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Giacomo Puccini: Madama Butterfly Essay

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Updated: Sep 18th, 2019

Madama butterfly is one of the most celebrated opera pieces in America and Europe. The opera extensively touches on social vices like devotion and irresponsibility, depicted by a tale of two lovers (Butterfly and Pinkerton) (Metropolitan Opera, 2011, p. 1). However, some people note that the opera has more to do with misunderstandings willful and innocence (Metropolitan Opera, 2011, p. 1).

According to Metropolitan Opera (2011, p. 1) critics note that the opera is “compassionate and brutal, colonialist and anti-imperialist, disdainful of Americans and demeaning of Japanese”. However, Art Nouveau (2010, p. 7) notes that “audiences are enraptured by the humanity of Cio-Cio-San’s love—and by Puccini’s music, which is at once lush, evocative, and witty”.

Madama Butterfly was an opera done by Guacomo Puccini based on the events that took place in Nagasaki in the early years of the 1800s when foreigners took Japanese women as their temporary wives (Groos, 1991, p. 1). The opera was originally played in two successive acts but ultimately in was played in three (Art Nouveau, 2010, p. 3). The piece enjoys a huge acclamation in the United States, though it has a Japanese origin (Greenwald, 2000, p. 1).

Nonetheless, its hugely acclaimed version was not the original, but a rewritten piece by the composer, Puccini. Around the world, the fifth version of the opera is commonly played (Metropolitan Opera, 2011, p. 1). Madama Butterfly is a unique opera and its distinct nature can be best affirmed in the words of Art Nouveau (2010, p. 3) which notes that “It is intimate, devoid of spectacle, taking place completely within a house in Nagasaki”.

The story line is also uniquely simple in that “without subplots, girl wins boy, girl loses boy, and girl commits hara kiri” (Art Nouveau, 2010, p. 3). Art Nouveau (2010, p. 3) further notes that: “What makes the opera unique is the characterization of Butterfly and her Captain Pinkerton, both in the drama and in the rich and luscious Puccini score”.

This observation, and the fact that the opera was among the first literary works to expose the differences in the way of life between the Western and Eastern world, are the unique features of the opera. However, the fact that the opera got a bad reception in its initial premiere and the fact that it turned out to be one of the most celebrated literary pieces also makes it cut a mark above the rest.

Public Reaction to the Opera

Madama butterfly was a poorly received opera in the public eye during its first debut in Milan, Italy (Art Nouveau, 2010, p. 3). This happened despite the fact that celebrated singers such as Rosina Storchio, Giovanni Zenatello and Giuseppe De Luca graced took part in the first overall presentation of the piece (Fisher, 2004, p. 330).

Some sections of existing literature analyzing the opera affirm that the opera was so poorly received that even Puccini himself thought he would be lynched by an angry mob for producing such shoddy work (Fisher, 2004, p. 330). One of the reasons advanced for the poor reception of the opera was the irritatingly long nature of the second act (Jenkins, 2010, p. 10).

The lengthy nature of the second act was already known to Puccini as extensively long and therefore it had the potential to spell disaster for the premiere of the play (Art Nouveau, 2010, p. 4). However, Puccini ignored such concerns and continued with premiere anyway. Puccini could easily divide the second act into two but his major concern was that breaking the second act would lead to a distortion of the dramatic composition of the entire opera (Art Nouveau, 2010, p. 5).

Such concerns were especially noted when he had to break night and day in Virgil (Jenkins, 2010, p. 10). Partly, the reasons advanced for the poor reception of the piece was the late completion of the work and the poor quality it had due to a lack of proper time allocation during rehearsals (Jenkins, 2010, p. 10).

However, some observers note that Puccini’s rivalry with his contemporaries and the jealous nature of his competitors (especially for the good input his producer was helping in coming up with a good Libretto) was also part of the reasons for the poor reception at the La Scala premiere (Jenkins, 2010, p. 10).

