How Puccini Composed Difference in "Madama Butterfly"

How Puccini Composed Difference in "Madama Butterfly"

In June 1900, Giacomo Puccini saw the one-act play Madame Butterfly, by American playwright David Belasco, in London. Though Puccini understood very little English, he was moved by the emotional power of the story — a fatal love story of the inherent racial incompatibility between an American soldier and a Japanese geisha — and was inspired to compose an opera based on it. This oft-told narrative of a Western soldier and an “exotic” woman is based on  European  thinking at the turn of the 20th century. Puccini dramatized this narrative of incompatibility by using music to highlight cultural difference.

In order to research authentic Japanese music, Puccini traveled to Milan, where he attended the touring Imperial Japanese Theatrical Company’s kabuki shows in April of 1902. These dramas obviously inspired Puccini, for he wrote Luigi Illica, one of his librettists, that he had a lot of material of “the yellow race” for the opera. To further his immersion in Japanese sounds after he returned home, he invited the Japanese Ambassador’s wife, Ōyama Hisako, to sing Japanese songs for him, and she also sent him an anthology of these songs.

The Japanese tunes Puccini used in Madama Butterfly were always appropriate for the character or emotion. Butterfly (Cio-Cio-San) is described by Goro, the marriage broker, with a kabuki tune, “Echigo Jishi” (“Lion of Echigo”), singing, “ There, they reached the summit of the hill.” Kabuki is lowbrow theater that catered to the masses, so this tune was appropriate to portray a geisha, who represents a lower station in society. This theme comes back later in Act I, with Butterfly using the tune to describe her impoverished but up standing family. Another example is the use of a Japanese military one called “Miya-sama Miya-sama” (The Noble Prince”) to herald the arrival of Prince Yamadori, a suitor for Cio-Cio-San, in Act II. This popular tune was also used in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado.

Despite Puccini’s emphasis on writing about the “true Japan,” he included a Chinese folk tune in this Japanese opera. It was not until January 2012, a century after the premiere, that the musicologist Anthony Sheppard discovered that a thrice-used tune in the opera was not Japanese, nor composed by Puccini, but in fact  came from a Chinese music box that is now at the Morris Museum in New Jersey. Sheppard thought that it was very likely, given the timing, locale, and other factors, that Puccini had, indeed, heard the tune from this very music box.

So why did Puccini include a Chinese tune in a “Japanese” opera? To Puccini, the so-called tinte (atmosphere) of his music seemed to be more important than authenticity, given that it was the emotion in Belasco’s play that won him over. The Chinese tune, called “Shi Ba Mo” (“Eighteen Caresses”), is an erotic tune from the Hakka ethnic group. Puccini placed this music at critical moments in the opera: first, when Butterfly presents herself to Pinkerton shortly after her entrance on stage, the tune is played in the orchestra. Second, in a private moment with Pinkerton right before they are married, Butterfly sings the tune, in the same key as the music box. Third, as Butterfly and Pinkerton go into their nuptial chamber at the end of Act I, the tune is played in the orchestral postlude. All three instances depict moments of love for Butterfly.

Puccini also composed music with Asian signifiers to create a particular atmosphere, such as in the scene with Cio-Cio-San’s uncle (Zio Bonzo, literally “Uncle Priest”). Shortly after the wedding ceremony, the women’s chorus of “O kami, o kami,” a calming Japanese tune, is abruptly interrupted by violins in using the tune to describe her impoverished but upstanding family. Another example is the use of a Japanese military tremolo,  followed  by  Bonze’s  pronouncements  of Cio-Cio-San’s  name punctuated by the gong.  The gong alone  would clearly signal that the scene is culturally Asian: a Buddhist priest denounces and puts a curse on his niece for abandoning her religion for Christianity, a Western religion. Other Asian icons are resplendent in this scene as well: bells, cymbals, and pizzicato (plucked strings, to imitate the Japanese koto). Puccini used these Orientalist signifiers to emphasize the foreignness of these characters.

