Madama Butterfly

About the Composer


Giacomo Puccini

Giacomo Puccini was born in 1858, during the glory days of Italian opera. When Puccini died in 1924, the world was a different place: fascism was taking root in the young nation of Italy, America was emerging as the world's most powerful nation, and motion pictures were replacing opera as the dominant art form in our culture. The many-faceted career of this last great Italian opera composer reflected the multitudinous changes taking place in the world around him.

Although Puccini came from a long line of composers, at first it looked as though he wouldn't amount to much. He was a terrible student: lazy, always bored, easily distracted, and in his final year of high school, he flunked out. But Puccini was determined to become a composer and to make some money at it. His father had died when he was five years old, and as a boy Puccini (and his six sisters) had felt the bite of poverty. When he was 18, Puccini saw a performance of Verdi's Aida and decided that he would become the next Verdi.

So he applied himself diligently to the study of music, earning a diploma from the Institute of Music in his hometown of Lucca and eventually graduating with honors from the Conservatory in Milan. During his years in Milan, young Puccini made many important connections and wrote two operas. He was one of a handful of young composers all hoping to inherit the throne of Giuseppe Verdi, the undisputed king of Italian opera. With the support of the all-powerful music publisher Giulio Ricordi, Puccini emerged victorious from the struggle for succession. The year 1893 saw, within a few weeks of each other, the premieres of Verdi's final opera, Falstaff, and Puccini's first triumph, Manon Lescaut.

With his earnings from Manon Lescaut Puccini built himself a villa on the lake at Torre del Lago, a small town near Lucca. He also ran off with Elvira Gemignani, the wife of a childhood friend. Puccini's stormy relationship with the jealous Elvira was to last until his death. During this period Giulio Ricordi helped Puccini develop a wonderfully productive relationship with a pair of writers, Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica. Giacosa and Illica wrote for Puccini the libretti to three of the most popular operas of all time: La bohme, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly. These operas use accessible and captivating music to explore three very different worlds: the Bohemian world of starving students in La bohme, the world of historical melodrama in Tosca, and the (to Italians) exotic land of Japan in Madama Butterfly.

In 1907 Puccini was invited to New York to supervise performances of his operas at the Metropolitan Opera. Puccini ended up writing an opera for the Metropolitan: La Fanciulla del West (Girl of the Golden West), a melodramatic tale set in a California mining town. During the First World War he tried his hand at writing a Viennese-style operetta, La Rondine. Fascinated by new currents in music and art, Puccini was never content with repeating himself, even at the risk of public approval. As the war ended, he wrote Il trittico, a series of three one-act operas for the Metropolitan Opera in New York: Il tabarro, a gritty story of jealousy and murder among Parisian low-lifes; Suor Angelica, a sentimental story set in a convent and featuring an all-female cast; and Gianni Schicchi, his only comedy.

Puccini died while working on Turandot, a sadistic and erotic fairy tale set in legendary China. The opera was completed by a friend and first performed a few months after Puccini's death. Turandot was the last Italian opera to achieve widespread popularity, just as Puccini was the last popular composer of Italian opera.

The Music of Madama Butterfly

It's often said that the plots of Puccini's operas have not aged well. Many snobs have condemned Puccini for being too popular, too simplistic and sometimes bordering on chauvinistic. Yet these operas have never left the stage; audiences continue to demand them, and singers love tackling them. Why such popularity, even a century later? The answer is simple: Puccini's music is perhaps the most immediately effective dramatic music ever written.

Puccini's musical mind was a melting pot. He lived during an era of tremendously exciting musical activity, and all his life he was fascinated by what his fellow artists were doing. While he dominated his era, creating the most popular operas of the day, he did so by borrowing, arranging, and assimilating ideas and influences from everything he heard. Look at the list of different national musical traditions that leave their mark on the score of Madama Butterfly:

Italy. The Italian opera tradition has always been centered on the singer, and from the Renaissance up through Puccini's predecessors, Italian opera music has always lived or died by its vocal lines. The core of Madama Butterfly is glorious lyricism for the main characters; we relate to Butterfly and Suzuki, Sharpless and Pinkerton first and foremost through the sound of their voices and the beauty of what they sing.

Germany. While the singers' voices are soaring on the wings of traditional Italian lyricism, Puccini's orchestra is repeating and varying dozens of short musical ideas, known as motives. Puccini modeled the enlarged size of his Butterfly orchestra and the complexity of his motivic writing on the music of the German opera tradition, especially the popular and controversial operas of Richard Wagner.

France. In contemporary France, musicians like Debussy and Fauré were busy trying to accomplish in music what Impressionists like Monet and Degas were doing in painting. One of their many techniques was to use a wider harmonic palette than traditional in Western music, to use forbidden harmonies (tritones, augmented triads, parallel fifths, etc.) that had been outlawed centuries earlier by the Catholic church. Puccini loved the sound of Impressionist music, and loved to use exotic harmonies for his exotic operas.

America. During Puccini's lifetime America was just beginning to develop its own musical culture. Eager to be involved, Puccini premiered two of his operas at New York City's Metropolitan Opera. In Madama Butterfly he uses American music to characterize his thoughtless American playboy, Pinkerton; in fact, our national anthem becomes one of the principal motives in the score.

Japan. Puccini studied Japanese music as he worked on Madama Butterfly, and several traditional Japanese melodies actually found their way into the opera. The music of Japan, like much Asian music, is pentatonic; it tends to use a palette of five possible notes rather than European music's eight. Make up a tune using only the black keys on the piano, and you'll hear pentatonicism. Puccini loved the curious strength and, to Western ears, exotic character of this sound.

