Madame Butterfly

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 March, 2011, 12:00am

A hit opera

Madame Butterfly is an opera written by famous Italian composer Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924). It is a favourite among professional and amateur opera companies around the world, and is the most-performed opera both in the United States and Britain. Even people who don't usually like opera are drawn into the story and music of Madame Butterfly if they see it.

The story is simple, but it is very moving like the music that Puccini wrote. It is this emotion that touches people when they discover the opera.

The Japanese girl and the American sailor

Puccini based his opera on an American play and a short story that were in turn based on real events that took place in the Japanese port of Nagasaki in the 1890s. It tells the story of Cio-Cio San, a Japanese teenager who is forced into an arranged marriage with a sailor from the American navy based in Nagasaki. The sailor doesn't take his Japanese marriage seriously, and leaves Cio-Cio San to marry a girl back in America.

Madame Butterfly has been known to reduce the most hard-hearted audience to tears as Cio-Cio San's story moves towards its dramatic ending.

The Japanese effect

Until the middle of the 19th century, Japan was isolated from the rest of the world. In 1868, the government opened up the country to trade.

In Europe, all things Japanese became the rage. Decorated fans, images of cherry blossoms, Japanese art in all its forms intrigued people in Europe who were fascinated by anything from the Land of the Rising Sun.

When Puccini announced that his next opera would be set in Japan, it was labelled a hit before the first note had been heard. The original version of the opera, in two acts, premiered in February, 1904, at La Scala opera house in Milan - it was a disaster. Puccini knew he had composed some of the music in a rush to get the production on stage in time. He made changes to the opera, splitting it into three acts and rewriting a lot of the music. This second version opened in May, 1904, and was a huge success.

Cio-Cio San

In a house overlooking Nagasaki harbour, Navy Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton marries a young, beautiful Japanese girl called Cio-Cio San. It is an arranged marriage. Cio-Cio San is deeply in love with Pinkerton, and is devastated when he has to return to America. But he promises to return. Three years later, Cio-Cio San and her young son are still waiting for Pinkerton's ship to come back. One day, Pinkerton does return, bringing an American wife with him. There is only one thing Cio-Cio San can do to protect her family honour and secure a future for her son.

Madame Butterfly fact file

Finish off these sentences.

1 Madame Butterfly is an Italian .........

2 It was first performed in Italy at the beginning of the 20th ........

3 The first performance was not a .........

4 The story is based on a short story and ........

5 Cio-Cio San enters into an arranged marriage with an American .......

6 Pinkerton eventually returns to Nagasaki with an American .........

7 Cio-Cio San takes drastic steps to protect her family's ..........

Answers: 1. opera, 2. century, 3. success, 4. play, 5. sailor, 6. wife, 7. honour