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

Ermonela Jaho | Meet the Artists

Soprano. Cio-Cio-San in Madame Butterfly.


Ermonela Jaho headshot 1

Ermonela was born in Albania, and is a graduate of Rome’s Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia.

This performance marks the talent’s WNO debut, although she has already wowed audiences around the world in the role of Cio-Cio-San—from London to Paris to Berlin.

A notable moment: Ermonela worked very hard to become an internationally acclaimed soprano. After entering a conservatory at 17, she was invited to study in Italy. At the end of her two-month study trip, Ermonela was determined to stay in Italy because it “is the home of bel canto,” and because Albania restricted her access to foreign operas. To continue pursuing her art—and to afford her new life in Italy—she became an au pair and lived in a hostel run by nuns.

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Arthur Woodley | Meet the Artists

Bass. Emile in Champion.


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Arthur was born in New York City and raised in St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

He originated the role of Emile Griffith in the premiere of Champion at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis to critical acclaim.

Fun fact! Arthur traveled the world as a student of opera. After spending two years at New York City Community College, he moved to Bologna, Italy to study at Giovanni Battista Martini Conservatory. There, he sang in an Italian rock band on the side! After leaving Italy, Arthur returned to New York City to finish his studies at Mannes College of Music.

Arthur’s most notable roles include Porgy in Porgy and Bess, Varlaam in Boris Godunov, Bartolo in The Marriage of Figaro, Banquo in Macbeth, Rocco in Fidelio, and Dick Hallorann in the world premiere of The Shining, based on the novel by Stephen King.

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Aubrey Allicock | Meet the Artists

Bass-baritone. Young Emile in Champion.


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Aubrey grew up in Tuscon, Arizona and originally discovered singing at church. After high school, he attended Grand Canyon University for his undergraduate degree, Indiana University for graduate school, and was a member of The Juilliard School‘s Artist Diploma in Opera Studies program.

This performance is Aubrey’s WNO debut.

Aubrey spent over seasons with the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. His first part—while a member of the Gerdine Young Artist program—was as a customs official in La bohème. With each season, his roles grew and ranged from Zaretsky in Eugene Onegin to the Mad Hatter in the U.S. premiere of Alice in Wonderland.

Fun fact! In 2013, Aubrey originated the role of Young Emile at his beloved Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. The bass-baritone deeply connected with his character, saying, “I feel like the role was written for me.”

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Dimitri Pittas | Meet the Artists

Tenor. Pinkerton in Madame Butterfly.


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A native of Queens, New York, Dimitri is a graduate of The Metropolitan Opera‘s Lindemann Young Artist Development program.

This production marks Dimitri’s WNO debut as well as his debut in the role of Pinkerton.

Some of Dimitri’s most notable roles include Rodolfo in La bohème, Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet, Macduff in Macbeth, the title role in Don Carlo, and Nemorino in The Elixir of Love.

Fun fact! The life of an opera singer is unlike any other. It’s unpredictable and nonstop and exciting—and this story from Dimitri encapsulates it perfectly. This year, while preparing to travel to Virginia from South Carolina for Passover, Dimitri received a call asking him to replace an ill tenor in an Opera Philadelphia production of The Elixir of Love. Always ready for the stage, Dimitri was forced to forgo his family trip and travel to Philadelphia instead. With only days to rehearse before the premiere, Dimitri saved the day. 

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Brian Jagde | Meet the Artists

Tenor. Pinkerton in Madame Butterfly.


Brian Jagde headshot 1 by Ken Howard

Brian is a graduate of The Purchase College’s Conservatory of Music as well as the Adler Fellowship Program at San Francisco Opera.

While Brian has graced many stages—from the Royal Opera House to the Teatro San Carlo—this production marks his WNO debut.

Fun fact! Brian studied computer science and business in college for two years before deciding that singing was “the coolest thing I’ve ever done.” He was then accepted into music school as a tenor, but because of the colors of his voice and the training methods used by his instructors, it was decided he was a baritone. He studied and performed for ten years as a baritone before meeting with a tenor teacher. There Brian was told—officially—that he is, in fact, a tenor. 

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Susan Graham | Meet the Artists

Mezzo-soprano. Mrs. De Rocher in Dead Man Walking.


A TeCommission by Matthew Cosgrove @ Onyx Produced by Cat Gill White Label Productions Hair & Make up: Gemma Aldous @ Alchemyxas native, this Grammy Award winner is a graduate of Texas Tech University and the Manhattan School of Music.

When Dead Man Walking had its world premiere in San Francisco in 2000, Susan portrayed Sister Helen Prejean, the lead female role that was written especially for her. She returns to this new production from WNO to captivate audiences as Mrs. De Rocher, the mother of the death row inmate.

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Denyce Graves | Meet the Artists

Mezzo-soprano. Emelda Griffith in Champion.


A DDenyce Graves headshot.C. native, Denyce attended the Duke Ellington School of the Arts and was later awarded a scholarship to the Oberlin Conservatory of Music.

Denyce’s title roles in Carmen and Samson et Dalila have made her particularly well-known to opera audiences. In fact, the last time she appeared with WNO, she played the beloved and timeless Carmen. For Champion, she reprises her role as the mother of boxing legend Emile Griffith, following the opera’s world premiere at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. 

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Kate Lindsey | Meet the Artists

Mezzo-soprano. Sister Helen Prejean in Dead Man Walking.


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Originally from Virginia, Kate is a graduate of Indiana University, and was a student of the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program at the Metropolitan Opera. Since entering the program, Kate has performed over 80 times at the Met.

This performance marks Kate’s WNO debut.

Acclaimed performances include Zerlina in Don Giovanni, Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro, Wellgunde in The Ring, and Hansel in Hansel and Gretel.

A notable moment: In 2012, Kate was featured in Vogue magazine alongside fellow opera singers Susanna Phillips and Isabel Leonard. In the feature, they discuss what it means to be an opera singer in the modern world.

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Michael Mayes | Meet the Artists

Baritone. Joseph De Rocher in Dead Man Walking.


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Originally from Cut and Shoot, Texas, Michael is a graduate of the University of North Texas.

This performance is Michael’s WNO debut.

Some of Michael’s most recent and celebrated roles include Sharpless in Madam Butterfly, the title role in Don Giovanni, as well as the title role in Rigoletto

Fun fact! While this is Michael’s WNO debut, the role of Joseph De Rocher is one that has garnered him great acclaim already. Michael and his self-proclaimed “homeboy”, composer Jake Heggie, have teamed up for many operas, including Three DecembersGreat Scott, and For a Look or a TouchMichael attributes much of his success to Jake’s partnership, saying “he’s given me the career I have today.” 

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