Madama Butterfly Study Guide

The Sad Story of a Devoted and Deluded Wife in 3 Acts

Bonsi, played by Jan Opalach
Bonsi, played by Jan Opalach, takes center stage to express his disapproval of the impending marriage of Cio-Cio-San and Pinkerton in the New York City Opera's production of 'Madama Butterfly,' May 21, 2005 in Tokyo, Japan. Joe McNally / Contributor / Getty

Madame Butterfly, or rather Madama Butterfly, is the name of an important opera written by the Italian composer Giacomo Puccini and first performed at La Scala opera house in Milan, Italy, on February 17, 1904. It is a tragedy about the love between a United States Navy lieutenant living in Japan and the geisha his real estate and marriage broker friend has supplied him, Cio-Cio San.

Plot Summary

The opera begins as Lieutenant Benjamin Pinkerton of the United States Navy inspects the house he recently rented in Nagasaki, Japan. His real estate agent, Goro, is also a marriage broker and has supplied Pinkerton with three servants and a geisha wife named Cio-Cio San, who is also known as Madama Butterfly.

Cio-Cio San is happy about the upcoming marriage, having given up her Buddhist religion for Christianity, hoping that Pinkerton will bring her once-wealthy family out of debt. Pinkerton is also happy but admits to his friend US Consul Sharpless that although he is infatuated with Madame Butterfly, he hopes to return to the United States and marry an American woman. At the end of the act, the wedding takes place, but Cio-Cio San's family leaves and severs all ties with her.

The second Act takes place three years after Pinkerton's ship sailed for America shortly after the wedding and without Pinkerton saying goodbye. Madame Butterfly continues to wait for him with her maid in ever-increasing poverty, despite her maid's warning that he will not return. Sharpless comes to Cio-Cio San's house with a letter from Pinkerton saying he will return but does not plan on staying, but Sharpless can't give it to her after she tells him about their child which Pinkerton does not know about, named Dolore. Pinkerton's ship comes in but he does not visit Cio-Cio San.

In Act III, Pinkerton and Sharpless finally arrive at the house, with Pinkerton's new wife Kate—because Kate wishes to raise the child. Pinkerton flees when he realizes that Butterfly still loves him, leaving his wife and Sharpless to break the news. Butterfly says she will give up the child if Pinkerton comes to see her one more time, and then she commits suicide before he can return.

Major Characters

  • Cio-Cio San or Madame Butterfly (soprano): who is given to Pinkerton along with a 999-year lease
  • Benjamin F. Pinkerton (tenor): an American Navy Lieutenant, in Nagasaki for a brief time
  • Colonel Sharpless (baritone): the US Consul and the opera's moral compass
  • Goro (tenor): a matchmaker who gives Butterfly to Pinkerton in the first act
  • Suzuki (mezzo-soprano): Cio-Cio San's maid, the unheard voice of reason

Major Themes

  • East, West, and Cultural Conflict: Fundamental differences between late 19th century Japan and the United States are featured, and the origin of the story as well as its western authors and composer are the foremost viewpoints.
  • Submissive Asian Women and the Men Who Love Them: Cio-Cio San is seen giving up her family and her religion for Pinkerton
  • Self-Deception: Cio Cio San believes Pinkerton loves her, Pinkerton believes that he can love and leave her without repercussions: both are deluded

Historical Context

Madama Butterfly was based on a short story written by American lawyer and writer Luther Long, based on the recollections of his sister who had been a Methodist Missionary in Japan. Published in 1898, the short story was made into a one-act play by the American playwright David Belasco, who took the play to London, where Puccini heard of it and became interested.

Puccini based his (eventually) three-act opera on Belasco's play, blending and contrasting (European views of) late nineteenth-century Japanese and American cultures and mores into the tragic opera we see today.

in 1988, David Henry Hwang adapted the story into a searing commentary about the inherent racism in it, called M. Butterfly, particularly about the male fantasy of submissive Asian women.

Key Arias

  • Dovunque al mondo ("Throughout the world"): Pinkerton's musical theme is established as The Star Spangled Banner" and in it, he brags that he wants to "capture the flowers of every shore"
  • Bimba, Bimba, non piangere ("Sweetheart, sweetheart, do not weep"): a long duet that is sung by Pinkerton and Butterfly after their wedding and establishes the butterfly theme: Cio Cio San asks if its true that in foreign lands men capture butterflies and pin their wings to a table, and he says that's so the butterfly will not fly away.
  • Un bel dì vedremo ("one fine day we shall see"): In this most famous aria, Butterfly sings at the start of Act II about how she is sure that Pinkerton will return,
  • Coro a bocca chiusa ("Humming Chorus"): a musical segue from Act II to Act II in which Butterfly waits for Pinkerton's ship to arrive.
  • Addio, fiorito asil ("Farewell, flowery refuge"): an aria by Pinkerton as he flees Cio-Cio San's house