Jan. 22, 2024

Madame Butterfly and “The Star-Spangled Banner”: Notes from Maestro Patrick Summers

Ailyn Pérez as Cio-Cio-San. Photo Credit: Michael Bishop

Throughout Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, we hear various musical quotes of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” always associated in some way with the character of Pinkerton. The familiarity of this music is one of several clues to the opera’s longstanding success.  


Interestingly, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was not the national anthem of the United States at the time of the opera’s 1904 premiere. The tune is older than our country, written in the 1760s for the Anacreontic Society, a London men’s club named after the bawdy Greek poems of Anacreon. It was an unprintably bawdy drinking song for all of its early history. Half a century after it was written, Francis Scott Key wrote his famous poem commemorating the Battle of Baltimore during the War of 1812, and poem and tune combined for the first time.  


Francis Scott Key has an interesting Texan connection. He was an amateur poet. By profession, Key was an attorney, and he was the defense for our city’s namesake: Sam Houston, in his trial for assaulting a fellow congressman, the event that forced his immigration to what was then Mexican Texas. It was only century after that, during the presidency of Herbert Hoover in 1931, when “The Star-Spangled Banner” officially became the national anthem. At the time of Madame Butterfly’s composition, 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—so for that time the song was known more to foreigners than to Americans.  


Puccini uses the music several times in the opera, most movingly when triumphantly sung by Cio-Cio-San, joyous that her long-awaited husband has returned and her long-sought love for him has been real all along, a moment of happiness only for her. Suzuki, as well as the audience, already senses the tragedy that is soon to unfold.  

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