Music by Giacomo Puccini
Libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa
April 9, 11, 15, 17, 2015, at 8 pm
Matinée April 19 at 2:30 pm
Pre-performance talk 1 hour before curtain
A young geisha renounces her family to marry an American man. When he leaves to go back to his own country, she waits with their child for his return.
Though she is the gentlest of heroines, Butterfly has formidable inner strength. Guided by honour and fidelity, sustained by hope, she refuses for the longest time to believe she has been abandoned.
Puccini himself loved Butterfly above all his heroines – her for whom I wrote music in the night. And what music! The score pours out lush melodies, infused with delicate Japanese harmonies – it is as ravishing as anything in opera!
Eminent Canadian theatre artist Diana Leblanc directs this gorgeous new production of Madama Butterfly, designed by Patrick Clark, and featuring Korean soprano Jee Hye Han in her North American debut.
Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, an American naval officer posted in Nagasaki, arranges with the marriage broker Goro to lease a Japanese house along with a pretty young Japanese wife. Both deals may be cancelled on a month's notice.
As he shows off the house to the American consul, Sharpless, Pinkerton praises the Yankee penchant for roaming the world in search of pleasure, profit, and beautiful women. Although he is entranced by his lovely Japanese bride, Pinkerton is careless of her feelings: Like a butterfly she flutters and settles with such quiet grace that a madness seizes me to pursue her, even though I might damage her wings.
When Sharpless warns him that the girl may not take such a casual view of the arrangement, Pinkerton brushes off his concern, and drinks to the day when he has a proper wedding to a proper American wife.
Cio-Cio-San, Pinkerton's bride-to-be, is heard declaring herself the happiest girl in Japan as she and her relations arrive for the wedding. She soon reveals that she is 15 years old and has had to earn her living as a geisha after her father committed suicide by order of the Mikado. She also tells Pinkerton that she has secretly visited the Christian mission in order to adopt his religion.
After the brief marriage ceremony, Cio-Cio-San's uncle, the Bonze, interrupts the festivities and sternly denounces her for renouncing her religion. Her family join in condemning and shunning the devastated girl. Pinkerton orders them to leave, and as night falls, he comforts his young bride.
As he exclaims how perfectly the name Butterfly suits her, she says she has heard that that overseas, a man will catch a butterfly and pin its wings to a table. Pinkerton explains that this is to prevent it from flying away: I've caught you ... you are mine. She responds, Yes, for life, and they revel in the glorious, starry night above them.
Three years have gone by since Pinkerton's return to the United States. Butterfly and her servant Suzuki are nearly out of money, and Suzuki doubts that Pinkerton will ever come back. Butterfly, however, believes fervently that he will keep his promise and that one fine day she will see a wisp of smoke, and his ship will enter the harbor: This will happen, I promise you ... with unalterable faith I shall wait for him.
Goro arrives with Sharpless, who has brought a letter from Pinkerton. Butterfly asks Sharpless when the robins make their nests in America, for Pinkerton had promised to return to her in that happy season when the robin builds his nest. Three such seasons have passed in Japan. Sharpless can only answer that he hasn't studied ornithology.
They are interrupted by the arrival of Prince Yamadori, the latest in a succession of suitors that Goro has been presenting to Butterfly. Butterfly flirts politely with Yamadori even as she refuses him. Goro tries to persuade her to marry Yamadori, on the grounds that being abandoned is equal to being divorced. That may be the law in Japan, she retorts, but not in the United States.
The three men are dismayed by her blind optimism. They know that Pinkerton's ship is on its way and that Pinkerton does not wish to see Butterfly. Yamadori reluctantly takes his leave.
As Sharpless begins to read the letter from Pinkerton, Butterfly keeps interrupting him, becoming more and more excited by the thought that her husband is coming back. Sharpless cannot bear to finish reading the letter, and finally asks her, What would you do, Madam Butterfly, if he were never to return? Butterfly tells him she would have but two choices – to go back to the life of a geisha or to die.