Fascinated as he was by trends in the world of music, Puccini also kept abreast of what was going on in the other arts. In the spoken theater of Puccini's day, realism was all the rage: playwrights like Ibsen and Shaw tried to make what was onstage seem like the real life of everyday people. Opera, which is anti-realistic by definition, caught this bug as well, and the drama of Puccini's operas is far more lifelike than that in plenty of earlier opera. In fact, some historians refer to Puccini's type of opera as verismo, realism. But thank goodness, Puccini still lets his characters raise their voices in that unrealistic yet gloriously thrilling song which is the reason we love opera in the first place. Madama Butterfly is one unforgettable musical number after another, and what a treat is in store for those who have yet to hear the smug yearning of the duet for those expatriots Pinkerton and Sharpless, the fragile beauty of the duet Butterfly and Suzuki sing as they scatter flowers, the pentatonic delicacy of the famous humming chorus, Butterfly's gentle lullaby, and the blinding horror of her death scene. The opera's greatest musical treasures are surely the love duet¾which, at fifteen minutes, is one of opera's longest, yet the audience never wants it to end¾and Butterfly's aria "Un bel d“," which has become one of the most familiar tunes ever written.

Orientalism in European Art

If you're really interested in Japan, Madama Butterfly is not the best thing to study. True, the scenery and costume designers must recreate turn-of-the-century Japan onstage, and Puccini certainly used some authentic Japanese melodies in his music. But Madama Butterfly is European to the core, and like much European art that purports to be about Asian cultures, it is really about Europe and Europe's perception of AsiaÑor, as it was then called, the Orient.

Madama Butterfly deals in stereotypes of the Orient. It deals with a Westerner's fantasy of Japan, a Japan where white men are treated as gods, where quiet, submissive women are bought and sold, where hara-kiri is the ultimate honor. These stereotypes teach us more about the West than the East, about the patriarchal Italy that imagined this story: a Catholic Italy whose sexual politics and images of the Cross and the Madonna shine through the supposedly "exotic Oriental" setting. The concealed Western issues lurking behind stereotypes of the East made this opera (and many just like it) amazingly popular. Starting in the mid-18th century, orientalism-indulging in romantic notions about faraway places-dominated much Western art. Whether chinoiserie, japonisme, or something else, orientalism allowed European artists to deal with issues, particularly despotism, sexuality, and their intersection, taboo in polite European society but nevertheless fundamental to human life.

Japonisme, a special interest in manifestations of Japanese culture, emerged from the rest of orientalism in the 1850s, when Japan began to ease the isolationist policy that had dominated its foreign affairs for two hundred years. Heavy pressure from the United States (whose navy wanted access to Japanese ports) opened the doors to trade in 1853, and within a few years Japan was trading with England, Russia, France, Portugal, and Germany. European fascination with Japanese art and music soon followed suit.

The love story of the Japanese woman and the heartless Western man soon appeared and quickly achieved near-mythic status. Undoubtedly, it happened often enough in real life. Some of the leading literary figures who shepherded this story:

Pierre Loti

A French writer who bought a wife during his two month stay in Nagasaki in the 1880s and later wrote a novel based on their bittersweet romance. Loti, whose exotic novels were wildly popular all over Europe in the late nineteenth century, inspired at least two exotic operas; Lakmé is indebted to his Mariage de Loti, and Madama Butterfly originated with Loti's Japanese tale Madame Chysanthemum.

John Luther Long

An American writer whose watch saw the metamorphosis of Loti's Chrysanthemum into Butterfly. Long's novella, Madame Butterfly, first appeared in Century Magazine in 1898.

David Belasco

American playwright David Belasco used Long's story as the basis for his one-act play of 1900, Madame Butterfly. Belasco's play is unperformable today, because of the embarrassing pidgin-English he makes Butterfly speak. But his contributions, both in dramatizing this story for the first time and pioneering new lighting techniques, have secured his place in theater history.

Giacomo Puccini

The composer, who understood very little English, first saw Belasco's play in London in 1900. He was so moved, particularly by the performance of Blanche Bates as Butterfly, he ran backstage after the performance and asked Belasco if he could turn it into an opera. Belasco agreed unconditionally because, he later explained, "it is impossible to discuss arrangements with an impulsive Italian who has tears in his eyes and both his arms around your neck." The opera premiered a couple of years later; after an unsuccessful opening night, Puccini withdrew the opera and revised it into the version we perform today.

Since that day, Western artists have created dozens more versions of the story, including the recent hit musical Miss Saigon by Boublil and Schönberg. The King and I, an earlier musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein, varies the pattern by presenting a European woman and an Asian man, but the story's chauvinistic sex-role stereotypes are still in place. It took Asian-American playwright David Henry Hwang's thought-provoking M. Butterfly to really turn this old myth on its head. In Hwang's version, based on a true story, a French diplomat with a Chinese mistress incorrectly assumes his lover is a woman (when he's really a man, and a spy for communist China's government). Why? Because, says Hwang, the West always assumes the East is passive, submissive, ripe for plunder; therefore the eastern lover could not possibly be male. Hwang dramatizes the dangers of thinking and acting based on such stereotypes when his main character, who fantasized that he was Pinkerton the betrayer, discovers he was really Butterfly the betrayed.

Recommended Recordings

Santini (EMI) with De los Angeles and Björling
Maazel (CBS) with Scotto and Domingo

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