Jan. 4, 2024

Your Madame Butterfly Questions Answered

Kunio Hara, HGO’s cultural consultant for Madame Butterfly, on truth, fiction, fantasy, and reality in Puccini’s opera
Photo Credit: Lynn Lane

Is Madame Butterfly based on a real story?

Yes and no. Puccini and his Italian librettists, Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, consulted sources including the semi-autobiographical novel Madame Chrysanthème by Pierre Loti, a French naval officer who was stationed in Nagasaki, and the short story “Madame Butterfly” by John Luther Long, whose sister lived in Nagasaki with her missionary husband. The libretto blends these and other elements, mixing fantasy and reality. 


In the opera, Cio-Cio-San says she’s worked as a geisha. What’s a geisha?

In Japanese, “geisha” means “artist.” Historically, geishas entertained guests at private parties through their music, dancing, and conversational skills, gained through rigorous training. They were distinct from sex workers, who were called yūjo, jorō, and oiran, among other names. To Westerners with little cultural context, these women seemed indistinguishable. Some productions of Butterfly, including HGO’s in 1985, have depicted Cio-Cio-San as a sex worker.


Were temporary marriages really legal in Japan?

When Japan established diplomatic relationships with Western nations in the 1850s, the port city of Nagasaki saw a sudden influx of foreign men who stayed for short periods of time. The local government created a system that gave license to Japanese women to temporarily house these Western men. Puccini and his librettists were aware of this practice and made use of it.


What is Cio-Cio-San’s religion?

Butterfly was likely written as Buddhist considering that her uncle Bonze—whose name is an archaic Italian word for “Buddhist monk”—accuses her of abandoning her ancestral religion when she converts to Christianity. Her servant Suzuki also prays in front of a statue of Buddha, although the opera gets the details wrong, as she lists the badly garbled names of deities from an entirely different religion: Shintoism, a faith indigenous to Japan.


Why does Butterfly choose to end her life?

The protagonists in Loti’s novel and Long’s short story do not end their lives. Butterfly’s suicide was introduced by the American playwright David Belasco in his dramatic adaptation of Long’s story. It was an American take on Japanese culture: death by suicide is a common theme in traditional Japanese theater practices kabuki and bunraku. European and American observers were fascinated with the ritual suicide practiced by the elite Japanese warrior class (samurai) to maintain their family honor. Puccini and his librettist drew on that for their opera.


What do operagoers need to know about the opera’s setting, Nagasaki?

Situated on the southern island of Kyushu, Nagasaki was an international port city that permitted Chinese and Dutch merchants to trade even when Japan was closed off to the outside world. After Japan signed trade treaties with various Western powers, many foreigners lived and conducted business there. The U.S. bombed Nagasaki during WWII. HGO’s 1985 production of Butterfly concluded with an atomic blast simulation—intended, according to the Washington Post, as “a logical consequence of the American attitudes embodied in Lt. B.F. Pinkerton.”

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.