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’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.



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.