A guide to Madam Butterfly

1 September 2021

Welsh National Opera’s previous production of Madam Butterfly was going strong for over 40 years – it was first performed at Cardiff’s New Theatre on 1 November 1978, with the Welsh Philharmonia conducted by Guido Ajmone-Marsan (our Orchestra wasn’t officially named as such until 1979), the Director was Joachim Herz. Now, in WNO’s 75th year, we are producing a new production of Puccini’s perennial tear-jerker with its challenging storyline made even more contentious in the #MeToo era. Through it all, Puccini’s powerful, poignant music highlights the emotional turmoil experienced by the main characters of Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly) and her long-term companion/servant, Suzuki.

Helmed by Australian Director Lindy Hume who is known for her fresh interpretations of classic operas, where she emphasises the basic themes making them even more emotionally impactful, rather than updating just for the sake of it. Our new Madam Butterfly looks at the work through a  contemporary lens, not based in a particular time or place, focusing in on the subject matter that resonates in today’s world where, to varying degrees, women and their bodies are still traded, used and passed on.

Madam Butterfly was written at the start of the 20th century and portrays the clash of two cultures, Eastern and Western, as experienced by a poor, young Japanese Geisha (Butterfly) and an American Navy Lieutenant (Pinkerton). She believed that she was legitimately married to Pinkerton, rather than being the subject of a monetary deal made to benefit others; a marriage she saw as a way out of the poverty, of her life up to that point – the chance of an escape, a new life. In reality she is soon left to fall back into greater despair, but now with a son to think about…

The mistreatment of Butterfly at the hands of the Americans, with the assistance of the morally corrupt Japanese marriage broker (Goro), basically turning her (and many others like her) into a commodity to be bought and sold, was a deliberate comment by Puccini. Lindy concentrates on Butterfly’s situation: where she has no control, no power, no means of her own, so that when she is abandoned her life inevitably leads back to poverty. Such treatment forces Butterfly’s focus on to her son, to ensure he escapes such a life. Her position eventually leaves her, as she sees it, with only one means of control and she takes it, making the ultimate sacrifice for her son.

Madam Butterfly has never been an easy opera to witness – the subject matter has always been disquieting, and that was Puccini’s intent – but Puccini’s music, including Butterfly’s poignant aria Un bel dì and the mesmerising Humming Chorus, has made it one of the most popular operas with regular performances around the world. Looking at it through new eyes gives it meaning in modern times, making us, the audience, question society’s seeming collusion in such behaviour. And isn’t that what opera is? A means of reflecting on the world around us, questioning what we see, making us think, while at the same time being swept up in the glorious music and experiencing something beyond our everyday.