In some quarters, Puccini was also criticized for plagiarizing his own music and therefore lacking originality in presenting his works (Jenkins, 2010, p. 10). Politically, the tensions existent in the Russo-Japanese war was also another reason for the poor reception by a section of the audience who thought the opera was sympathetic to the Japanese and therefore it was taken as a biased piece of art (Jenkins, 2010, p. 11). Comprehensively, Jenkins (2010, p. 11) affirms that:

“The exact reasons behind the fiasco are, of course, nearly impossible to trace with any accuracy but there are several likely explanations. First, Ricordi’s secrecy during the rehearsals and alienation of the press undoubtedly created an unnecessarily hostile reception in the papers.

Second, Puccini incorrectly assumed that the audience would be able to maintain concentration during his abnormally long second act–in the revised version, the curtain wisely falls during the vigil. Finally, and this must remain conjectural, it is possible that the fiasco was “fixed” beforehand. This would not be the only instance of such treachery in operatic history and certainly Ricordi suspected as much as he revealed in his comments recorded above”.

Because of these shortcomings, Puccini made several changes to the opera and notable was the splitting of the last scene into two, to make the three acts observed in the final piece (Jenkins, 2010, p. 12). After the changes were effected, the opera was received well.

Performance History

Madama butterfly first premiered in one of Italy’s most known opera houses, La scala. The performance flopped despite the appearance of some of the most celebrated casts such as soprano Rosina Storchio (Jenkins, 2010, p. 10).

A lot of bad decisions were made during the opera’s rehearsals as can be noted from the high level of secrecy upheld by the opera’s producers who in turn recommended that the casts’ scripts should not leave the theatre (Jenkins, 2010, p. 13). The move was also motivated by the fact that the producers did not want careless singers to lose their musical scripts (Jenkins, 2010, p. 13).

This greatly contributed to the poor mastering of the music by the players. Moreover, the printed scripts were to be mastered by the cast, a page at a time, since printing was done sequentially and in a slow manner (Jenkins, 2010, p. 13). The press was also forbidden from attending the rehearsals and therefore most media agents and critics were irritated before the premiere, prompting them to search for small faults with the opera performance (Jenkins, 2010, p. 13).

Madama Butterfly also premiered in 1904 in Buernos Aries, Argentina while in London, it premiered in 1905 at the Royal Opera house, Covent Garden (Jenkins, 2010, p. 14). In the United States, the opera first premiered in Washington D.C at the Columbia theatre in 1906 and in New York, the first performance took place in November 12th of the same year at Garden theatre and lastly, in Australia, the first performance was done at the Royal Theatre in 1906 (Jenkins, 2010, p. 16).

Character Presentation

The character, Butterfly was exclusively presented as her own distinct person by a Japanese girl, who many enthusiasts of the opera had valiantly tried to identify the real life model of the personality (Art Nouveau, 2010, p. 1). Butterfly is the main character in the opera who has an affair with a rather careless lover called Pinkerton.

She is depicted as a Western representation of the orient and in some aspects, a cross-cultural figure, though not a racial one (Art Nouveau, 2010, p. 1). She represents a confused Japanese girl who tries to trace her path between Eastern and Western social ideals as can be seen through the denouncing of her authentic religion for Christianity (Western influence) and her final decision to take a her life away (Ritual Eastern ideal) (Art Nouveau, 2010, p. 1).

Art Nouveau (2010, p. 5) affirms that “Madama Butterfly” figures in a distinctly American dialect of cultural and ideological power that is inseparable until the time of World war I, from both Japanese masculinity and from the musical sphere of high art in the West”.

Pinkerton is represented as an army officer in the United States and Butterfly as a fragile “butterfly” who Pinkerton pursues at whatever costs and through whatever means (Art Nouveau, 2010, p. 10). Butterfly is represented as an innocent character by Cio-Cio San who battles an American rival who tries to win Pinkerton’s love through an endless dramatic ordeal until her suicidal death. Pinkerton’s American wife is nonetheless presented as a non-innocent character, though fragile just like Butterfly (Art Nouveau, 2010, p. 12).

