Madama Butterfly

The story, as unfolding in Giacomo Puccini’s opera, in short: Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly) marries Pinkerton, a US lieutenant in Nagasaki. When she gets a child from him, he has left. After three years, he returns to Japan, accompanied by his American wife, in order to take the child. Butterfly commits suicide.


You are probably wondering how much sense of reality is left in this at all. Employing a local, temporary wife was not uncommon for many Western explorers. However, was such an arrangement anything more than just a deal? Looking at actual, contemporary relationships, as documented in biographical publications from that time, raises some doubts. Many critics see Butterfly’s tragic end largely as a projection of Western expectations.


It is testament to Puccini’s musical score that the drama stood the test of time. Keeping a rank in the top ten of the most often performed operas worldwide today, it may even go stronger than ever before. There is a specific Japanese-ness Puccini conveys by integrating phrases from local songs – as well as such he made up on his own. Although he personally never traveled to the Far East, he got his teeth deep into Japanese music when working on the score. He even made the wife of the Japanese ambassador to Rome to sing folk songs for him.