Loretta Barnard

Tenor translation: Madama Butterfly

Madama Butterfly articulates the tryst between a handsome naval captain and a young Japanese girl. A match made somewhere, but it sure wasn’t heaven.



Of all the tragic operatic heroines, there’s none quite so piteous as Cio-Cio San – Madama Butterfly – the Japanese girl who at the age of just 15, marries the dashing American Lieutenant Pinkerton. Madama Butterfly, a master work from Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924), premièred in 1904 in Milan and remains one of opera’s great crowd-pleasers. The music is as gorgeous as any Puccini opera, and is complemented by the incorporation of traditional Japanese melodies into the score.

The action opens on their wedding day. Pinkerton has rented a property in Nagasaki and has essentially bought himself a Japanese bride. This is okay, he tells his friend Sharpless, because it’s not a “real” wedding; that’s something he’ll have with an American woman back in America. Cue gasps of horror from the audience. Pinkerton – heartless and racist, they think. Looks like things aren’t going to end well.

Cio-Cio San – Butterfly – is ecstatically in love with the man we now know as a bit of a bad egg. She tells the wedding guests the story of her father’s death by ritual suicide (as ordered by the emperor), saying that since his death she had to work as a geisha to support her family. She shows them the dagger, along with the few other trifles that are the sum of her possessions.

Goro conducts the ceremony which is interrupted briefly by Butterfly’s uncle who bursts in angrily because he’s learned that she has forsaken her ancestral religion by adopting Christianity. He curses her in no uncertain terms. Her new husband consoles her and they sing together of their elation. It’s a knockout duet.

Three years go by, three years that Pinkerton has been away. Butterfly spends a lot of time weeping. Her maid Suzuki prays that the American will return soon because they’re almost destitute (she always knew Pinkerton wasn’t quite the ticket), but Butterfly has faith and sings our chosen aria “un bel di”, one lovely day.Listen to the ravishing voice of Renata Tebaldi. She’s singing her heart out:


Yes, she sings, one day they’ll hear the roar of the cannon as the ship docks in port, then see her beloved climbing the hill calling out endearments as he nears the house. She tells Suzuki not to worry because he will return. It’s a glorious aria.

Sharpless and Goro arrive. Sharpless wants to tell Butterfly that Pinkerton has married an American woman but doesn’t have the heart. Then Goro tries to match her with another suitor but she’s not having a bar of it because for her there’s only one man, the great love of her life. Mmm, tricky.

Sharpless asks Butterfly what she’d do if Pinkerton never returned to her. “Probably kill myself,” she cries. Then she calls out, “Trouble!” Well, who should appear but a little boy – her son, the child Pinkerton doesn’t know about. No FaceTime in Japan back then. Turns out Butterfly named her son Trouble, planning to change it to Joy once his father returned to them.

Suddenly the sound of a cannon alerts Butterfly to Pinkerton’s return to Nagasaki. Over the moon, she and Suzuki gather flowers to decorate the house, and Butterfly changes into her wedding dress to wait for her one true love. It’s a bit of a wait because Pinkerton doesn’t bother coming to Butterfly’s house till the next day. What’s more, he’s with his new wife Kate. They tell Suzuki that they’re adopting Trouble. Devastated, Suzuki runs off to tell Butterfly. Meantime, in the only fit of remorse he’s ever had, that swine Pinkerton rushes away leaving everyone else to clean up his mess.

Butterfly meets Kate, who’s actually a very nice person, telling her she’ll only give up her child to Pinkerton himself. Then alone again, Butterfly feeling utterly forsaken, takes the ritual dagger – you remember the one her father had used for hara-kiri – and gets ready to plunge it into her heart, the one Pinkerton stomped all over.

When Suzuki and Trouble enter she drops the knife, embraces her little boy, gives him an American flag and covers his eyes with a scarf. She goes behind a screen, stabs herself and dies.

Pinkerton is heard calling her. When he enters the room and sees her, he sobs with shame. By now, the audience hopes he’ll sob for eternity, the bastard. Sharpless takes the boy away from the traumatic scene and the curtain falls.

It might not surprise you to hear that the poor tenor who plays Pinkerton is sometimes booed by the audience. Ah, the power of music.

You can read the words here.

Loretta Barnard

Loretta Barnard is a freelance writer and editor who has authored four non-fiction books, been a contributing writer to a wide range of reference books and whose essays have been published across a number of platforms. A regular contributor to The Big Smoke, she also coordinates the TBS Next Gen program.