An introduction to Madam Butterfly

Here’s everything you need to know about ENO’s production of Puccini’s Madam Butterfly.

It’s a tragic opera by Giacomo Puccini

Puccini is one of the best-known and most successful Italian composers, thanks to operas such as La bohème, Tosca, Manon Lescaut, and Madam Butterfly (Madama Butterfly in Italian).

Set in Nagasaki, Japan, American naval officer Pinkerton marries the young Cio-Cio San (known as Butterfly) soon after his arrival. Shortly after their wedding, Pinkerton abandons Butterfly and returns to America, it becomes clear he deemed the marriage only to be temporary.

Years later, Pinkerton returns to Japan with his new wife, and learns that Butterfly has since given birth to their child. Upon learning Pinkerton has a new wife, and won’t live in Japan with Butterfly, she agrees to give up her son, and ends her own life.

Read the full synopsis

It’s based on a short story by John Luther Long

In 1900, Puccini saw David Belasco’s play Madame Butterfly, based on Long’s popular short story. Having decided to give this play operatic treatment, Puccini once again collaborated with La bohème and Tosca librettists, Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa.

The main difference between the opera and Long’s story is the ending. Before Long’s Butterfly can inflict the fatal blow with her sword, she is stopped by her maid, Suzuki. In true operatic fashion, however, Puccini ended his version of the story in tragedy.

Puccini had some famous enemies

Puccini was no stranger to making enemies during his time as a composer. He rubbed Leoncavallo up the wrong way when he decided to give operatic treatment to Henri Murger’s Scènes de la vie de bohème (knowing full well Leoncavallo was doing the same).

In 1895, Puccini once again angered a fellow composer, we he decided that he wanted to be the one to give Victorien Sardou’s La tosca operatic treatment. Puccini convinced Alberto Franchetti that the play wasn’t suited for the operatic stage, and soon acquired the rights to it as soon as Franchetti had relinquished them.

Almost 10 years later, Franchetti was one of Puccini’s many enemies who packed the La Scala premiere of Madam Butterfly with hecklers, encouraged to disrupt the performance at every opportunity. After such a disastrous opening night Puccini decided to withdraw the opera and set to work improving it by revising the score, breaking the piece up into two smaller acts and adding a tenor aria. The new Madam Butterfly was a major success.

Anthony Minghella’s production uses puppetry

Academy Award-winning director Anthony Minghella is perhaps best known for directing films The English Patient (1996), The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), and The Reader (2008).

In the late Minghella’s production, Sorrow, the child of Cio-Cio-San and Pinkerton, is played by a puppet.

The 3-year-old child is brought to life by three actors, moving him across the stage and demonstrating the loving relationship he has with his mother.

Have a watch of this video to see how the puppetry works.

Anthony Minghella’s production of Puccini’s Madam Butterfly will be on at the London Coliseum from 26 Feb – 17 Apr 2020. Find out more and book tickets below.