Dec. 27, 2023

Love's Call

The eternal appeal of the opera, Madame Butterfly
Tenor Alexey Dolgov as Pinkerton and soprano Ana María Martínez in HGO's 2015 production of Madame Butterfly. Photo credit: Lynn Lane

Giacomo Puccini was one of the first to experience a type of accident unknown before his era: in 1903 his car flipped over, nearly killing him, and his slow recovery delayed Madame Butterfly’s composition. No one in 1903 could have predicted how cars would change the world, nor how dangerous they could be—and they also would never have imagined the tremendous staying power nor the controversies surrounding Puccini’s most famous opera that has starred a huge range of sopranos as his beloved Cio-Cio-San.  

“Povera Butterfly!” (“Poor Butterfly!”), is famously sung by the character of Suzuki in the opera’s final act, though we might sometimes say “Povero Puccini!” The composer of three of the world’s most popular operas, Madame Butterfly, Tosca, and La bohème, Puccini (1858–1924) has always been treated with neglect by all but the very upper echelon of critics, particularly when one considers the effusive approbations showered onto other composers of his era: Mahler, Stravinsky, Richard Strauss, and Jean Sibelius, among others, who are invariably classified within the pantheon of the earlier masters. Puccini was maligned for everything: for the attention-grabbing (i.e., non-Italian) settings of many of his operas; for effeminacy, which had a different meaning then from now: it meant the particular appeal of his operas to women. Even after he proved to be the most original and clever of his age, he was accused of recycling his own music. His greatest work, and one of the greatest of all operas, is not his most famous: his extraordinary Trittico, a Metropolitan Opera commission in 1918. In Trittico, one hears the full depth of his musical and theatrical imagination, and within it he virtually invented what would just a few years later become the musical language for generations of cinema lovers.  


Puccini was expected to assume the operatic and patriotic mantle of Giuseppe Verdi, whose death in 1901 left the newly united Italy without a unifying figurehead. Puccini was in every way a lighter-hearted man, a true child of the gilded age. He aspired only to entertain and transport; he exerted no ambition to write the darkly psychological and dense works penned by Wagner, and one could scarcely imagine Puccini reading and adoring Italian translations of Shakespeare and Schiller, as Verdi did throughout his life. In an art form where aesthetics so freely float, it seems churlish to accuse Puccini of failing to achieve something to which he didn’t aspire.  

Puccini’s epic Madame Butterfly is beloved by many generations of the operatic public, and it is one of the few operas with its own audience, many of whom have no interest in Parsifal or Don Giovanni. Butterfly also has handily survived the vast number of interpretational eccentricities foisted upon it, and they have been numerous over the years, but it almost didn’t survive its world premiere at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala in 1904—a night so filled with poison and partisan jealousy that it threatened to bury the work forever. Initially, it appeared that the vicious cabal that launched the audience on the attack had succeeded. Puccini withdrew his opera before its second performance.   

Historians have tried to piece together the reason for the failure, but it is all too clear, given human nature: several jealous Italian composers and music publishers had a vested interest in the failure of any Puccini opera. Puccini refunded his commission money to La Scala, and in place of the scheduled second performance, the company performed Gounod’s Faust. In the following months, Puccini revised Butterfly for the Italian city of Brescia, where it was a success. London heard the work a little over a year later, and by the time Puccini’s beloved heroine made it to New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 1907, starring the famed Geraldine Ferrar, Enrico Caruso, and conducted by Toscanini, the opera was fully resuscitated from its rocky initiation. It has been, thankfully, an indestructible staple of the repertoire ever since.  

Photo Credit: Lynn Lane

The genesis of Puccini’s opera is well documented, if often somewhat embellished for dramatic effect: he was in London for the British premiere of Tosca when he saw a one-act play by David Belasco, Madam Butterfly, based on a short story by John Luther Long, Madame Butterfly (the “Madam,” “Madame,” and “Madama” distinctions are rarely made today, as an international work the opera is called all three). Long’s popular story was itself based partly on Pierre Loti’s 1887 novel Madame Crysanthéme and on stories by his sister Jeanne, who had lived in Nagasaki in the late nineteenth century, about a geisha girl abandoned by a foreign husband and driven to despair.   

Much has been made of the fact that Puccini spoke barely a word of English when he attended Belasco’s play, but it’s probably a good thing; one reads Belasco’s play now and cringes at the syrupy writing and ethnically-clichéd Asian English-isms, none of which appear in the final libretto of the opera. You will never see a revival of the play on which the opera, Madama Butterfly, is based, and that fact says a lot about the power of Puccini’s opera. Since Puccini couldn’t understand a word of the play, the scenes that made the deepest impression on him were the scenes requiring no words at all: the all-night vigil, for which Puccini wrote the atmospheric “humming” chorus, and the final tragic scene, both inventions of Belasco not found in the source materials. Long’s story is a period piece that is either quaint or sinister, depending on your vantage point, appearing as it does only a few years after Japan was opened to the trading west in 1860, the same temporal distance between right now and the Clinton administration. The perceived exoticism of Asia was intoxicating to the European and American world, made even more so by the burgeoning art of photography. Japanese art swept the world at this time, as painting and ceramic techniques from the land of the rising sun were taken up by Manet, Monet, Degas, and a host of others. Japan became, in this era, an integral part of the international cultural world for the first time.   

