Jan. 5, 2024

Madame Butterfly — What to Listen for

Photo Credit: Lynn Lane

Music for the Japanese setting: Puccini incorporated several Japanese melodies throughout the score for Madame Butterfly. Many of the tunes—including Sakura,” “Miyasan,” “Oedo Nihonbashi,” and “Kimigayo” (the Japanese national anthem)—are familiar to audiences in Japan even today. Others, such as “Takai yama,” “Jizuki-uta,” “Suiryō-bushi,” and “Kappore hōnen,” are less recognizable to modern audiences but were popular in Japan at the turn of the twentieth century.


Puccini incorporates Japanese tunes into Cio-Cio-San’s music, especially during Act I when she displays her Japanese wares to her groom-to-be and her distressing Act II aria “Che tua madre,” when she imagines her life without Pinkerton. But a Chinese tune also made its way into the score: according to a recent discovery by professor W. Anthony Sheppard, Butterfly’s Act I aria, “Io seguo il mio destino,” in which she professes her loyalty to Pinkerton, was based on a tune Puccini found on a Swiss-made music box containing Chinese melodies. 


Arias mapping emotions: Listen for the development in Butterfly’s psychology through the three arias after the intermission. In “Un bel dì” in Act II, she’s feeling strained but still hopeful that Pinkerton will return. “Che tua madre,” also in Act II, shows her distress as she imagines her future life on the street without her husband. And in “Tu, tu piccolo iddio” in Act III, she expresses regret about leaving her son behind and fear that he too will forget her.


Pinkerton also sings a pair of contrasting arias. “Dovunque al mondo” in Act I celebrates the carefree life of amorous adventures of “lo Yankee vagabondo” (and includes the opening strains of “The Star-Spangled Banner”). But “Addio fiorito asil” in Act III shows he has transformed from a callous lover into a guilt-ridden man.


Powerful atmospherics: The three-part intermezzo between Acts II and III showcases Puccini’s masterful skills. The first segment pairs the famous backstage chorus hum with a reduced orchestra, creating a magical, ethereal atmosphere as night falls. The second segment, a medley of themes from the opera, depicts Butterfly’s dream-like state of mind as she waits for Pinkerton. The third section depicts sunrise in an awakening city. Its buoyant pentatonic tune, with bright and cheerful woodwind and brass sounds, distant bells, and birdcalls, creates a painfully ironic contrast to Butterfly’s internal experience.


The simultaneous revelation of the inner worlds of multiple characters: Famous for its luxuriant length, Butterfly and Pinkerton’s duet at the end of Act I not only powerfully demonstrates the lovers’ attraction, but it also shows they don’t quite see eye to eye. Pinkerton expresses his fascination with Cio-Cio-San’s physical features with his gorgeous melodies, coaxing her to come closer. Butterfly, on the other hand, sings about the mysterious beauty of nature and the depths of her feelings.


In Butterfly and Suzuki’s “flower duet” from Act II, they sing in beautiful harmony against the colorful orchestral accompaniment, suggesting their close bond.


The stately Act III trio featuring Pinkerton, Sharpless, and Suzuki captures each character’s disparate emotional state. Pinkerton, grasping the consequences of his actions, begins to regret his decision; Sharpless bitterly recalls his warning to Pinkerton on his wedding day; and Suzuki sheds tears for her friend.

about the author
Kunio Hara
Kunio Hara, HGO's cultural consultant for Madame Butterfly this season, is an associate professor of music history at the University of South Carolina.