Madama Butterfly

Article by Sir Hugh Cortazzi

Opera is by its nature unrealistic.  An opera should be judged not by whether it is true to life but by the music, the singing and the dramatic elements provided by the plot.  Madame Butterfly has some of Puccini’s most felicitous music with some memorable arias.  The plot, in essence a simple one, is dramatic but not too far-fetched and the scene is colourful and seemed exotic to western audiences when it was first produced.

Yet Madame Butterfly was a disaster when it was originally presented at the Scala in Milan on 17 February 1904.  It was received with laughter and booing from enemies of Puccini in the audience.  Puccini decided to make some cuts and rewrite a few passages.  The opera was produced in its revised form at Brescia on 28 May 1904 and this time it was well received.  Further changes were made by Puccini particularly after it was performed in London in 1905.  Still other alterations were made for the performance at the Opéra Comique in Paris on 28 December 1906 with a view to an American tour planned for 1907.  These changes modified the negative aspects of the behaviour of the American characters and ensured that Butterfly’s role was enhanced so that her qualities of loyalty and sense of honour were highlighted.  This version became the standard for future performances of the opera.

Despite the facts that Butterfly, or Cho-Chosan to use the Japanese for Butterfly, was depicted in a generally favourable light and emphasised the Japanese sense of honour and that Pinkerton, the main American character, was shown to be at best unfaithful, the opera was not popular in Japan.  This was especially the case up to and during the Second World War when Japanese hostility towards America was at its height.  The image of a Japanese woman willing to submit to being the ‘play-thing’.of a foreigner and of a Japan where women could be bought by foreigners was hardly flattering.  Puccini’s attempt at portrayal ofJapanese life was also seen as unrealistic by Japanese audiences.  Foreigners who attempt to wear Japanese dress generally look awkward and foreign women rarely know how to put on a kimono and obi (sash) correctly.  Even the Japanese names seem odd.  The name of Goro, the marriage broker, is a given name meaning fifth son.  There is no such Japanese name as Yakuside, the name given to Butterfly’s uncle (the word should in any case be spelt Yakushide).  The maid is called simply Suzuki which is a common surname, but in Japan would normally be accompanied by a given name.  The name Yamadori, which means ‘mountain bird’, does not exist in Japanese and is laughable especially for someone alleged to be a Prince.  There is some confusion in the opera between Buddhist and Shinto rites although the separation between the two religions is still not complete in Japanese minds.  The suggestion that Butterfly came from a samurai family is unconvincing to a Japanese audience who would have thought of a girl, who allowed herself to be bought in the way described in the opera, as essentially a low class courtesan.  Butterfly’s suicide by using her father’s short samurai sword would thus seem unconvincing and some may have seen it as an insult to the samurai.

Puccini, who never visited Japan, cannot be blamed for most of these errors which very largely stemmed from his sources.  He tried hard for verisimilitude.  In September and October 1902 he consulted Mrs Hisako Oyama, wife of the Japanese Minister in Rome.  She apparently sang Japanese songs to him and supplied him with Japanese tunes.  According to Puccini’s biographer Mosco Carner, Mrs Oyama was the source of most of the seven Japanese themes in the opera.  It has even been suggested that Puccini, who had many affairs, was attracted by her at a time when his affair with a Piedmontese girl called Corinna was in difficulties.  Puccini took a great deal of care in trying to get the Japanese costumes correct and to ensure that the Japanese house and the tatami mats on the floor would seem authentic.

Jan van Rij has tried in his book ‘Madame Butterfly, Japonisme, Puccini and the search for the Real Cho-Cho-San’ (Stone Bridge Press, Berkeley, California, 2001) to trace the origins of the story of Madame Butterfly and to find a real life model.  His book is an ingenious piece of detective work, but the evidence is not conclusive and for the opera audience it hardly matters whether there was a real life model for Butterfly or not.  But his book contains other interesting points.  He notes for instance that the pentatonic scale used in Act 2 for the arrival of Prince Yamadori ‘which is the tune of the Japanese army song “Miya-sama”‘.most probably came from Act 2 of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado.  He also points out that ‘The sword motif and the sailors’ chorus were taken from Debussy’s Pelleas’.

