Those who know me, know that I absolutely adore the opera. I’ve yet to find another artform as transformative and beautiful as the opera, and I try to make time to see a few operas a year. No matter how many operas I see, not a single one can rival my love for Madama Butterfly.
Madama Butterfly is an opera composed by the renowned Giacomo Puccini. The story of the opera is based partially on John Luther Long’s short story “Madame Butterfly” written in 1898. It originally contained only two acts (it’s now performed as three) and premiered in Milan in 1904 at the Teatro alla Scala. Many people don’t realize this, but the opera performed dismally at first; poor planning and lack of rehearsals left audiences disappointed. But, Puccini revised the opera, broke the second act into two parts, and put the show on again. The second time around it was a hit, and it quickly spread all around the world. It premiered at New York’s very own Metropolitan Opera just three years later on February 11, 1907.
In the first act, you are introduced to the main character, Cio-Cio-San, who is also known as Madama Butterfly. You learn that she is arranged to be married to a US Navy official, Lieutenant Pinkerton, by marriage broker Goro.
The audience gets to see all sides of the story, and you quickly learn that Pinkerton does not take the union seriously, while Cio-Cio-San has dedicated her heart and life to her future husband. Pinkerton is warned by a fellow American, Sharpless, that it is a mistake to be so dismissive of the marriage, but Pinkerton does not heed his warning. Just 15 years old, Cio-Cio-San was forced to become a geisha after her father lost his position of prestige. She views her marriage to Pinkerton as a path to a better life, and goes so far as to convert to Christianity for their union. The first act ends with Cio-Cio-San being disowned by her family for leaving her religion. The only supporter she has left is her maid, Suzuki, who helps her prepare for her wedding night with Pinkerton.
The second act takes place three years later. It becomes immediately apparent that Cio-Cio-San has been waiting patiently for Pinkerton, who left right after their union. Everyone (including the audience) understands that Pinkerton will not be returning for her, but Cio-Cio-San remains hopeful. Goro returns with another offer for marriage to a prince, but Cio-Cio-San refuses. Sharpless then appears with a letter from Pinkerton, which undoubtedly contains bad news, but Cio-Cio-San’s excitement has driven her to distraction, and she never hears what the letter contains. When Sharpless confronts her with the idea that Pinkerton may not come back, she would rather die, and unveils the existence of her son. The act ends with Cio-Cio-San, her son, and Suzuki watching over the harbor, where Pinkerton’s ship has docked.
The third and final act takes place the next morning, and moves quickly. In the moment that Cio-Cio-San steps out of the room, Sharpless arrives on stage with Pinkerton and his new wife. Pinkerton cannot take the guilt and flees while Cio-Cio-San is still out of the room, leaving his two wives to discover each other. When Cio-Cio-San reenters the room, she understands the truth of Pinkerton’s betrayal. She gives up her son, demanding that Pinkerton take him, and after a heartbreaking goodbye, she takes her own life. As Cio-Cio-San promised earlier in the opera, she would rather die with honor, than live with the shame of her husband’s unfaithfulness.
Madama Butterfly is a tragic story of love and betrayal, and is not for the faint of heart. The emotional rollercoaster draws the audience in, and will keep you enthralled until the very last note.
I highly encourage everyone to see it at least once, and if possible, try to see it when The Metropolitan Opera puts on the show. It’s absolutely breathtaking.