A Lacquered Otherness: The Origins of Madame Butterfly

Madame Butterfly offers a tantalizing glimpse into another time and place: a Europe under the spell of the East, a moment of mutual fascination and mutual misunderstanding. Although Puccini wove scraps of exotica—an American anthem, a Japanese prayer—into his score, the opera is as Italian as it gets. The composer, having written Manon Lescaut, La bohème, and Tosca, was by then a master of the coloristic possibilities of both the Western orchestra and the operatic voice. While Butterfly’s soundscape may not be authentically Japanese, the emotional life Puccini conjures for his heroine has extraordinary power and depth—a surface delicacy that belies tremendous personal strength.

The story of one man’s encounter with the East via a temporary “marriage”—a transaction at once intimate and distant—can be traced to a semi-autobiographical novel penned by a French naval officer known as Pierre Loti in 1887. The Japan he describes is picturesque and charming—a porcelain tableau that never quite feels real.

At this moment, my impressions of Japan are charming enough; I feel myself fairly launched upon this tiny, artificial, fictitious world, which I felt I knew already from the paintings of lacquer and porcelains. It is so exact a representation! The three little squatting women, graceful and dainty, with their narrow slits of eyes, their magnificent chignons in huge bows, smooth and shining as boot-polish, and the little tea-service on the floor, the landscape seen through the verandah, the pagoda perched among the clouds; and over all the same affectation everywhere, every detail… Long before I came to it, I had perfectly pictured this Japan to myself. Nevertheless in the reality it almost seems to be smaller, more finicking than I had imagined it, and also much more mournful, no doubt by reason of that great pall of black clouds hanging over us and the incessant rain.

—Pierre Loti, Madame Chrysantheme

In Loti’s story, the narrator’s marriage to a Japanese “wife” is understood by both parties to be a temporary arrangement; when officer and geisha part, amicably, we see the title character testing the authenticity of the coins she has received. But if the human relationship was rather cold, Loti’s feeling for the exotic landscape was more than enough to carry the work to success; within five years, Madame Chrysantheme had been published in some 25 editions and translated into several languages, including English.

The episode was then taken up by the American writer John Luther Long, who published the novella Madame Butterfly in 1898. Here is the origin of the story opera lovers have come to know, a story in which bride and groom mean something very different when they profess their love. Pinkerton is genuinely overwhelmed with feelings for Butterfly, even as he knows he will eventually leave her. Later, when the young officer returns to Japan with his new American wife, Cio-Cio-San contemplates suicide, but then changes her mind, disappearing with her servant and child.

The director and producer David Belasco, recognizing the theatrical possibilities of Long’s story, adapted it for the stage in 1900. In Belasco’s version, the abandoned heroine follows her late father’s example, choosing to “die with honor.” This dramatic coup, retained by Puccini, not only forces Butterfly’s so-called husband to grapple with the effects of his actions, it also implicates all of us who have shared in Pinkerton’s captivation as the story unfolds. As the London Times put it, “in any other than an exotic setting, the dramatic episode would be intolerably painful.”

Belasco—and Puccini—rely on Japan’s “otherness” to draw us into what is, otherwise, a fairly grim story. But their vision of the geisha erases any distance between her heart and ours. In Belasco’s staged version of Madame Butterfly, Kate Pinkerton, as enchanted with Butterfly as her now-husband once was, attempts to take Butterfly into her arms, calling her a “poor little thing…pretty little plaything.” Butterfly rejects her label, then rises and asks, impassively, how long Kate and Pinkerton have been married. This a woman who will have the last word—who will die with honor as she makes all others question their own.

—Kelley Rourke is dramaturg of Washington National Opera