itself, the houses and tem­ples, peo­ple on the street, reli­gious pro­ces­sions, almost any­thing that made life in Japan dif­fer­ent from West­ern life found its way into the book. It went through 25 edi­tions in five years and was trans­lated into other lan­guages, includ­ing Eng­lish. It was also the basis of André Messager’s 1883 opera, Madame Chrysan­thème.

The arrange­ment between Pierre and his tem­po­rary Japan­ese wife was not uncom­mon at the time. Van Rij says the prac­tice was cen­turies old, and points out that the women who entered into such liaisons were dis­tinct from both the true geisha (pro­fes­sional, highly accom­plished enter­tain­ers who might or might not be avail­able for a sex­ual rela­tion­ship) and the com­mon prostitute.

It was all fod­der for the wave of Ori­en­tal­ism that was sweep­ing West­ern Europe and the U.S. at the time. Not that fas­ci­na­tion with “the exotic East” (which included the Mid­dle East, as well) was any­thing new. Think of Mozart’s “Turk­ish” music, as well as his operas The Abduc­tion from the Seraglio and The Magic Flute, both of which take place in non-Western lands; both of which were writ­ten in Ger­man, using spo­ken dia­logue rather than recita­tives, in a con­scious attempt to appeal to a larger audi­ence than the aris­to­cratic court (itself proof of the broad appeal such sto­ries had).

But the last part of the nine­teenth cen­tury, and the begin­ning of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, saw suc­ces­sive waves of vogues for things East­ern, as one coun­try fol­lowed another as the inspi­ra­tion for home fur­nish­ings, cloth­ing, paint­ings, books, the­ater, and music. In their turn, the details of life in Egypt, China, Japan, India, and other for­eign cul­tures were eagerly con­sumed by the West — all, of course, absorbed through Occi­den­tal senses, which meant the end results were more West­ern, with a tinge of East­ern influ­ence, than gen­uine East­ern art.

For instance, Long’s story “Madame But­ter­fly,” and Belasco’s play, tell us much more, today, about the Amer­i­can cul­ture that pro­duced them, than they do about actual life in Japan. In both, But­ter­fly her­self is a car­i­ca­ture. For one thing, she speaks a pigeon Eng­lish, and in the Long story often behaves like an ill-mannered child:

 

Cio-Cio-San dropped the baby with a reck­less thud, and sprang at Suzuki again. She gripped her throat viciously, then flung her, laugh­ing, aside.

‘Speak con­cern­ing mar­riage once more, an’ you die. An’ tha’ ’s ’nother thing. You got know at his United States Amer­ica, if one is marry one got stay marry…oh, for aever an’ aever! Yaes! Nob’y can­not git him­self divorce, aexep’ in a large cour­t­house an’ jail.’ ”

 

Pinker­ton him­self scarcely comes off any bet­ter. His view of But­ter­fly is reflected in a song he used to sing her, which she, in turn, sings to her son: “Rog-a-by, bebby, off in Japan / You jus’ a pic­ture off of a fan.” And when his Amer­i­can wife meets But­ter­fly she com­ments, “How very charm­ing, how lovely you are, dear! Will you let me kiss me, you pretty…play­thing!” Long con­tin­ues, “Cho-Cho-San stared at her with round eyes, as chil­dren do when afraid. Then her nos­trils quiv­ered and her lids slowly closed.” Which sums up the But­ter­fly of Long’s short story and Belasco’s play — a child unable (or unwill­ing) to deal with real­ity, and for whom we’re to weep while, of course, under­stand­ing that Pinker­ton can­not truly marry her; he must marry an Amer­i­can wife and, after all, the all-American cou­ple are tak­ing the son of Pinkerk­ton and But­ter­fly to raise in the U.S. where, of course, he will be bet­ter off.

John Luther Long

At first Puc­cini and his libret­tists, Giuseppe Gia­cosa and Luigi Illica, planned their opera to be in three acts, with the first and third acts tak­ing place in Butterfly’s house and the sec­ond at the Amer­i­can Con­sulate. The scene at the Con­sulate is only found in Long’s story and it is a tear­jerker of major pro­por­tions. It is there that But­ter­fly acci­den­tally dis­cov­ers Pinker­ton is mar­ried when his Amer­i­can wife barges into the room and asks to send a telegram to her hus­band (whose ship is at sea). She has, she says, seen “the baby” and wants to take him home to Amer­ica, though she hasn’t yet spo­ken to the mother (whom she has no idea is sit­ting in the room). When “the blonde woman” leaves, But­ter­fly sadly gives the con­sul the two dol­lars she has left from the money Pinker­ton had given her three years before, and asks that the con­sul return the money to Pinker­ton and thank him for the hap­pi­ness he has given her. “ ‘Goon night,’ said Cho-Cho-San, and at the door look­ing back, ‘Say­onara,’ and another tired smile. She stag­gered a lit­tle as she went out.”