When Sharpless urges her to accept Prince Yamadori's offer of marriage, Butterfly is furious and hurt. She brings her son out and tells Sharpless he is called Sorrow, but will be renamed Joy on his father's return. Sharpless leaves, promising to tell Pinkerton about the child.
Pinkerton's ship, the Abraham Lincoln, arrives in the harbour, and Butterfly in great joy decorates the house with every last flower from the garden. She settles down with Suzuki and the child to wait for him. Their wordless vigil lasts the entire night. Suzuki and the baby fall asleep as the offstage chorus hums a tone-poem that evokes the beauty of the night and the hope in Butterfly's heart as she waits.
At sunrise, Suzuki insists that Butterfly get some sleep, and promises to wake her when Pinkerton arrives. Shortly after, Pinkerton and Sharpless appear with Pinkerton's American wife, Kate. The men desperately try to persuade Suzuki to break the news to Butterfly that Pinkerton and Kate want to take the child. Overcome with guilt, Pinkerton flees the scene.
Butterfly enters, looking for Pinkerton. When she sees Kate, she quickly grasps the situation and tells Kate that she will give up her son if Pinkerton comes back for him. Kate and Sharpless leave to find Pinkerton.
Butterfly sends Suzuki out of the room and takes out the dagger with which her father had committed suicide, saying, One shall die with honour who no longer can live with honour. As Butterfly points the knife at her throat, Suzuki pushes the child into the room. Butterfly says goodbye to the child, gently blindfolds him, and goes behind a screen. She stabs herself just as Pinkerton rushes in, anxiously calling her name.
POV Newsletter on Madama Butterfly.
Libretto of the Opera CD booklet from the Chandos Opera in English series. The Libretto begins on p.70
Libretto of the opera in Italian and English
Puccini's Use of Japanese Melodies in Madama Butterfly : This Master's Thesis by Kunio Hara (University of Cincinatti, 2000) provides a fascinating exploration of some of the Japanese songs in Madama Butterfly and an examination of the state of music in Japan at the time. It includes a detailed discussion of "Miyasan" ("My Prince"), a Japanese army song associated with Yamadori in the opera. Its melody may be familiar to many, thanks to its use in Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado.
Kunio Hara is now on faculty at the University of South Carolina, His primary areas of research include operas of Giacomo Puccini, 19th- and 20th-century music, and exoticism in music.
Sources for the story
Madame Chrysanthème, the semi-autobiographical novel by Louis Marie Julien Viaud, a French naval officer who wrote under the name Pierre Loti. His novels – some 40 of them – recounted his travels and love affairs in such exotic locales as Tahiti, Senegal, Istanbul, Holy Land, India and, of course, Japan. With their local colour, exoticism, and romance, these stories were lapped up by an appreciative public – and by a couple of opera composers: Madame Chrysanthème became an opera by André Messager, while another of Loti's books, Le Mariage de Loti, helped inspire Delibes' opera Lakmé.
Madama Butterfly, the short story by John Luther Long, the Philadelphia lawyer who heard a story from his sister, Jennie Correll, about a tea-house girl named Cho-San who had been abandoned by her lover.In his story, Cho-Cho-San attempts suicide but survives, and when Mrs. Pinkerton comes to collect the baby, mother and child have vanished.
Long's story, published in 1898, inspired David Belasco to create the one-act play that so impressed Puccini.
Madame Butterfly, the one-act play by David Belasco. Following its successful 1900 première in New York, Belasco toured the play to London, where it opened at the Duke of York's Theatre and, by a happy fluke, was seen by Puccini who was in town for the Covent Garden première of Tosca.
Although he couldn't speak English, Puccini was blown away by the theatricality and operatic potential of this play. The play includes Belasco's daring vigil scene in which Butterfly waits all night for Pinkerton to arrive. During this 14-minute scene, not a word is spoken. Belasco designed brilliant lighting effects to evoke night coming on, the lamps being lit, the stars coming out, and dawn breaking.
Belasco changed the ending by having Butterfly successfully kill herself.
Both Long and Belasco had their heroine speak a pidgin English that can be shocking to the modern reader. However, Puccini's vocal lines and Giacoso's Italian poetry imbue her with grace and eloquence.