And so did Puccini’s title role: many types of sopranos have enjoyed success in the iconic role. Rosina Storchio, Puccini’s first Cio-Cio-San, had a light and lyric voice—she was a Susanna in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, and Gretel in Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel. Verdian sopranos of a heavier variety have also sung the part. One of Puccini’s favorite interpreters of the role was Italian soprano Toti dal Monte, a famous Gilda in Rigoletto, among many other lighter roles for which she was famous. Puccini often spoke about dal Monte’s sfumato quality, a word associated with Italian painting, as it was one of the four qualities of Renaissance brush work, perfected by Leonardo da Vinci: an ability to shade, to draw a veil over a scene. Our heroine here this season at HGO, Ailyn Pérez, joins the legacy of distinguished sopranos who have drawn on a wide range of Puccini’s inspirations.   

It frustrates some that operatic casting is so utterly different from any other art. This is because operas are an acoustic musical and theatrical art, and so opera is an art in which the great life force of the human singing voice is a primary consideration. Great voices come in all kinds of bodies and from all kinds of cultures.   

Is Madame Butterfly even about Japan? Or is it an Italian opera that happens to be set in Japan? Puccini had a music box from China that had tunes he later incorporated into Madame Butterfly and Turandot. This wasn’t insensitivity, though we may classify it as such retroactively—it was simply that Japan was his setting and not his subject. Music boxes from Asia were the extent of musicological research by most European composers in the late 19th century, and the music boxes were themselves a product of colonialism, mostly acquired at auctions following the Boxer Rebellion. We can take an absolutist view of Madame Butterfly, or insist it be treated as a documentary instead of a transitory acoustic art. Another option is to approach it with nuance and try to live up to its own aspirations as best we can in any given era. We have choices.  


The Japanese soprano Yoko Watanabe had a substantial career singing many Italianate roles like Tosca and Mimi, and she was a wonderful colleague with whom I had the privilege to work several times. With her beautiful lyric soprano voice, she also had great acclaim in Madame Butterfly, which she knew was partly because of her own cultural heritage. Yet, she always claimed, “I am Japanese, and my figure is Japanese, but the music is Italian, so I try not to do too much of what we would think of as Japanese theatrical movement. In Japanese theater, our movements are very small. We walk in small steps; we make small gestures. I don’t believe those would really convey the character of Butterfly fully to the public. After all, this is a very dramatic opera.” What her statement says to us, I believe, is the Cio-Cio-San is a character for the ages, and her appeal and empathy is beyond nationality or culture. This is the quality that great roles empower: the actor playing Hamlet does not need to be Danish to ignite the role for us.   

There are few passages in opera as musically entrancing as the entrance of Cio-Cio-San in Madame Butterfly. Firstly, the words are utterly honest, childlike, and sadly prescient, “I have answered love’s call…I came to love’s threshold where the good is gathered of those who live and those who die.” A delicate solo violin, viola, and cello, with lush answering chords on the harp and glockenspiel, accompany her to the stage. Pinkerton, so often dismissed as just a bad guy, is more complicated: he is a naive youngster, lost in what he considers to be a play land, traveling where he’s sure he’ll never be again, and his music is that of a swaggering and overly confident frat boy, not a monster. His heartfelt and touchingly remorseful third-act aria can feel false to today’s audiences, accustomed as they are to PR-firm-scripted displays of remorse.   

Puccini’s musical quote of “The Star Spangled Banner” is interesting. The tune is very old, written in the 1760s as a drinking song for the Anacreontic Society, a London men’s club named after the bawdy Greek poems of Anacreon. Fifty years later, Francis Scott Key wrote his poem to commemorate a battle of the War of 1812. Key has an interesting Texan connection. He was only an amateur poet—by profession he was an attorney, and he was the defense for Sam Houston himself, in his trial for assaulting a fellow congressman, which forced his immigration to what was then Mexican Texas. Only during the Hoover Presidency, in 1931, did the song become the official anthem of the United States. In 1904, it would have had specific associations only with the U.S. Navy, which in the late 1880s had begun to play the song upon arrival in foreign ports. Puccini uses the music several times later in the opera, most movingly when Cio-Cio-San triumphantly declares the triumph of her faith in her husband’s return on the USS Abraham Lincoln.  

We hear an authentically Japanese melody at the end of Cio-Cio-San’s entrance music. A short time later in Act One, Puccini transforms this music into one of Madame Butterfly’s most affecting passages, a brief and childlike aria accompanied by a quietly fluttering harp. One of opera’s most beloved heroines confesses that she will happily forego the religion of her youth to accept the foreign faith of her new husband. In a subtle microcosm of cultural destiny, masked by beauty and momentary expectation, the inexorable tragedy is set quietly into motion. It explains, as well, the everlasting appeal of this beautiful opera.   

Io seguo il mio destino e piena d’umilta, 
Al Dio del signor Pinkerton m’inchino. 
È mio destino. 
Nella stessa chiesetta in ginocchio con voi 
Pregherò lo stesso Dio. 

(I follow my destiny and, full of humility, 
I bow to Mr. Pinkerton’s God. It is my destiny. 
In the same little church, kneeling with you, 
I’ll pray to the same God.)  

about the author
Patrick Summers
Patrick Summers is the Artistic and Music Director, Sarah and Ernest Butler Chair, at Houston Grand Opera.