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Theatre / Madame Butterfly

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Leopoldo Metlicovitz's art-nouveau poster for the 1904 world premiere performance.
Madame Butterfly (Madama Butterfly in Italian) is a three-act opera by Giacomo Puccini. Based on both the French novel Madame Chrysanthème and the American short story and play Madame Butterfly and Madame Butterfly: A Tragedy of Japan, it tells the story of Cio-Cio San (nicknamed Butterfly) in 1904, Nagasaki, Japan. Cio-Cio San, a soprano and beautiful 15 year old girl, is engaged to be married to a U.S. Naval Officer named Pinkerton. He confides to the American consul Sharpless that he admires her for her innocence and beauty, like a young delicate butterfly, and the fact that he can just as easily pluck her wings. He only wants to temporarily marry her until he finds an American bride, but lets the lovestruck Butterfly believe that the marriage is permanent. Sharpless warns Pinkerton that treating this union casually may have tragic consequences. The wedding takes place, but Butterfly's uncle disapproves of the fact that she renounced her religion for her husband. Her family disowns her, but Pinkerton kicks out the relatives and comforts her.

In the next act, three years have passed and Pinkerton is off and gone. Butterfly has lived alone with her maid Suzuki. While Suzuki claims that Pinkerton will never return, Butterfly insists that he will return to her. Sharpless then shows up at her home with a letter from Pinkerton. Butterfly excitedly thinks the letter says he will be back soon. Sharpless is not sure what to say to her since the actual contents of the letter reveal that Pinkerton is indeed returning to Japan, but that he has moved on with his life and no longer attaches himself to his Japanese wife. When Sharpless tries to tell Butterfly this, she reveals that she gave birth to Pinkerton's child after he left. She calls him Sorrow, but declares faithfully that when her husband comes home, the child will be called Joy. Sharpless cannot bear to crush such a loyal heart and has to leave without telling her of Pinkerton's true treachery.


After he leaves, Butterfly sees Pinkerton's ship in the bay. She and Suzuki joyfully prepare the house for his arrival and then wait all night for him.

When, however, he arrives, Butterfly has fallen asleep, exhausted by her vigil. But Pinkerton does not arrive alone: He arrives with his wife, Kate, who he married after leaving Japan. Informed of the existence of the child, Pinkerton and his wife have come to take him away and raise him in America. Unable to face his guilt, Pinkerton leaves his wife to handle it. Butterfly's despair upon finding this woman in her home does not shake her composure. Kate begs for Butterfly's forgiveness and promises to treat the child as her own. With hardly any other choice, Butterfly accepts this, gives up her child, and turns to all that she has left: To die with honour when one can no longer live with honour.


It's an opera. What do you expect? A happy ending?

This opera has had countless adaptations, including one film adaptation in 1915 with Mary Pickford and another in 1932 starring Sylvia Sidney as Cio-Cio San and Cary Grant as Pinkerton. One with a page on this wiki being Miss Saigon and Mademoiselle Butterfly. It also inspired the play M. Butterfly and the 1922 film The Toll of the Sea, and received quite a few references in Weezer's album Pinkerton.

Tropes used by the opera:

  • Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder: Oh, Pinkerton. He seems fond of Butterfly in Act I. Then after he leaves, it appears he's completely forgotten his Japanese home - no letters, no money, and, oh yeah, he marries an American woman. On the other hand, even in the first act, Pinkerton never viewed his marriage to Butterfly as permanent and fully intended to marry an American woman whom he thinks will be his real wife!
  • Adaptational Heroism:
    • Pinkerton. In the novel, he's the one who bans Butterfly from seeing her family. In the play, he thinks they're silly, but is understandably horrified by their renunciation of her. The novel also gives no indication that he feels the slightest guilt for how he's treated Butterfly.
    • Kate (named Adelaide in the novel) is also made kinder and empathetic in the opera; in the novel she looks forward to taking away the baby and doesn't care how the mother will feel.
  • Age Lift: In the original novel, Suzuki is younger than Butterfly. On-stage, she's usually cast as being older than Butterfly, giving them a Maid and Maiden dynamic.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: Sharpless, in Act II, asks Butterfly "What would you do if Pinkerton never came back?" This question slams the music to a halt, and it totally changes the tone of their conversation. Butterfly slowly answers that she could return to being a geisha, or, better yet, she could die. Her pleasant demeanor falls away, she turns grim, and soon demands that Sharpless leave.
  • Asian Babymama: The main character, odd for the trope.
  • Asian Speekee Engrish: Played straight in the novel - Butterfly only speaks English because Pinkerton has forbidden her from speaking Japanese in his house, and her dialogue is painful to read today. Averted in the opera, where everyone speaks perfect Italian - see You No Take Candle, below.
  • Break the Cutie: More like "pulverize". Come the third act, Butterfly learns in quick succession that a) while Pinkerton has come back, it wasn't to see her b) he clearly never loved her at all and has married an American woman and c) they've come to take her child - the only thing that's really kept her going these past three years - away from her.
  • But Not Too Foreign: The half-American child is cast as blond, usually. As the lyrics request.
    Sharpless: Egli è suo?English 
    Butterfly: Chi mai vide a bimbo del Giappone occhi azzurrini? E il labbro? E i ricciolini d'oro schietto? English 
  • Cassandra Truth: Sharpless repeatedly warns Pinkerton he'll devastate Butterfly if he abandons her. Suzuki repeatedly tries to tell Butterfly that Pinkerton isn't coming back. Nobody listens to either of them.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The dagger that Butterfly uses to eventually kill herself..
  • Converting for Love:
    • An especially drastic example, since a) Butterfly's family disowns her over it, and b) Pinkerton never asked her to, and totally doesn't care that she did.
    • The play's ending might turn this into a Subverted Trope. From a Christian viewpoint, by committing suicide Butterfly damns herself. Her action makes the most sense if she abandons the faith in her darkest hour.
  • Costume Porn: Expect to see Cio-Cio-San in some beautiful kimonos, as well as the female chorus members in Act I.
  • Death by Adaptation: In the original short story by John Luther Long, Butterfly survives. Her maid's attempt to avert her suicide by pushing her son into the room works, and Butterfly, her maid, and her son flee before Pinkerton returns. It was David Belasco, the playwright, who introduced the tragic ending.
  • Downer Ending: Pinkerton never returns to Butterfly, but only returns to Japan to clean up loose ends before returning to live in America with his wife. Cast out from her family, rejected by the man that she loves, facing a future of dire poverty, without her son and without honor, Butterfly commits suicide. As she dies, she gets to hear Pinkerton's voice one last time - that's as happy as it gets. The original short story the Opera is based on was actually a Bittersweet Ending, as seen above.
  • Eagleland, flavor 1: Butterfly's concept of America as a land of freedom, and Christianity as the One True Faith. The composer mocks it by introducing Pinkerton with a "Star Spangled Banner" theme.
  • Emotionally Tongue-Tied: Sharpless in Act II. Not only is he constantly interrupted (once by an inconveniently timed royal procession), but he knows the message he carries will break Butterfly's heart.
  • Evil Sounds Deep: Inverted. Contrary to common operatic tradition, the jerk Pinkerton is played by a tenor. Meanwhile, the kindly Sharpless is played by a baritone.
  • Famous-Named Foreigner: The American Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton (remember the opera was written in Italy). It suits him, given that Franklin was both an important diplomat and a famous womanizer. Also, many Americans at the time really did have names like that (cf. Benjamin Franklin Tilley, George Washington Carver).
  • Flowers of Romance: At the end of Act II, Butterfly and Suzuki sing the "Flower Duet" where they decorate the house with all the flowers in the garden, transforming the simple house into a bower worthy of a rapturous reunion.
  • Fourth Date Marriage: More like second. Goro the matchmaker apparently introduced Pinkerton and Butterfly in person, and they got along great. So, their second meeting is their wedding. You know, like you do.
  • Geisha: Cio-Cio San was one before Pinkerton married her, and finds the thought of returning to that profession shameful.
  • Give Him a Normal Life: What happens to Butterfly's son, who is adopted by Pinkerton's American family.
  • Gratuitous English: Pinkerton and Sharpless both exclaim "America Forever!" after Pinkerton's first aria. Also, Butterfly's name should rightly either be Cio-Cio San (Japanese) or Farfalla (Italian), but everyone calls her by the English translation of her name.
  • Heel Realization: Pinkerton ("Addio, fiorito asil"), when it is too late.
  • Horrible Judge of Character: Oh god, Butterfly is this Up to Eleven.
  • I Have No Son!: Butterfly's family's reaction when they find out she converted to Christianity.
  • Impoverished Patrician: Butterfly and her whole family, from a fine samurai bloodline. In her own lifetime, they knew great wealth, but with her father's disgrace and death, they lost everything. It looks like things will turn around when Butterfly marries Pinkerton, but at the start of Act II, all the money he left behind has dried up.
  • The Ingenue: Butterfly is a romantic teenage girl who blindly falls in love with Pinkerton.
  • Innocent Soprano: The eponymous heroine, a soprano, is a naive and innocent girl of fifteen (around eighteen in the finale), who falls deeply in love with the very undeserving Pinkerton and blindly trusts him throughout the first two acts, despite everyone in the second act telling her he's not coming back. Even when she learns he has married another, she refers to that woman as the happiest one in the world.
