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Madame Butterfly: book cover

Book Info:
Madame Butterfly: Japanisme, Puccini and the Search for the Real Cho-Cho-San
By Jan Van Rij
ISBN 1-880656-52-3. U.S.: Stone Bridge Press. pp. 192

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Tracking down Cho-Cho-san
By: Yuki Allyson Honjo

David Henry Hwang's play, "M. Butterfly," is loosely based on the true story of a young French diplomat bewitched by a beguiling Chinese opera star. They meet, fall in love and have a child together—all to the strains of Puccini's "Madame Butterfly." Unfortunately for the diplomat, his butterfly was a man, and the child had been "borrowed" to perpetuate the myth. To make matters worse, his lover was a spy for the Chinese government.

The old bromide that truth is stranger than fiction certainly applies to this tale. The story behind Puccini's opera, while perhaps less bizarre, is a piece of fiction with bits of truth, lies and art woven into it. Jan van Rij's book, Madam Butterfly: Japaonism, Puccini and the Search for the Real Cho-Cho-San, attempts to untangle truth from fiction.

Who is Butterfly? Is she merely a confection for the delectation of the period's taste in Japonisme? Or was she real?

The story line of the opera is simple: a girl's love is betrayed. In the late 19th century, Lt. Pinkerton of the United States Navy rents a house in Nagasaki and "marries" a younger Japanese woman by the name of Butterfly, or Cho-Cho-san. Like the house, the arrangement, at least in Pinkerton's eyes, is temporary: both bride and house are leased for 999 years, revocable with one month's notice. Pinkerton even toasts his future with a "real" American bride at his "wedding" with Butterfly. Fifteen-year-old Butterfly, however, thinks the marriage is real: she renounces her faith, her family and settles into life with Pinkerton; with whom she has a child. Pinkerton later leaves Butterfly for the United States, promising to return. Three years later, Butterfly still waits for her husband and spurns all other suitors. Pinkerton does return, but with his new American wife. He demands that Butterfly hand over his child. Butterfly kills herself in despair.

The taxonomy of Lepidoptera, as Van Rij illustrates, is not easy. The real Butterfly could have been one of many women. One popular myth is that she was Tsuru Glover, the wife of Scottish diplomat Thomas Glover. Indeed, the city of Nagasaki encourages this association. The garden of the Glover's former home, now a tourist attraction in Nagasaki, has speakers piping in strains of the opera.

She could have been O-Kikusan of Pierre Loti's novel Madame Chrysanthemem, based on his own experience in Nagasaki.

Butterfly could also have come from the memoirs of Jeannie Correll, a missionary in Japan who told her brother, John Luther Long, the story of a girl forsaken by a foreign sailor and her sad death, on which he wrote a story. David Belasco wrote a play based on Long's story and Puccini saw the play—the rest was opera history.

Or was it? Puccini's librettist borrowed elements from Loti, Charles Messager, Long and Belasco—multiple sources informed the opera.

Added to this mix was the potent mix of Japonisme, the period's taste for the exotic and Puccini's own neuroses and passions. The end result was Madame Butterfly, which did not so much reflect 19th century Japan, but how outsiders like Puccini, who had never gone to Japan, imagined the place.

The opera itself underwent a number of changes. The first performance at La Scala in 1904 was a disaster: Puccini was literally booed off the stage. Badly shaken, he reworked the structure of the opera, though not so much the music. The changes brought smashing success. The Paris version of 1906 reworked some of the characters and became the definitive version.

Within Japan, the opera has never garnered the popularity it has in the West: a complete version was note performed until 1936. Japanese audiences have often found the "Japan" of Puccini's vision disquieting, alien and with the patina of cheap drama. When part of the opera was performed in 1916, an Asahi Shimbun reviewer scoffed that it was a "contemptuous glance at the customs and habits of loose women" in Japan.

Van Rij is a fine guide through the twists and turns of the story, the perfect historical companion for the opera viewer or casual reader of history. Reading his book is like reading extended record liner notes: it serves to educate as well as amuse. His book is not a musical analysis of the opera. However, in one slim volume, Van Rij provides an overview of life in Nagasaki, Japonisme, Puccini's creative struggles and milestone performances of the opera.

Structurally, the book meanders from subject to subject like a dinner-party conversation after one too many bottles of wine—delightful but ultimately frustrating for the scholarly reader. But for someone wanting additional information on the opera, the book is a charming way to pass the time. And Van Rij also shows us that in Puccini's opera, truth is fiction, and vice versa, and always entertaining.

Yuki Allyson Honjo. "Tracking down Cho-Cho-san." The International Herald Tribune/Asahi. April 27, 2000.


"When part of [Madame Butterfly] was performed in 1916, an Asahi Shimbun reviewer scoffed that it was a 'contemptuous glance at the customs and habits of loose women' in Japan.".


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