The theme of Madame Butterfly was taken from a play with the same title by the American dramatist David Belasco, who in turn based his play on a story by the American John Luther Long also with the same title.  Long in his turn had borrowed the theme from Perre Loti’s famous novel Madame Chrysanthemème, first published in 1887.  This provided the basic story of a foreign officer taking a Japanese ‘wife’.while he is in port.  Loti’s story was turned into a light opera by Charles Prosper André Messager and performed in Paris in 1893.  He met Puccini in 1892 in Italy. Perhaps, as van Rij has suggested, they discussed the theme which Puccini took up nearly a decade later.

Puccini saw Belasco’s play while he was in London in 1900.  Although he did not understand English he was impressed by the drama and began to seek the rights to produce an opera based on Belasco’s play and on Long’s story.  The libretto was drafted by Luigi Illica, but he was forced by Puccini to make many modifications as the composer frequently changed his mind. Pierre Loti’s novel casts some light on why the Japanese found elements in the Madame Butterfly story distasteful.  Loti, whose real name was Julien Marie Viaud, was in 1885 a Lieutenant on board the French navy ship Triomphante.  Loti and his friend (in the novel called Yves) had discussed before they arrived in Nagasaki how he intended to marry ‘a little yellow-skinned woman with black hair and cat’s eyes’.  They find a marriage broker, called by Loti ‘Kangarou’, who selects for him a fifteen year old ‘candidate’.whom he rejects.  An eighteen year old who is a cousin of the rickshawman is then chosen instead and Loti agrees to pay a hundred yen (twenty dollars) a month for her.  Loti enjoyed sight-seeing in Nagasaki and regarded ‘O Kiku-san’, Mademoiselle or Madame Chrysanthemème, ‘as a mere plaything to laugh at’.  He soon became bored with her and showed by his farewell words to her his contempt for the mistress he had so nonchalantly bought: ‘Well, little mousmé, let us part good friends; one last kiss even, if you like.  I took you to amuse me; you have not perhaps succeeded very well, but after all you have done what you could; given me your little face, your little curtseys, your little music.  In short you have been pleasant enough in your little way’.

The main foreign character in Madame Butterfly is an American not a Frenchman, as in Loti’s novel, because both Long and Belasco were Americans and were writing for Americans.  In fact Americans in places like Nagasaki in the late nineteenth century were outnumbered by Europeans, especially British merchants.  Interestingly, according to Van Rij, Illica, the librettist, had at one stage thought of turning Pinkerton into a British officer, Sir Francis Blummy Pinkerton.

The choice of Nagasaki as the location of the opera was dictated by the fact that Loti, from whom the story stemmed, had been a French naval officer whose ship docked in Nagasaki for repairs.  Nagasaki was the closest of the Japanese Treaty Ports to the China Station and was accordingly used by the navies of the powers involved in the nineteenth century attempt to carve out spheres of influence in China.  Nagasaki was a pleasant place after some of the steamy and primitive ports on the China coast.  There were hot springs nearby and the town was attractively located in a wooded bay.  It was also accustomed to foreigners.  It was at Nagasaki that some of the first foreign settlements had been established and it had been the only place where any foreigners were allowed to live during the Edo (or Tokugawa) era (1603–1868), when Japan was largely closed to contacts with the outside world.  The period of seclusion ended when Commodore Perry’s so-called ‘Black Ships’ of the US Navy penetrated the bay close to the capital of Edo (now Tokyo) in 1853.

During the years of Japan’s seclusion, in addition to a small Chinese colony, a tiny settlement of Dutch merchants was maintained on an artificial island (Dejima or Deshima) just off shore in Nagasaki Bay.  The Dutch had provided Japan’s one window to the West and Dutch was the medium through which Japanese learnt about western science.  Nagasaki was thus one of the first three ports opened to foreigners under the treaties concluded in the 1850s.  It was also at Nagasaki that the first British Treaty with Japan was signed by Admiral Stirling on 15 October 1854.

Nagasaki’s importance as a trading port was soon overtaken by Yokohama and Kobe where much larger foreign trading communities were established.  However until relations with Japan deteriorated in the 1930s it remained a holiday resort for the foreign communities in Shanghai and a refuge for naval ships on the China station.  It was a centre of Japanese shipbuilding and this made it a target for American bombers in 1945 and finally in August that year for the second American atom bomb.  The city was devastated and most foreign consulates were not re-established there after the end of the war.  The Japanese navy’s main port in the southern island of Kyushu had been Sasebo and this was the port which the US Navy used as a base during the occupation of Japan (1945–1952) and during and after the Korean War.