  • Interrupted Suicide: Suzuki attempts to Invoke this trope. Butterfly has sent Suzuki away, but Suzuki pushes little Sorrow, Butterfly's son, into the room to give her a reason to change her mind.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: The matchmaker Goro's efforts to get Butterfly to divorce Pinkerton and marry prince Yamadori may have arisen from his own self interest and he went about it very badly, but Goro was absolutely right about Cio-Cio San's situation and the marriage would have been incredibly beneficial to her.
  • Karma Houdini: In the end Pinkerton essentially gets everything he wanted — his proper American life with an inconvenient Japanese wife no longer in the picture. However, his wife Kate has promised Butterfly to care for her son as her own, leaving Pinkerton a child whose very presence will always remind him that his rashness and cruelty killed the boy's mother. Also, Kate is just as appalled as everyone else by the way he treated Butterfly, judging by the way she asks for the girl's forgiveness, and it will probably always remain between them and cool their relationship.
  • Leitmotif: Several. There's one for Butterfly's father's knife as well as Pinkerton's already-mentioned "Star Spangled Banner", just to name two.
  • Love Martyr: Butterfly is a resounding example. Pinkerton sees her as a pretty porcelain doll, a plaything for a few months, but in fact she is deeply loving and the soul of loyalty, wasted on a man not worthy of her.
  • Maid and Maiden: Butterfly, the plucky heroine, is the Maiden (albeit a married one) and practical, kindhearted Suzuki is her Maid.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Pinkerton, as noted above, but also the ineffectual Sharpless and the fragile Butterfly.
    • When Sharpless asks the name of Butterfly's child, she says that the little boy's name is Sorrow (or Trouble, or Pain, depending on the translation), but the day that his father returns, his name will become Joy.
  • Mighty Whitey and Mellow Yellow: The Trope Codifier for the "exotic, submissive Asian woman falls in love with Western man" plot — while also acting as something of a Deconstruction as Pinkerton ruins Butterfly's life with his selfish nature and thoughtlessness.
  • Oh, Crap!: Sharpless when Butterfly reveals she gave birth to Pinkerton's child during the interim three years, which makes things even more awkward.
  • Old Retainer: Suzuki is still around in Act II even when the other servants have left and the money is all gone. Her biggest deviation from the trope is that she's not hung up on propriety. She chatters a lot, and is openly affectionate towards Butterfly and Sorrow.
  • Only Sane Man: Suzuki and Sharpless, who are constantly trying to get their respective friends to see sense and are never listened to.
  • Parental Abandonment: At the opera's end, Butterfly's child now has a Missing Mom and a dad who's got his own wife.
  • The Reveal: Midway through Act II, after Sharpless has told her that Pinkerton is not coming back, Butterfly pushes aside the screens in her house and reveals her son. The music accompanying this is a powerful crescendo, which sounds equal parts triumphant and desperate.
  • Rewatch Bonus: In Anthony Minghella's filmed production of Madama Butterfly, watch Sharpless when Pinkerton announces a toast, "To the day I wed a real American bride!" Sharpless throws his drink away rather than toast to that.
  • Scenery Porn: The set designs for many productions utilizes the Japanese landscape very beautifully, especially in conjunction with the traditional Japanese house.
  • Seppuku: Butterfly's father's knife is used for this, and is ultimately used by Butterfly to commit jigai once it becomes clear to her that Pinkerton will never be with her and that she will never see her child again.
  • Stepford Smiler:
    • Butterfly in Act II - she hides all her pain behind a brave face, and acts bold and confident in front of strangers. In Act III, this mask completely falls away.
    • Averted in Act I - even though she was just rejected by her family, Butterfly's happiness with Pinkerton is no performance. Yeah, she loves him that much.
  • Unbuilt Trope: One of the quintessential examples of Mighty Whitey and Mellow Yellow. Except it acts as a deconstruction as Pinkerton is criticised for ruining Butterfly's life. It also averts the disadvantaged aspect of the trope, as Butterfly is well off enough to afford servants and has only run out of money by the time the relationship is over.
  • Untranslated Title: In Italy, or any non-English speaking country. The Italian word for butterfly is "farfalla", yet the English word is used for the character's name.
  • We Wait: Towards the end of Act II, when the house is ready, Butterfly instructs Suzuki and Sorrow to sit pretty and wait for Pinkerton's return. Come daybreak, Pinkerton has not returned, but they are still waiting.
  • What Have I Done: Pinkerton's reaction upon finding out Butterfly has waited three years for his return. However, some versions and/or translations have Pinkerton angsting not so much about how he hurt Butterfly, but about how much the guilt hurts him.
  • Wicked Stepmother: Kate is the cause of much of Butterfly's misfortune, including losing her son, but depending on how she's played it might or might not be completely unintentional on her part. She could be shown as having been put in a very awkward position by her husband but clearly determined to do the right thing and raise his half-Japanese child, promising she'll care for him as her own son and feeling deeply sorry for Butterfly, begging for her forgiveness. On the other hand, she could be portrayed as cold and unsympathetic, speaking empty platitudes and agreeing to raise Pinkerton's son only begrudgingly.
  • Yamato Nadeshiko: Subverted and massively deconstructed. In contrast to the meekness of a "proper wife," Butterfly retains much of the panache of a geisha, such as when Yamadori comes a'courting, and she sasses him, then mocks him by impersonating an American judge ready to throw him in jail, before calmly calling for tea. But aside from that she’s much too co defendant, and it’s exactly because of her lack of strength that causes her to commit suicide.
  • You No Take Candle: Played straight in the novel - see Asian Speekee Engrish, above. But where Long used the Japanese character's broken English to make them seem inferior, Puccini completely averts the trope by having everyone speak perfect Italian. Furthermore, in terms of pure music, Butterfly is far and away the most eloquent and soulful of the cast.

Alternative Title(s): Madama Butterfly


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