Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is a perfect example of an overly sentimental story that is heightened by an imaginative score. Regardless of the controversial plot, the piece easily ranks in the top ten of the most often performed operas worldwide.
Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly) marries Pinkerton, a US lieutenant stationed in Nagasaki. When she gets a child from him, he has left. Accompanied by his American wife, Pinkerton returns to Japan three years later, in order to take the child. Butterfly commits suicide.
Granted that taking a temporary, local wife was nothing unusual for Western explorers: Were these arrangements anything more than just deals? Would you expect a temporary wife to commit suicide? You are probably not wrong if you attribute the opera’s tragic end largely to the way the Western world looked at the Far East back then.
In order to familiarize himself with the country’s specific musical idiom, Puccini certainly went out of his way. Even though he never visited Japan himself. While working on the score, he made the wife of the Japanese ambassador to Rome sing indigenous folk songs for him. Through this connection he was able to get hold of sheet music from Japan too. With the result that a surprising number of actual Japanese tunes are reflected in the score.