Madama Butterfly is an incredible opera about love and devotion, which also addresses the deep social problems that World War II brought. The opera stars an abusive US Army officer and an innocent young Japanese woman.
This opera is one of the most truculent pieces in the western operatic repertoire. Thus, Madama Butterfly takes more than a century to surprise its viewers with an incredible plot and an exceptional musicalization.
Premiered in 1904, Madama Butterfly is an opera by the great Italian composer Giacomo Puccini. Follow the story of Pinkerton, a US officer in Nagasaki. With the help of an unscrupulous pimp, they will trick XioXio San into temporarily joining Pinkerton.
The officer leaves soon after, leaving XioXio San alone and pregnant. For three years, the young woman raises her son awaiting the return of his love. For his part, Pinkerton only told lies to the young woman: he never thought about marrying her, nor going back to look for her to take her to America.
In this way, when he eventually returns, Pinkerton is with his ‘real’ American wife, Kate. Filled with pain, Butterfly gives her son to Pinkerton with the hope that they will take him to the United States and grow with more opportunities. The rest is history, the tragedy is chewed and the spectator can not help feeling the pain and agony evoked by the work.
Butterfly mourns the loss of Pinkerton
In one last scene, full of drama and affliction, Butterfly commits suicide. He can not stand Pinkerton’s betrayal and separation from his son.
Poignant, uncomfortable, tragic and painful, Madama Butterfly is one of the operas that have best survived the passage of time, although it was not always seen with the same eyes. How can we understand this opera today? How has the vision of the work changed over time?
A look at the booklet of Madama Butterfly
Beyond the beauty of music, Madama Butterfly is a story of desolation and deception. The public of the moment received it with booing and ridicule: they considered the behavior of XioXio as reprehensible.
The public thought that Butterfly was a sexual libertine, and they considered their pain as a just retribution for their sins. However, Puccini clearly established from the first act that XioXio was innocent, that he had been the victim of a deception and believed to be legally married to Pinkerton.
Puccini developed Pinkerton’s character as the villain of the story. The composer made an effort to show how Pinkerton seduces and deceives the little girl in order to abuse her.
After the Second World War, many American soldiers took their foreign wives to live in the United States. In this way, many Japanese women hoped to leave for the new continent with the hope of a new life.
In this context, XioXio appears as a poor young woman, who joins an American with the hope of having a future. Pinkerton, the evil character of the foreign officer, personifies all men who abuse their position of power.
During the second act, already ‘married’, XioXio and Pinkerton must separate. Pinkerton is going back to America with the rest of his troop. As a result, Butterfly is devastated, but Pinkerton promises to return for her.
In one of the most beautiful arias in the history of opera, we listen to Butterfly explaining to her maid what will happen when Pinkerton returns to look for her. Puccini transforms the young woman’s pain into an iconic piece of academic music.
At the end of the opera, after seeing his son leave, XioXio’s heart is broken. So, full of pain, XioXio takes his life through a ritual of Japanese sacrifice.
Adaptations to other media
The pain of Madama Butterfly has inspired countless artists over the years. Among the most popular adaptations of Puccini’s libretto, we find Miss Saigon de Boublil and Schönberg.
Perhaps, one of the most curious adaptations of the magnificent opera was that of Sidney Olcott. Madame Butterfly’s first adaptation to the cinema was a silent film. This is incredibly ironic considering that much of the beauty of the story lies in its musicalization.
In the world of pop music, many artists have made tributes to Madama Butterfly. From the Sex Pistols to the indie band Wheezer. The diverse interpretations and adaptations reinvent the characters and are a sample of the undoubted legacy of the work of Puccini and how, over time, has survived and remains topical.
In literature, various graphic novels inspired by this story have appeared. Some of them claim the character of Pinkerton and make him a misunderstood man. Other versions delve into the situation of Butterfly’s mistreatment and the injustice of its destiny.
What makes Madama Butterfly such a moving story? Perhaps, it is the classic tragedy immersed in its history or the immortality of its music.
Throughout the opera, the public can perceive lust and love, the need to blindly believe in some ideas, beauty in sacrifice and in death. Thus, Madama Butterfly seems a tragedy worthy of the classical era, a poetry that melds music and scene.
Finally, we are left with the words of its author, Puccini, who was always very clear when explaining what makes this one of the greatest operas in history:
“Great mourning in a small soul – it is not psychology, it is the understanding of human pain. The ability to make the world cry.”