Often times, Cio-Cio San is presented as having a different interpretation of what Pinkerton’s actual motives are (Art Nouveau, 2010, p. 1). The opera further represents the intrigue among the three characters as a tale of love and pain (Art Nouveau, 2010, p. 11). Other characters represented in the opera are Puccini, Illica, and Giacosa (Art Nouveau, 2010, p. 11).

Libretto’s Adoption to Music

The adoption of the Libretto in Madam Butterfly varies from performance to performance and therefore no single adoption best conceptualizes what was sung at each performance (Fisher, 2004, p. 331). However, soprano was used in the music as an affiliation to Cho cho san. Mezzo soprano was used in affiliation to Cho cho san’s servant, Kate Pinkerton, cho-cho-San’s Mother and the aunt (Fisher, 2004, p. 331).

Tenor was used in affiliation to BF Pinkerton (the army lieutenant) and Goro (the Marriage Broker) (Fisher, 2004, p. 331). Baritone is musically used in representation of the United States Consul at Nagasaki and Yakusidé the official registrar (Fisher, 2004, p. 332). Finally, bass was used in representation of the Bonze (Cho-Cho-San’s Uncle) and the imperial commissioner (Fisher, 2004, p. 332).

Musical Representations of the Orient

Madama butterfly has a number of musical representations. First Pinkerton’s opening act is accompanied by music representations, although plagiarized from Star Spangled Banner which is an exotic musical presentation representing his exotic role in the opera (Art Nouveau, 2010, p. 12).

During this musical representation, the climax is marked with chauvinistic and colonialist sentiments from the assertion “America Forever” which may have very well aroused negative sentiments among the audience because it implies Western imperialism.

Butterfly’s entrance on stage is also accompanied by a magnificent musical setting called the “happiness motive” which represents Butterfly’s feelings at the time she met Pinkerton because she declared that her marriage to Pinkerton was going to make her the happiest woman in Japan. The music was characterized by a 4 note phrase which rises and climaxes in an elegant and pulsating manner (although Puccini integrates it with the Love duet at the end of the song to give the music more emotional power).

The Love duet is regarded by some analysts as one of the best musical representation in the entire opera since it gives Butterfly the courage to speak of her love for Pinkerton, even though she shies away from it (Art Nouveau, 2010, p. 12). This sounds almost childlike. However, the ending tones of the song are a little dissonant and quite frankly, fails to resolve tonally (perhaps as a way through which the composer explains to the audience that the love story remains unresolved).

When Butterfly believes that Pinkerton has come back for her in the second act, Puccini accompanies the scene with musical variations of the theme (which are essentially meant to capture the nostalgic sentiments of Butterfly and the empathic sentiments from the audience).

In the musical depiction Un bel di or “one fine day”, Puccini tries to show the delusional status of Butterfly’s mind when she sits and hopes that Pinkerton will come back to her (plus her faith in Pinkerton coming back to her). In the aria, a pentatonic musical segment represents a fragment of butterfly’s thoughts that Pinkerton will come up the hill but unknown to the audience, the music is played once again in the final act when Butterfly says that Pinkerton should be back in a couple of minutes to take their baby away.


Throughout the opera, authentic Japanese melodies are included in the piece but occasionally, exotic instruments are included to enforce the Japanese melodies and the story’s plot. In some quarters, it has been assumed that Madama Butterfly has a strong sense of music such that the story follows the music and not the other way around.

The music is seen to haunt the characters such that it drives them to think of the first time they met each other, and to some extent, the music shows the level of submissiveness of the oriental woman (Butterfly) to her American lover (Pinkerton).


Art Nouveau. (2010). . Web.

Fisher, B. (2004). Opera Classics Library Puccini Companion: The Glorious Dozen. New York: Opera Journeys Publishing.

Greenwald, H. (2000) . Web.

Groos, A. (1991). . Web.

Jenkins, C. (2010). . Web.

Metropolitan Opera. (2011). . Web.

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