To portray the two white characters (Lieutenant Pinkerton and Sharpless, the American Consul), Puccini used lyrical tonal music of 19th-century Italy, that is, “western” music. Sharpless is accompanied by a lilting, singable, pastoral theme every time he enters or leaves the stage. For Pinkerton, Puccini told his publisher Ricordi, in an April 1902 letter, that he was “ doing my best to make Pinkerton …[as] American as possible.” What he probably meant was adding fragments of the “Star-Spangled Banner” in Pinkerton’s Act I autobiographical aria-duet, “Dovunque al mondo” (“Everywhere in the world”). In the later parts of the opera, fragments of the anthem are heard whenever America is mentioned. One such moment occurs in Act II during Sharpless’ visit, when Butterfly asserts that the American law will protect her. You can hear the anthem in the orchestra with Butterfly singing a fragment

Italians at the turn of the 20th century regarded this kind of euphonic music as “Italian;” it was employed by their beloved opera composers, such as Donizetti, Mascagni, Verdi, and others. Other contemporary European music, such as that by Wagner and Debussy, was considered foreign; this music tends to be at the edge of tonality and less lyrical. Extending this view beyond Europe, Puccini uses music to differentiate the Asian and Western characters in the opera, perhaps most strikingly in the Act I love duet.

In a conventional love duet, one lover professes his or her feelings through a beautiful theme, echoed by the other; at the end of the duet, the lovers show their unity in emotion and thought by singing the same tune and words together. In this scene, Pinkerton follows the norm and sings a lyrical phrase with a symmetrical arc in “Bimba daglia occhi” (“Child, of the eyes full of magic”), complimenting Butterfly on her beauty. Butterfly, however, sings a phrase that resembles Pinkerton’s but without the arc; instead, it is flat with repeated notes. This indicates her inability to speak the “western” language of love. Her text is off as well — instead of praising the bravery or handsomeness of the lieutenant, she sings about the “moon’s little goddess.” This kind of disconnect in the music and text is rampant throughout the love duet. And at the end of the scene, even though Butterfly and Pinkerton are singing in unison, they sing different texts. Butterfly sings about her love for Pinkerton, “tutto estatico d’amor” (“all ecstatic with love”), and he hurries her to the nuptial chamber: “Ah! Vien, sei mia! Vien!” (“Ah! Come, you are mine, Come!”). This clearly tells the audience the difference in their notions of the relationship.

Butterfly reaches full lyricism in her famous Act II aria, “Un bel di, vedremo” (“One fine day, we’ll see”). Her adoption of the lyrical western music comes too late, three years after Pinkerton has abandoned her and married an American woman. This delusional aria of hope of Pinkerton’s return is not fulfilled. Butterfly does not return to the tonal home of the aria at the end; instead, the orchestra finishes the tune and brings it back home tonally. In the second part of Act II, Butterfly lapses back to more repeated notes, losing the lyricism and arc in her music. At the end, she sings mostly tunes based on Japanese folk music, such as in “Che tua madre” (“That your mother”), where she says she will need to beg on the street or die if Pinkerton abandons her. The suicide theme, which is played instrumentally at the very end of the opera, is also based on the same Japanese tune, “Suriyo Bushi.”

The failure of an East-West union plays out in this opera, not only through the plot but also through the skillful composing of difference in the music. Puccini used ethnic as well as modernist music to denote the exotic and lyrical music to represent whiteness. At the same time, he subtly employed the ideology of the Italian at the turn of the 20th century to realize the incompatibility narrative that doomed this love story from the start.


JUDY TSOU is Head Emerita of the Music Library at the University of Washington, where she also taught opera analysis. She has won numerous awards including the Susan Kopelman Award for best feminist editing for her Cecilia Reclaimed and the Distinguished Service Award from the Society for American Music. She was inducted as an honorary member of the American Musicological Society.