Below are the program notes I wrote for the Lubbock Symphony Orchestra’s upcoming performance of Madama Butterfly – Nov 11. The final version of the notes that appears in the program may be an edited version of what’s below. The four principals are:
Cio-Cio-San: Yunah Lee
Suzuki: Kristen Choi
Pinkerton: Bryan Hymel
Sharpless: Zachary Nelson
Few works of art have both supreme genius and universal popularity. Giacomo Puccini’s sixth opera, Madama Butterfly, falls into this rarefied group. Its history is complicated. In 1887 Pierre Loti published a semi-autobiographical novel Madame Chrysanthème. American lawyer and writer John Luther Long reworked the tale into a short story. Long’s version was dramatized by the American Producer-Director-Playwright David Belasco as Madame Butterfly: A Tragedy of Japan. In 1900 Puccini saw the London production of the play. Though not understanding English, he was so moved by Belasco’s production that he resolved to make the play into his next opera.
Puccini, an early auto enthusiast, suffered a serious accident on February 25, 1903. He sustained a bad leg injury which immobilized him for 10 months. When being removed from the scene of the accident he is said to have lamented “My poor Butterfly,” fearing that his injury might prevent him from finishing the opera. Of course, he did finish the opera after a 10 month recuperation from his injury
Puccini was convinced that Butterfly was the finest work he had done. An opinion that remained unchanged for the rest of his life. He and his family, confident of success, looked forward to its introductory performance with confidence.
On February 17, 1904 the opera premiered at Milan’s La Scala. It was a disaster. Mary Jane Phillips-Matz writes in The Puccini Companion. “The premiere … was greeted by ‘roars, howls, laughter, bellowing, and guffaws.’ Almost none of his music could be heard, and any applause was answered with shouts of protest and jeers. Puccini described the experience as ‘a real lynching.’” The composer withdrew the opera after just one performance.
The composer revised the opera, splitting the long second act in two with the Humming Chorus as a bridge between the two acts. This three act version was staged in May of 1904 in Brescia with the renowned Ukrainian soprano Solomiya Krushelnytska in the title role. This time the opera was an unqualified success.
Thereafter, it triumphed wherever it was played. It first reached the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1907. Geraldine Ferrar and Enrico Caruso headed the cast. The composer was present and supervised the production. It has remained a staple of the Met’s repertory. As of the present, the company has performed the opera 902 times. The number would be higher had not the Met removed the opera from its repertory in late 1941 because of the war with Japan. It did not return until 1946. A sympathetic Japanese girl and reprehensible American naval officer was felt to be beyond tolerance for the Met’s wartime audience.
The version of the opera first performed at the Met was Puccini’s second revision. Subsequently, there were two more revisions. The final one is now called the “Standard Version” and is the one usually performed around the world.
Puccini’s opera depicts a sad tale of exploitation, abandonment, and betrayal. Butterfly is only 15 years old in Act 1. She thinks she is entering into a real marriage with the callous and over privileged US naval lieutenant BF Pinkerton. He’s in his early twenties and had no intention of staying with Butterfly after his shore leave is over – 30 days. She is in love; he is just using her. Before “marrying” Pinkerton she tells how her prosperous father committed suicide on the order of the emperor. After Pinkerton does not return to Japan, the impoverished and fatherless Butterfly, who has been rejected by her family for abandoning her religion, resists all attempts to find another match for her; one that would improve her financial condition. She insists she is already married.
When Pinkerton does return in Act 3 it’s with his “real” wife Kate. How she managed to cross the Pacific onboard an American man-of-war is never explained, or even why. Neither she nor Pinkerton knows Butterfly has a child, the issue of the 30 day “marriage”, until after they land in Nagasaki. As soon as she becomes aware that Pinkerton is the father of a Japanese-American boy, Kate wants Butterfly to surrender the child so the American couple can raise him in the United States – another act of thoughtless cruelty. Butterfly agrees, but only on condition that Pinkerton see her first. Earlier in Act 3 he had run away unable to face Butterfly.
The story Puccini set to music is replete with elements that a modern audience might find distasteful or even repellent. The Orientalism, sexual exploitation of an underage girl, cultural appropriation, and much more – all are swept away by the genius and perfection of his score. The audience does more than suspend disbelief, a fine performance removes every blemish that the story might reveal so melodic, insightful, and dramatically compelling is the music.
The opera is sometimes characterized as depicting the clash of two different cultures at the turn of the last century. Puccini studied Japanese songs and incorporated some of them into the score. When Pinkerton describes his history or when America is mentioned, fragments of the Star-Spangled Banner are played. He used Asian signifiers to provide a Japanese atmosphere. These include a gong, bells, cymbals, pizzicato strings, and a Japanese military tremolo. But ultimately the story is about emotions and behaviors common to all people, no matter how different the circumstances.
Any attempt to choose the “highlights” of Madama Butterfly would require starting at its first note and ending with its last. The work is so finely wrought that not a single note could be added or removed without degrading the work. Nevertheless, a few moments in the opera are worthy of some extra attention.
Butterfly’s entrance comes after considerable discussion of the circumstances leading to the “marriage” between Pinkerton and the American consul Sharpless. The music accompanying her first appearance is the theme of the love duet that ends the first act. This long duet follows her rejection by her family and friends. She converted from Buddhism to Christianity to please Pinkerton. Her uncle the bonze (a Buddhist priest) found out about the conversion and cursed her. She is alone and utterly dependent on Pinkerton who has no intention of staying with her. In this long and extraordinary duet she expresses her love while he burns with desire.
In the second act Sharpless visits Butterfly. It’s been three years since Pinkerton left. The consul has a letter from Pinkerton stating that he is coming back to Nagasaki, but not to her. Butterfly is so excited about the contents of this letter that Sharpless can not finish reading it. He stops and calls Pinkerton a devil. Listen carefully to the orchestral accompaniment; it is the music of the intensely moving Humming Chorus that transitions between Acts 2 and 3. Butterfly, her servant Suzuki, and the child wait through the night for him. Butterfly saw his ship arrive in the harbor during the afternoon. But he does not come until later the next day when they have given up their vigil.
When Butterfly finally realizes that she has been betrayed and that life is no longer possible for her she prays to statues of her ancestral gods, says goodbye to her son, and blindfolds him. She places a small American flag in his hands and goes behind a screen, killing herself with her father’s seppuku knife. Pinkerton rushes in, but it is too late.
The final scene is in C minor. The opera’s last chord would be C, E flat, and G if still in C minor. Puccini, in a stroke of genius, raises the G to A flat thus changing the key to A flat major. The shift from minor to major key instead of brightening the mood creates a sense of unease. The world is out of joint. The listener is devastated. Puccini’s masterpiece ends with a dagger to the heart.