Was There a Real Madame Butterfly?: There has been much speculation on the models for the real Butterfly, Pinkerton, and Trouble. This article by Jan van Rij, author of Madame Butterfly: Japonisme, Puccini, and the Search for the Real Cho-Cho-San, explores the history of "temporary marriages" in Japan and recounts the story of a woman who van Rij suggests might have been the real Cho-Cho-San.
It is theorized that John Luther Long's sister, Jennie Correll, may have met the real Butterfly's grown son while she was in Nagasaki with her missionary husband. Butterfly's son, known in the opera as Trouble or Sorrow, is thought to have grown up in Nagasaki under the name Tom Glover. The startling end to this story is that in August 1945, after the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, Tom Glover committed suicide.
Another view is expressed in Madame Butterfly: The Search Continues,. a review of van Rij's book by Lane Earns, who discusses some of the controversy around the theory that Tom Glover is the real Trouble.
Below is a short video in which Susan Graham recounts this theory. From a 2008 Live From Lincoln Center broadcast of Madama Butterfly
David Belasco and Victoria
The Life of David Belasco by William WinterVolume 1
Many people today recognize the name of David Belasco only because Puccini composed two operas based on his plays: Madama Butterfly and The Girl of the Golden West.
Belasco was in fact an American theatre legend – a flamboyant, larger-than-life character, an actor, playwright, and director, a scenic designer and an important pioneer in lighting design, a theatre producer and impresario.
His official biography by William Winter, written with Belasco's cooperation, tells much about his wide-ranging career.
Belasco actually spent much of his childhood right here in Victoria. Hie family, of Portuguese Jewish descent, arrived in 1858 (the year Puccini was born). Victoria, a jumping-off point for the Fraser Gold Rush, was a boom town crammed with picturesque characters. During the Belascos' seven-year stay, the town acquired its first local newspapers, its first commercial brewer, and its first soda-water factory; it saw the construction of the Chapel of St. Ann's Academy, the Congregation Emanu-El Synagogue, and the Victoria Theatre at Government and View, as well as the founding of the Victoria Philharmonic Society, and the first visits from professional theatre troupes.
Belasco lived here from age five to age twelve His father, Humphrey Abraham Belasco, ran a tobacco shop on Yates Street, and young David attended the Colonial School (near the site of today's Central Middle School), then the Boys' Collegiate School on Church Hill (now Burdett Avenue).
During this time, according to Winter's biography, David was adopted as a mascot by the Victoria Fire Department and ran away with the circus where he learned clowning and riding bareback – stories that should probably be taken with a grain or two of salt. Winter also tells us that David's father had performed as a harlequin in London pantomimes and became involved with the local Victoria Theatre, where young David also appeared in a few small roles. It seems then that David Belasco took his first steps toward an acting career, and discovered the lure and excitement of the theatrical life while he was a child here in Victoria!
David Belasco in the Pacific Northwest by Jonathan Dean, Director of Public Programs and Media at Seattle Opera. This engaging introduction to Belasco includes quotes from some of the most entertaining sections of Winter's biography.
Some Reminiscences of Old Victoria by Edgar Fawcett. LIke David Belasco, Edgar Fawcett (1847-1923) came to Victoria as a child in the wake of the gold rush. In his vivid memoir of Victoria in the 1850s and 1860s, Fawcett recalls a son of Abraham Belasco, tobacconist of Yates Street in 1862, by name David. Those interested in theatricals (and who is not?) will recognize the name as the prominent theatrical manager of New York. I little thought when going to school with him at the Collegiate School, under Rev. C. T. Woods, that he would be so well known a character as he is to-day.
Victoria's Victoria: An exploration of Victoria during the reign of Queen Victoria through articles and images. Explore by decades and select the 1860s to discover the Victoria in which the young David Belasco lived. See a photo of the Victoria Theatre where Belasco is said to have been a child actor; learn about the movers and shakers of the time. This website is a project of the History department at the University of Victoria in partnership with Malaspina University College History Department and several regional archives.
TAKE THE OPERA BUS: to the Sunday Matinée. Bus runs from the Saanich Peninsula and Up-Island.