Madame Butterfly and Child

The Inspiration of Many

Pierre Loti's 1896 novel Madame Chrysantheme spurred a fascination with Japan and its culture, and inspired many popular works including a short story, a play, a musical and, of course, an opera. These works, including Giacomo Puccini's famous opera Madame Butterfly, ultimately derive from Loti's story of an American sailor who takes an exotic bride. What ensues in each story is a clash of cultures and tragedy.

In 1898, Philadelphia lawyer John Luther Long published a short story in Century magazine. The story, Madame Butterfly, was inspired by Loti's novel, as well as by Long's sister who was a missionary in Nagasaki. Long may have heard of the story of a geisha named Otsuru Yanamura who wore her family crest, a butterfly, on her clothing. Otsuru married a foreigner and, as in the story, bore him a son. The foreigner and apparent prototype for the character of Lt. Pinkerton was a Scot by the name of Thomas Blake Glover, a dealer in arms and warships. Glover imported Japan's first locomotive and founded the dockyard of Kosuge which was later renamed as the Mitsubishi Shipbuilding Company. Glover made a dramatic impact on the modernization of Japan. Tour books list as a museum the European-style bungalow in Japan where Glover once lived as "Glover Mansion" or "Butterfly's House".

In Long's short story, Madame Butterfly is only wounded and is nursed back to health by her maid, Suzuki. Pinkerton, the American Lieutenant who loved her and left her, returns to find an empty house. David Belasco, the famous American playwright, author, director, and producer created a play based on Long's short story. Belasco changed the ending, heightening the drama by having the young Butterfly die on stage. It is this version that prompted Puccini to create his unforgettable opera.

When Puccini saw Belasco's play in the summer of 1900, he was captivated by the tragic story and its fragile title character -- even though he didn't understand the English being spoken. He abandoned the other subjects he was considering for his next year's work. The premiere was a failure, but in revised form Puccini's opera became one of the most popular in the repertoire. Puccini and Belasco would later collaborate on another popular opera, The Girl of the Golden West.

A much later version of the Madame Butterfly story can be found in the Broadway musical Miss Saigon. This eleven-time Tony-nominated musical depicts a Madame Butterfly-esque story, with the setting updated to the Vietnam War era.

The popular and controversial Broadway play M. Butterfly uses the opera and its music as central themes, although the story is far removed from the original Madame Butterfly. This modern story tackles the difficult subjects of racism, sexism, and gender roles. M. Butterfly reverses the dynamics of power between the two main characters, an Asian and an American. This time it is the American who is destroyed by innocence and naiveté.