Such a scene would seem to be tai­lor made for Puc­cini, but the com­poser real­ized that But­ter­fly, both the char­ac­ter as he saw her, and his opera, would be bet­ter served by hav­ing all the action take place around Butterfly’s home. “If you only knew how I am rack­ing my brains!” Puc­cini wrote his pub­lisher, Giulio Ricordi, at one point. “The work to be done is not great, but it is essen­tial to bind the whole story together with a closer logic than there is in the Belasco play.”

Rather than demean But­ter­fly by giv­ing her the Ital­ian equiv­a­lent of pigeon Eng­lish, her speech is gram­mat­i­cal. Her ini­tial naiveté and inno­cence is pro­vided by her reac­tion to things, and some­times by her music. For instance, for her entrance in Act I as she and her atten­dants arrive on top of the hill, the accom­pa­ny­ing orches­tra (marked piano and pianis­simo) is col­ored with the use of bells and harp (del­i­cate sound­ing instru­ments), the three-part soprano cho­rus is often writ­ten in thirds, and there is a sense of spa­cious­ness and won­der to the music. But­ter­fly is given the option at the end of her entrance music to float a high D-flat, which gives a mar­velous float­ing effect if the soprano can do it with a sense of ease.

Puc­cini

Puccini’s hero­ine, though still 15 years old, is not the help­less vic­tim found in Long and Belasco. She’s a truly tragic fig­ure who matures as the opera pro­gresses, as Edward Berke­ley, direc­tor of the Aspen Opera Cen­ter, points out.

She’s a rebel­lious teenager, fight­ing the world she is from, rebelling against her own reli­gion and fam­ily,” he points out.  “So going through with this whole mar­riage to Pinker­ton is a renun­ci­a­tion of fam­ily and reli­gion. She’s really doing it as much to escape her own world as any­thing. He makes com­plete sense for her. Unfor­tu­nately, the guy she chooses is not capa­ble of the kind of com­mit­ment she needs.”

One way But­ter­fly chooses a com­pletely dif­fer­ent way of life in the opera (but not in the story or play) is by going to the Chris­t­ian mis­sion and con­vert­ing, some­thing she tells Pinker­ton she did secretly the day before their mar­riage.  It’s also the act that pre­cip­i­tates her family’s renun­ci­a­tion of her when her priest-uncle, the Bonze, exposes her action dur­ing the wed­ding. Through­out the opera But­ter­fly repeat­edly empha­sizes her “Amer­i­caness” in a vari­ety of ways.  She inevitably cor­rects any­one who addresses her as Madama But­ter­fly, by insist­ing on “Madame Pinker­ton.” When her suitor, Prince Yamadori and the mar­riage bro­ker, Goro, tell her that under Japan­ese law she’s free to marry since she has been aban­doned, she replies that under Amer­i­can law divorce is not so easy and she is an Amer­i­can wife. She wel­comes the U.S. con­sul Sharp­less to “an Amer­i­can home.”

There are peo­ple who see But­ter­fly as a cheap vic­tim (among them was Puccini’s own pub­lished, Giulio Ricordi who saw the opera as a facile tear-jerker, unwor­thy of Puccini’s tal­ents.) For them, it is ridicu­lous that she does not marry the wealthy Prince Yamadori. But as Berke­ley points out, “Going with Yamadori would be an com­plete admis­sion of her fail­ure in her new life. To her, it would mean she accepts being trapped for­ever in the life she was try­ing to escape.” Bet­ter to fol­low her father’s exam­ple, as the words engraved on his sword say: “He dies with honor who can­not live with honor.”

And Puc­cini did, in fact, give her an hon­or­able death. In Long’s story she sur­vives the sui­cide attempt, and “When Mrs. Pinker­ton called the next day at the lit­tle house in Higashi Hill it was quite empty.” In Belasco’s play, But­ter­fly has the last words, remind­ing Pinker­ton of his promise to return to her when the robins make their nest:

 

LIEUTENANT PINKERTON. (Dis­cern­ing what she has done)  Oh! Cho-Cho–                                    San! (He draws her to him with the baby pressed to her heart. She waves the child’s hand which holds the flag — say­ing faintly.)

MADAME BUTTERFLY. Too bad those robins did n’ nes’ again. (She dies.)

