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Madama Butterfly

A synopsis for teenagers of Puccini's opera, Madama Butterfly.

MADAMA BUTTERFLY by Giacomo Puccini
(Ja-co-mo Poo-chee-nee)

Libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica
(Ju-sep-pe Ja-co-sa) (Loo-ee-jee Il-li-ca)

after the play by David Belasco and John Luther Long

Premiere at La Scala, Milan in 1904

Trade with the Far East opened up during the nineteenth century, and Oriental themes became popular for plays and operas. American ships visited Japan often, and this story is about a young lieutenant in the U.S. Navy whose boat docked in Nagasaki (Na-ga-sa-kee) harbor in the 1890s.

Act One

Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton was fascinated with everything Japanese. Since he was going to be there for several months, he decided to rent a house.

This was arranged by a Japanese agent named Goro, who found him a beautiful small house in the Japanese style. It was high on a mountain overlooking the blue waters of the bay, with sliding shoji screens and a sunlit garden filled with flowers. Pinkerton leased it "for ninety-nine years, with an option to cancel every month."

Goro was eager to buy, rent or sell almost anything. He suggested that Pinkerton also marry a sweet little Japanese wife--temporarily, of course!

"Contracts in Japan these days are very elastic--you can break them every thirty days!" laughed Goro.

Pinkerton had seen a beautiful Japanese girl, and was enchanted by her grace and her charming ways. He agreed eagerly to let Goro negotiate for her, and went to his little house on the hill to wait for Goro to bring his new "wife". His friend Sharpless, the American consul in Nagasaki, went with him. They had a glass of whisky and toasted America, and then drank to the new bride.

"Be careful, Pinkerton," warned Sharpless, who knew something of the bride-to-be. "This girl is very innocent and trusting. It would be a pity to break her heart."

"Don't be silly," replied Pinkerton. "She understands the bargain. Now let's drink to the day I marry a real American wife!"

Sharpless drank, but his heart was uneasy. However, before he could speak further, they heard the light voices of girls singing as they climbed the hill.

Soon a group of ladies appeared, carrying parasols and dressed in pale silk kimonos (Japanese robes). They looked like a cloud of flowers, and the prettiest of them was the bride, Cio-Cio-San (Cho-cho-san) , which means "Butterfly" in Japanese. She pointed Lieutenant Pinkerton out to her friends, and commanded them to kneel with her in greeting.

Pinkerton, more enchanted than ever, lifted Butterfly up and began to talk to her.

"Miss Butterfly--the name suits you perfectly. Are you from Nagasaki?"

"Yes, from a wealthy family." She explained shyly that no one in Japan would admit to being poor--although in those days most people were--but that she was indeed from a fine family who had lost all their money. "So I became a geisha (gay-sha), an entertainer, to sing and dance in order to earn my living."

She grew very serious as she told him her father was dead, but soon she was giggling again and made him guess her age. She was just fifteen.

In the background, Butterfly's friends commented on Pinkerton; some of them thought he was handsome, and all hoped that he was rich.

Meanwhile, Butterfly began to unpack the few things she had brought with her, hidden in her sleeve. There were handkerchiefs, a tiny pipe, a sash, a mirror, a fan and the last--a small sword in a scabbard.

"That is sacred to me," she explained, hiding it away.

Goro whispered to Pinkerton that it was the sword with which her father had killed himself, at the request of the Mikado (Mee-kah-do, or ruler).

Butterfly confided in Pinkerton that she had gone to the mission the day before in order to convert to the Christian faith, in honor of her new life.

All was ready for the ceremony, but a terrible shouting interrupted them just as the agreement was signed. It was Butterfly's uncle, the powerful Bonze, furious because she had renounced her ancient faith to become a Christian.

Everyone cried out in fright, except Pinkerton. He sternly ordered the Bonze to leave, and everyone hurried away.

Pinkerton was left alone with Butterfly, who was crying. He consoled her tenderly, and she kissed his hand in gratitude--a gesture, she had been told, of deepest respect in America.

Darkness had fallen while they spoke, and the moon was rising. Butterfly's maid, Suzuki (Su-zu-kee), brought her a robe of purest white silk, and helped her to change her clothes. Pinkerton found her irresistibly lovely, reflecting the moonlight in her white veils with her long dark hair loose.

"I feel like the Goddess of the Moon," Butterfly confided to him, "The little Goddess of the Moon who comes down the Bridge of Heaven at night."

"To charm the hearts of men," Pinkerton returned. "But can she speak words of love?"

"She can, but she is afraid..."

"Foolish fear," Pinkerton embraced her. "Love gives life!"

"You are for me the Eye of Heaven," she whispered. "You are so tall and strong--and you say things I've never heard. I am happy--so happy."

A shadow crossed her pale face. "But they tell me--across the sea--butterflies are pierced with pins, and stuck into books!"

"Only so they can never escape--as I want you never to escape from me!"

Pinkerton took her into his strong arms, and so, with words of love and supreme joy, they embraced in the starlit night.

Act Two

The sad day came when Pinkerton had to depart with his ship. Butterfly wept bitterly, but he promised to return soon--"when the robins make their nests.".

Three long years passed. Every day, Butterfly watched the horizon for Pinkerton's ship. Every night, she dreamed of him.

Inside the little house, the maid Suzuki prayed to the Buddhist gods to stop Butterfly from weeping. But Butterfly ordered her to pray to the American god, instead--only she was afraid that he might not know where they were.

Suzuki warned her that there was very little money left. Pinkerton had arranged with the Consul to pay their rent, but if the lieutenant didn't come back soon, they would starve.

Butterfly assured her, for the hundredth time, that he would come.

