Long Story Short
American sailor seduces and abandons Japanese geisha. He shows up years later with his American wife, hoping to claim his son. The geisha, who believed in their marriage, chooses to die with honor rather than live in dishonor.
Cio-cio San, known in the geisha world as Madama Butterfly, is a lovely fifteen year-old geisha. Ever since the Mikado commanded her father to kill himself, her family has been poor.
Suzuki is Butterfly's faithful servant.
Sorrow is Butterfly's child by Pinkerton.
Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton is a sailor on board the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln.
Kate is an American woman who becomes his other wife.
Sharpless is the American Consul in Nagasaki.
The Bonze, Butterfly's uncle, is a Buddhist priest. He curses and disowns her when she converts to Christianity.
Goro is a marriage-broker.
Yamadori is a wealthy Japanese nobleman who wants to marry Butterfly.
Where and When?
A house in Nagasaki, around 1900.
What's Going On?
While stationed in Nagasaki, Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, a self-styled Casanova, entered into a contract with Goro, a peddler of poor Japanese women. Goro arranged for Pinkerton to marry the beautiful Cio-cio San and sold him a beautiful house overlooking Nagasaki harbor. House and woman are Pinkerton's for up to 999 years, but he can bail out of the arrangement on a month's notice. As the opera begins, Pinkerton explains all this over drinks to the guest he has invited to his Japanese 'wedding,' Consul Sharpless. Sharpless raises a suspicious eyebrow when Pinkerton toasts the day when he'll finally marry a real American woman.
Needless to say, no one has explained the contract to Cio-cio San, who is as naive, beautiful, and happy as can be on her wedding-day. Her relatives, including her widowed mother, her drunken uncle, and some sisters and cousins; are all happy to have a strong, wealthy man in the family once more. The exception is another uncle, the Bonze or Buddhist priest, who storms in, interrupts the wedding, and curses Cio-cio San for embracing Christianity. The Bonze expels her from the family and leaves with all her relatives in tow. Pinkerton comforts and then woos the traumatized Butterfly in perhaps the most beautiful love duet in all opera, which closes the first act.
During the intermission, three years pass in Nagasaki and Butterfly's child by Pinkerton grows to be a toddler. Pinkerton departed not long after the wedding, promising to return "when the robins nest in the spring." Butterfly is beginning to wonder if robins nest less frequently in America than they do in Japan. She still has faith that he will return for her, despite the advice of Suzuki and Sharpless and passionate declarations of love from Goro's latest client, Prince Yamadori. When Butterfly sights Pinkerton's ship entering Nagasaki harbor, she grows almost delirious with excitement, strews her house with flowers, and stays up all night long waiting for Pinkerton.
He arrives the next morning, with his American wife Kate in tow. They've come to collect Pinkerton's son in order to raise him in America. No one is brave enough to tell Butterfly why Pinkerton has returned. Eventually, when she figures it out, she lets them have her son, then takes her most precious family heirloom (the dagger the Mikado had given her father) and uses it as he did.