 

In the opera her final words are to her child — “Go and play.” Every­thing after that is pan­tomime until Pinkerton’s off­stage cries of “But­ter­fly! But­ter­fly! But­ter­fly!” the clos­ing words of the opera. Which is not to imply that Puc­cini and his libret­tists did not go all out to work on the audience’s feel­ings. They do. When Puc­cini wrote But­ter­fly he had devel­oped greatly as a com­poser, and his expanded skill at orches­tra­tion, and in com­po­si­tion, allowed him a vari­ety of sub­tler touches in cre­at­ing his char­ac­ters, telling their story, and depict­ing their emo­tions. But he was still an Ital­ian oper­atic com­poser, and he used his remark­able skills to go right for the audience’s hearts.

Rosina Stor­chio

He was at the height of his pop­u­lar­ity and con­fi­dent of suc­cess when But­ter­fly pre­miered at La Scala on Feb­ru­ary 17, 1904. That morn­ing he wrote the famous soprano, Rosina Stor­chio, who would cre­ate But­ter­fly, “My good wishes are super­flu­ous! So true, so del­i­cate, so mov­ing is your great art that the pub­lic must suc­cumb to it! And I hope that tonight through you I am speed­ing to vic­tory! Tonight then — with sure con­fi­dence and much affection.”

The per­for­mance was a fiasco. Accord­ing to reports, the audi­ence took excep­tion to the music of Butterfly’s entrance (think­ing it had been used on Bohème), and things went down­hill from then. Much of the sec­ond act was inaudi­ble through the cat­calls, whis­tles, and deri­sive com­ments from the audi­ence, though the aria “Un bel di” was greeted with utter silence. Puc­cini with­drew the score after the per­for­mance (it was the only time La Scala gave But­ter­fly dur­ing the composer’s life­time) and set to work on revi­sions. The new ver­sion was given in Bres­cia three months later and was a suc­cess, though Puc­cini con­tin­ued tin­ker­ing with the opera for some time.

It was first given at the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera in Feb­ru­ary 1907. Puc­cini him­self super­vised the rehearsals and David Belasco attended them, as well. With the ritzy cast of Geral­dine Far­rar (who had sung the role in Berlin), Enrico Caruso, Louise Homer, and Anto­nio Scotti, it was a tri­umph. Far­rar would even­tu­ally sing But­ter­fly 139 times at the Met, far more often any any­one else. Puc­cini didn’t think much of her in the part. “It was a per­for­mance with­out poetry,” he wrote to Tito Ricordi, his friend and his publisher’s son. “Far­rar is not too sat­is­fac­tory. She sings out of tune, forces her voice, and it does not carry well in the large space of the theater….However, it went well, on the whole, and the press is unan­i­mous in its praise.”

And so it has been even since, with But­ter­fly rival­ing Puccini’s La Bohème and Tosca for the hearts of the public.

 

THE REAL MADAME BUTTERFLY

In his book, Madame But­ter­fly, Japon­isme, Puc­cini, and the Search for the Real Cho-Cho-San, Jan van Rij inves­ti­gates the account Jen­nie Cor­rell told her brother, John Luther Long, which served the basis for his short story, “Madame Butterfly.”

In involved three Scot­tish broth­ers, Thomas, Alex, and Alfred Glover who lived in Nagasaki about 1870. One of them (Alex, prob­a­bly) was involved with a woman named Kaga Make, who worked as an enter­tainer under the name Cho-san, Miss But­ter­fly. She became preg­nant and gave birth to a son on Decem­ber 8, 1870. When the father aban­doned her and her son, the father’s brother, Thomas, and his com­mon law Japan­ese wife, adopted the boy and changed his name to Tomis­aburo. Tom Glover, as he was known, was well edu­cated, study­ing at pres­ti­gious Japan­ese schools and at the Uni­ver­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia in Philadel­phia (biol­ogy and nat­ural history).

Kaga Make mar­ried a Japan­ese man in 1877 and moved away. She divorced him in 1888 and moved back to Nagasaki, where she died in 1906.

Her son, Tom, mar­ried a Japan­ese woman whose father was a British mer­chant. They had no chil­dren. His wife died of tuber­cu­lo­sis in 1943 and, shortly after Japan sur­ren­dered in 1945, Tom Glover, the orig­i­nal “Trou­ble,” com­mit­ted suicide.

 

This arti­cle orig­i­nally appeared in the 2007 Aspen Opera The­ater pro­gram.

The photo at the top of the arti­cle shows Geral­dine Far­rar as Cio-Cio-San. She was the Met’s first But­ter­fly and sang the role 139 times with the com­pany, far more than any­one else in Met his­tory. The photo is auto­graphed to Dorothy Kirsten in 1946, the year she sang the first of her 68 per­for­mances of Madama But­ter­fly at the Met. The role was the one both Far­rar and Kirsten sang most often with the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera.