See how the novel about an intense love, betrayal, and death, became one of the most loved operas of all times.
We've all experienced heartbreak. Even when our personal stories aren’t necessarily that traumatic and tragic as some of the most famous love stories we read or hear about, there’s no way we can’t feel empathic and be touched by them. That’s the case of the story we’re going to talk about today, a story we’re all familiar with. Either because of the name, the actual story, or due to the emotions it conveys, Madame Butterfly will always be a classic tale that will continue inspiring us.
Although most people got acquainted with the story thanks to Giacomo Puccini’s famous opera, the story was in fact first written as a novel by Pierre Loti with the name of Madame Chrysanthéme in 1887. The novel wasn't that successful, although Loti was definitely a bestselling author of his time due to many of his stories being set in faraway places. Well, "far away" for his European readers, avid for stories about “exotic” places. Being a naval officer, he became a reliable source that inspired and won the hearts of his audience. It’s believed that this particular novel came to John Luther Long’s hands and inspired him to write his very own short story Madame Butterfly a decade after Loti’s novel.
Set in Nagasaki, this is the story of a young woman who gives all her heart to a horrible man who takes advantage of her. Following his friend’s advice, Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, a US Navy officer, decides to take a Japanese wife during his stay in the country. He chooses a very young and beautiful geisha called Cho-Cho-San, who falls madly in love with her American suitor. Some time after the wedding, Pinkerton has to sail back to America promising Cho-Cho-San he’ll be back as soon as possible, since he can’t spend so much time away from her.
Long story short, convinced that her husband will return to her and their newborn child, Cho-Cho-San refuses to listen to other’s advice to divorce him and remarry someone who really loves her. In the same way, she’s reluctant to believe what they tell her about American Navy officials marrying temporarily so they won't be alone. One day, Pinkerton returns to Japan with his formal American wife, who is willing to take Cho-Cho-San’s son with them. Heartbroken after discovering that she was just a pastime for him, she agrees to give them her son the next day. However, she decides to kill herself with her father’s sword. She thrusts the blade on her stomach but stops when realizes that her maid and son had just entered the room. The boy crawls to his mother while the maid tries to cure the wound. The next day Pinkerton’s wife goes to the house as agreed, only to find it empty.
Inspired by this heartbreaking story, the American producer and theater writer David Belasco decided to make an adaptation of Long’s story called Madame Butterfly: A Tragedy of Japan, a play Giacomo Puccini saw after it was successfully staged in London in 1900. With just some slight changes, Puccini composed an opera with the same name. In this popular version, Madame Butterfly’s name is actually Cio-Cio-San, a fifteen-year-old that goes by the nickname of Butterfly. The story is pretty much the same, but the end is a bit more dramatic than in the short story. Here, she agrees to give Pinkerton her son as long as he visits her. Knowing that he’s about to arrive, she asks Buda for forgiveness, bids farewell to her son, grabs her father’s dagger (which has an inscription that reads, “To die with honor when one can no longer live with honor”), and decisively stabs herself. Still alive, she crawls to her son, kisses him, and dies. Immediately, Pinkerton rushes into the room calling for her, but it’s too late.
As you can imagine, adorned with Puccini’s talent, the story became a worldwide hit. Well, to be fair, it took him five versions to actually make it a successful story, but still, it’s considered not only one of his finest works, but actually one of the most important operas in history. As for the previous versions, Puccini's opera has attracted a vast number of readers their authors wouldn't have ever imagined.
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