Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

The Story of 'Madame Butterfly'

ACT ONE: The opera takes place around 1900, in Nagasaki. Lieutenant B. F. Pinkerton of the U.S. Navy is looking over a little house on a hill, facing the harbor. He's about to marry a young Japanese woman named Cio-Cio-San, whose nickname is Butterfly. Goro, the marriage broker, accompanies Pinkerton. Three Japanese servants are also at the house, including Suzuki, Butterfly's loyal maid.

Sharpless also arrives. He's the American Consul at Nagasaki. Sharpless is unhappy about Pinkerton's wedding plans. He warns Pinkerton that what may feel like a lark to him is taken quite seriously by Butterfly, who is only 15 years old. To her, it may be a matter of life and death. Pinkerton dismisses his friend's concerns. He then pours drinks for the two of them, and actually toasts his future American wife — his "real" wife, he says. The men are interrupted by the arrival of Butterfly with her relatives and friends.

Sharpless talks to Butterfly and realizes he was right. Butterfly is deeply in love with Pinkerton. She has even renounced her faith to be with him. This means she has cut herself off from her past — putting herself entirely in the hands of her new husband.

Japanese marriage officials arrive to perform the ceremony. Afterward, shouting is heard. Butterfly's uncle, Bonze, has heard that she has renounced her faith. He curses her and demands that her family disown her. Pinkerton is furious at the interruption and throws them all out of the house. Butterfly is in tears, but Pinkerton comforts her and assures her of his love.

ACT TWO: Three years have passed. Pinkerton has spent nearly all of that time in America, with Cio-Cio-San waiting patiently for his return. Suzuki gently warns her that Pinkerton might never come back. Butterfly is steadfast, and sings the familiar aria "Un bel dì." "One beautiful day," she says, his ship will appear on the horizon.

Goro stops by with Sharpless, who has a letter for Butterfly. In it, Pinkerton reveals that he has taken an American wife and will be bringing her to Japan. Sharpless cannot bring himself to tell Butterfly the truth, and she keeps interrupting his reading with poignant questions. Goro then brings in a suitor, Prince Yamadori. Butterfly dismisses the wealthy prince, insisting that her American husband has not deserted her.

Sharpless advises her to accept Yamadori's proposal, and asks her if she's prepared to be without Pinkerton forever. She reacts desperately, introducing Sharpless to her son. She tells him the boy's name is Trouble, but he'll be renamed Joy when his father returns. Sharpless curses Pinkerton and leaves.

After hearing a cannon fire at sea, Cio-Cio-San and Suzuki turn to see Pinkerton's ship entering the harbor. They scatter flower petals around the house to prepare for his arrival. Then Butterfly, Suzuki and the little boy all settle down to wait for Pinkerton, as the sound of a chorus, humming, is heard in the distance.

ACT THREE: Cio-Cio-San is up early, anxiously anticipating Pinkerton's arrival. Suzuki urges her to rest, so Butterfly carries the boy into another room, singing him a lullaby.

Pinkerton approaches the house quietly. Sharpless is with him — and so is Kate, Pinkerton's American wife. When Suzuki sees Kate standing in the garden, she suspects the truth and the men confirm her suspicions. Pinkerton and Sharpless ask her not to tell Butterfly that they've come. Instead, they ask her to help persuade Butterfly to let Kate and Pinkerton take the child. As Pinkerton casts his eye around the house, he is overcome with remorse and rushes away, after singing the farewell aria, "Addio fiorito asil."

Cio-Cio-San appears, expecting to find Pinkerton. When she sees Sharpless with a strange woman, she knows that Pinkerton has abandoned her. She tells Kate that if she and Pinkerton return later, they can take the boy.

When she's alone, Cio-Cio-San picks up a dagger with the inscription, "To die with honour when one can no longer live with honour." Just as she raises the blade, Suzuki pushes the little boy into the room. Sobbing, Butterfly says goodbye to the child. She gives him a little American flag and a doll, telling him to go play with them.

Cio-Cio-San stabs herself, then drags herself across the floor toward her son. From outside, a distraught Pinkerton desperately calls, "Butterfly! Butterfly!" as Cio-Cio-San dies.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit