Giacomo Puccini and

Madama Butterfly

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) was the fifth-generation descendent of a line of respected musicians from city of Lucca. He enrolled in the Pacini Institute, which offered a combination of school education and conservatory music training. At about 15, he regularly played the piano in various places of entertainment to earn a small income to help his widowed mother maintain a large family of five daughters and two sons.


With a meagre scholarship, Puccini went to Milan. He was 22 years old and his mind was set on mastering the craft of operatic composition. He was admitted to the Royal Conservatory in December 1880, with top marks.


There for the next four years, Puccini lived under extreme financial hardship. Fortune smiles on him, however, in other ways. At the Conservatory, he became the protégé of Amilcare Ponchielli, composer of La Gioconda and a most effective teacher, who took great care to prepare and launch him on his career. Then, immediately after graduation, Puccini attracted the attention of the influential Arrigo Boito, composer of Mefistofele and brilliant librettist, who championed his first works. But most important of all, he was taken under the wings of the great music publisher, Guilio Ricordi, who recognized Puccini’s talents and identified in him the most likely successor to Giuseppe Verdi.


The Ricordi arrangement enabled Puccini to receive a salary advance. Further royalties would be paid depending on the success of his works in sales and performance. With his first two operas Le Villi (1884) and Edgar (1889) achieving moderate popularity, he would concentrate on work without fear of privation.


It was with his third opera Manon Lescaut (1893) that Puccini finally achieved international fame. It raised his status and prestige overnight, and the royalties accruing from it brought forth a regular and handsome income. La Bohème (1896) and Tosca (1900) further established him as the most eminent and wealthy composer of his generation, exciting tremendous envy and enmity frim his many rivals.


In April 1900, when Puccini was visiting London to assist in the production of Tosca at Covent Garden, friends invited him to see the play Madam Butterfly. This was the work of American playwright and producer David Belasco, who had adapted his effective drama from a short story by another American, John Luther Long. The story, said to have been based on a true event, was concerned with the desertion of a geisha girl by an American naval officer, to whom she bored a child after he had abandoned her and for whom she waited with unwavering faith until he returned with his American wife to claim the child, whereupon the geisha disappeared and was never seen again.


According to Belasco, Puccini went backstage after the performance, embraced him and begged him for permission to use Madam Butterfly for an opera. It took 14 months to fashion a libretto to the satisfaction of the composer, who had started to write the music before the completion of the text. The whole of Madama Butterfly was completed on 27 December 1903, and the first performance took place at La Scala in Milan on 17 February 1904.


That première was the greatest fiasco known in operatic history. From the record of Giulio Ricordi: 'Growls, shouts, groans, laughter, giggling, the single cries of encore, designed specially to excite the audience still more. These sum up the pandemonium, throughout which practically nothing could be heard. In the atrium of the theatre the joy was at its height, and there were those who rubbed their hands.' It was obviously an organized sabotage by jealous enemies; but Puccini was also quick to recognize his own mistakes in the structure of the opera and the treatment of some of the scenes. He withdrew the work immediately after this single performance. A carefully revised version was presented three months later in Brescia with unqualified success. From then on, Madama Butterfly swiftly conquered the world.


Madama Butterfly is a masterpiece of dramatic development and psychological character-portrayal through music. Puccini worked meticulously on reflecting every nuance of the words, the motivations, thoughts and feelings of his heroine. He studied in depth Japanese customs and musical themes, not for superficial exotic colouring but with a view to integrating them as essential elements within the total dramatic and musical structure. His setting of atmosphere is superb, but the greatest strength lies in the growth of Butterfly's character. Unlike the original story where in the end she turns away from sad reality, Puccini's heroine stands firm on her faith and faces the consequences courageously. In rejecting the alternatives of remarrying or returning to a geisha's life, she makes the only choice that is honourable to her. She suffers because she is what she is, and this places the opera on the level of true tragedy.

Madama Butterfly Synopsis

​Act I




On a terrace above Nagasaki harbour, Lieutenant B. F. Pinkerton inspects the house he has leased from a marriage broker, Goro, who has procured him a geisha wife known as Butterfly. To American Consul Sharpless, Pinkerton describes his carefree philosophy of pleasure. For the moment, he is enchanted with the fragile Butterfly and intends to go through a marriage ceremony with her. When Sharpless warns that the girl may not take her vows lightly, the Lieutenant brushes aside such scruples, adding that he will one day take a ‘real’ American wife. At that moment Butterfly is heard in the distance joyously singing of her wedding day. On arrival, surrounded by her friends, she tells Pinkerton how, when her family fell on hard times, she had to earn her living as a geisha. Soon her relatives arrive and noisily express their opinions on the marriage. When she finds a quiet moment, Butterfly shows her bridegroom her few earthly treasures, telling him that she has adopted his Christian faith. With much pomp and dignity, the Imperial Commissioner performs the wedding ceremony, after which the guests toast the couple. Suddenly Butterfly’s uncle Bonzo, a high priest, bursts upon the scene, cursing the girl for having renounced her ancestor’s religion. Pinkerton angrily orders the priest and family to leave. Alone with the bride, he dries her tears and reminds her that night is falling. Helped by her maid Suzuki into a pure white kimono, Butterfly joins the ardent Pinkerton in the garden, where they sing of their love.


Act II




Three years later, Butterfly still waits for her husband’s return. As Suzuki prays to her gods for aid, her mistress has her eyes fixed on the harbour. The maid urges Butterfly to remarry, for Pinkerton will never return. Butterfly asserts her faith: one fine day his ship will appear on the horizon. The Consul comes with a letter from Pinkerton, but before he can read it to Butterfly, Goro brings the latest suitor for her hand. The girl dismisses both him and the wealthy Prince Yamadori, insisting that her American husband has not deserted her. When they are alone, Sharpless again starts to read her the letter, suggesting as tactfully as he can that Pinkerton may never return. Butterfly proudly carries forth their child, insisting that as soon as Pinkerton knows of his son, he will surely come back. Moved by her devotion and lacking the heart to tell her of Pinkerton’s remarriage, Sharpless leaves. Butterfly hears a cannon shot; seizing a spyglass, she discovers Pinkerton’s ship entering the harbour. Delirious with joy, she and Suzuki strew the house with flower petals. Then, as night falls, she dons her wedding gown and, with her son and Suzuki, waits for her husband’s return.








As dawn breaks, Suzuki insists that Butterfly rests. Humming a lullaby to her child, she carries him to another room. Before long, Sharpless, Pinkerton and then Kate, his new wife, enter. When Suzuki realizes the truth, she collapses in despair. Out of consideration for her mistress, however, she agrees to break the news to her. Pinkerton is overcome with remorse, bids farewell to the scene of his former happiness then rushes away.  No sooner is he gone then Butterfly comes forth, expecting to find him but finding Kate instead. She takes but a moment to guess the truth. Leaning on Suzuki for support, she agrees to give up her child if the father will return for him. Then sending Suzuki away, she takes a dagger and bows before a statue of Buddha. Just as she raises the blade, Suzuki pushes the child into the room. Tearfully sobbing a farewell to him, Butterfly sends him out to play. Then, she stabs herself. Pinkerton’s voice is heard in the distance calling her name.

Lo Kingman