In recent decades the Nagasaki city authorities, anxious to promote the city as a tourist attraction, have tried to build on the fame of the famous Scottish 19th century merchant Thomas Glover, who lived in Nagasaki, and who contributed significantly to Japan’s modernization in the late nineteenth century.  They have inevitably tried to connect him with the Butterfly legend.  However far-fetched the connection is with Madame Butterfly, the Glover mansion and garden are now a favourite tourist attraction.

In the early days when there were very few women among the foreign residents it was quite common for foreigners to have Japanese mistresses.  Most of these liaisons did not amount to legal marriages which were in any case not at first permitted.  Many of the Japanese women who had liaisons with foreign men were uneducated and from poor families although there were some exceptions.  Members of the British Legation in the 1860s including A.B. Mitford, later Lord Redesdale and grandfather of the famous Mitford girls, and the Japanologist and diplomat Sir Ernest Satow, both had liaisons with Japanese women.  Mitford did his best to hide his liaison.  Satow fathered two children and when he was Minister to Japan from 1895–1900 kept his Japanese family in a house near the Legation, but he never married her.  Others such as the writer Captain Frank Brinkley did regularise their matches and a number of important Japanese of the period had European wives.  After the turn of the 20th century mixed marriages were increasingly frowned on by Japanese and foreigners alike and it is only in recent decades that marriages between Europeans and Japanese have become commonplace.

Madame Butterfly was part of the western cult of Japonisme which had begun with the spread of Japanese prints into Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century.  These had caught the eye of the post-impressionists including Monet and Van Gogh.  The walls of Monet’s house at Giverny near Paris are still covered with the Japanese prints which he collected and so much admired.  In the late 19th century Japanese artefacts of all kinds including lacquer, metal-ware and ceramics were displayed at international exhibitions and considerable quantities were exported to the West.  Japanese designs became the vogue and Japonisme which led into Art Nouveau developed into a cult.

Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado (1885) made fun of the movement.  Oscar Wilde was witty about it.  In ‘The Decay of Lying’. which appeared in 1889 in the magazine The Nineteenth Century Wilde declared: ‘The Japanese people are the deliberate self-conscious creation of certain individual artists.  In fact the whole of Japan was a pure invention.  There is no such country, there are no such people’.

The ‘globe trotters’, the wealthy travellers of the late Victorian era, wanted to see the whole of the world rather than confine themselves to places nearer to home as their predecessors had done on the Grand Tour.  They naturally planned visits to Japan about whose exotic character they had learnt from the generally superficial travelogues which appeared in the latter part of the century.  One of the English tourists, who made two brief visits to the country in 1889 and 1892 and who, however, wrote perceptively about Japan was Rudyard Kipling.  Being small in stature he felt at home among the Japanese.  In ‘Letter One’ from Sea to Sea (1889) Kipling describes his arrival in Nagasaki and how they had lunch (tiffin) in a ‘tea-house’. where he fell for a Japanese girl whom he calls O-Toyo.  The last words of the letter are: ‘I have left my heart with O-Toyo under the pines.  Perhaps I shall get it back at Kobe’.

The theatre-going public in Britain at least could not have enough of things Japanese, which they tended to see through romantic spectacles.  The Japanese woman was depicted as pretty and exotic in The Geisha, A Story of a Tea House, A Japanese Musical Play, with music by Sidney Jones which was hugely popular in London in the late 1890s.  Japanese themes remained popular in Edwardian times and the musical ‘The Mousmé’. (“Musume”: young girl), whose caste included the young Cicely Courtneidge, was being staged as late as 1911.  Bellasco followed up his play Madame Butterfly by another drama written with John Luther Long and put on at His Majesty’s Theatre in the Haymarket in 1904 by the famous actor manager Beerbohm Tree.  It was entitled The Darling of the Gods.  The souvenir programme for this drama was illustrated in colour by Yoshio Markino who also ‘supervised the Japanese manners and customs’.  Markino was a Japanese artist whose infatuation with Britain led him to write, in a quaint form of English, books praising British scenery and people, especially women (he was an enthusiastic supporter of the suffragette movement).  The title of one of his books was My Idealed John Bullesses (London 1912).  In 1904 and 1905 when Madame Butterfly was first being performed, Japanese courage in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904/5 was attracting great admiration especially in Britain.  It was no wonder that the opera touched the hearts of many opera goers who did not care whether the story was really true to life or not.