"One fine day," she said, " We will see his boat come into the harbor. And then Butterfly will wait, trembling, my heart bursting with joy, until my beloved runs up the hill to me, calling to me with all the little pet names he used to say so sweetly."

"I promise you, it will be so," she swore to Suzuki, "You must have faith, you must believe me!"

In that moment the Consul Sharpless arrived. Butterfly was thrilled to see him, offering him tea and a cigar, and forcing herself to postpone hearing the joyous news she was so sure he had brought her.

Sharpless felt dreadful, and could not bring himself to tell Butterfly the contents of a letter which he had received from Pinkerton. He was relieved when their conversation was interrupted by Goro, eager to arrange another profitable marriage for Butterfly. He brought a very rich suitor with him, Yamadori (Ya-ma-do-ree), who offered to give her a fine palace and costly jewels.

"You have been deserted, which is to say divorced," Goro told Butterfly cruelly. "The American will never come back."

"You are wrong," the little geisha insisted. "He will return. Divorce in America is not so easy as it is here!"

She dismissed Goro and the rich Yamadori scornfully, and settled herself once more to hear what news Sharpless had brought. He took out Pinkerton's letter and began to read it aloud, interrupted constantly by Butterfly's cries of joy at hearing from her beloved at last.

This made poor Sharpless feel worse and worse, for Pinkerton's letter had asked the Consul to prepare Butterfly--"If she, by chance, still remembers me"--for the lieutenant's arrival with his new American wife. Finally, he stopped reading.

"Madama Butterfly, what would you do if Lieutenant Pinkerton were not to return to you?"

The girl froze. After a minute, she pulled herself together and spoke softly, like a crushed flower, "I could go back to amusing people with my songs--or, better, I could die."

Sharpless could not bring himself to continue reading the letter. He suggested that perhaps she should accept the proposal of the rich Yamadori. Butterfly staggered, deeply hurt. Then she rushed from the room.

When she returned, she was carrying a little child who looked very much like Lieutenant Pinkerton.

"And this," she cried, "Could he forget this?"

Sharpless realized who the father must be. "Does he know?"

"No," replied Butterfly, "He was born after his father left. But you will tell him! And then he will come running, across the land and across the sea!"

She cried to the child, "Imagine, what this gentleman dared to think! That your mother would take you in her arms, and go begging for your bread, that she would sing and dance as she did when she was a geisha! No, never! Far better to die!"

Sharpless could bear no more. He took his leave, saying that he would notify Pinkerton.

When the Consul was gone, Butterfly took her baby in her arms and sang to him, promising him that his father would come soon to take them far across the sea to America.

Then, suddenly, the cannons boomed from the harbor to announce the arrival of a ship. Butterfly ran to look through the telescope. Yes! Yes, it was Pinkerton's ship, the "Abraham Lincoln"!

She shrieked with joy, calling to Suzuki.

"Come, quickly, we must decorate the house with flowers!"

Suzuki ran into the garden to pick all the flowers, and together they decorated the house with blossoms everywhere. When the garden was bare, Butterfly knelt before her mirror.

"Ah, I am changed by the years of waiting!" She put a touch of rouge on her face, and also on the baby's cheek so that Pinkerton would find them both beautiful. Then she stationed herself by the door to wait.

She expected the wait to be long, but when the whole night had come and gone, she let Suzuki persuade her to take the baby and rest. Suzuki promised to wake her the moment Pinkerton arrived.

But when he arrived, it was together with the Consul, and also a woman who waited in the garden outside. Suzuki realized that the lady must be Pinkerton's wife, and she wept bitterly, knowing that all was ended for her mistress.

Pinkerton looked around the little house filled with flowers, at the photograph of him still on the table, and was overwhelmed by guilt.

"I can't face her," he said to Sharpless. "You tell her." And saying a sad goodbye to that little house, once filled with so much love, he rushed away.

Butterfly heard voices, and came running out. Convinced that Pinkerton had arrived, she looked everywhere for him. But the only stranger to be seen was a tall blonde lady walking outside, in her garden.

She commanded Suzuki to tell her the truth. "Is he alive?"

Suzuki, weeping, nodded her head.

"But he is not coming back to me?"

"Never again," Suzuki sobbed.

"Did he arrive yesterday?"

Again, Suzuki nodded. Then Butterfly realized who the lady in the garden must be.

"She is--his wife?"

This time Sharpless responded.

"She is the innocent cause of all your trouble. Forgive her." And he began to urge Butterfly to give up her baby to the Pinkertons. It would be better for him to be brought up as an American, the Consul said, than in Japan where there would be so much prejudice and poverty.

Butterfly sadly agreed. "But only if his father comes for him in person--tell him, in half an hour, he may come."

Sharpless left, and Butterfly commanded Suzuki to darken the house and go to watch over the baby.

Alone, she lit a candle at the small altar and took out her father's sword. In a low voice, she read the words engraved on the sharp blade.

"Let the one who cannot live with honor, die with honor."

She put the knife to her throat. But in that moment, the door flew open and Suzuki pushed the child into the room. He ran to Butterfly, who held him in her arms and said farewell, weeping with all her broken heart.

"Think of your mother," she bade him, "Remember her face, when you are in that far away land where you must grow and be happy."

She kissed him and then tied a blindfold over his eyes, so that he would not see what she was about to do. She put a tiny American flag in his hand, and went behind a screen to do what was, to a high-born Japanese, the only honorable act possible.

The bloody sword fell to the floor. Butterfly, dying, tried to drag herself out to kiss her baby once more. In that moment, Pinkerton's voice came from outside, crying "Butterfly!" and he came running into the room.

But, for Madama Butterfly, it was too late.

Visit the "The Young Person's Guide to the Opera" website. Or order your own copy from

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