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.”
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.
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’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.
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.