THIS is the book of the generation of “Madama Butterfly” : An adventure in Japan begat Pierre Loti’s “Madame Chrysanthème” ; ” Madame Chrysanthème” begat John Luther Long’s “Madame Butterfly,” a story ; “Madame Butterfly,” the story, begat “Madame Butterfly,” a play by David Belasco ; “Madame Butterfly,” the play, begat “Madama Butterfly,” the opera by Giacomo Puccini. The heroine of the roving French romanticist is therefore seen in her third incarnation in the heroine of the opera book which L. Illica and G. Giacosa made for Puccini. But in operatic essence she is still older, for, as Dr. Korngold, a Viennese critic, pointed out, Selica is her grandmother and Lakmé her cousin.
Even this does not exhaust her family history; there is something like a bar sinister in her escutcheon. Mr. Belasco’s play was not so much be-gotten, conceived, or born of admiration for Mr. Long’s book as it was of despair wrought by the failure of another play written by Mr. Belasco. This play was a farce entitled “Naughty Anthony,” created by Mr. Belasco in a moment of aesthetic aberration for production at the Herald Square Theatre, in New York, in the spring of 1900. Mr. Belasco doesn’t think so now, but at the time he had a notion that the public would find something humorous and attractive in the spectacle of a popular actress’s leg swathed in several layers of stocking. So he made a show of Blanche Bates. The public refused to be amused at the farcical study in comparative anatomy, and when Mr. Belasco’s friends began to fault him for having pandered to a low taste, and he felt the smart of failure in addition, he grew heartily ashamed of himself. His affairs, moreover, began to take on a desperate aspect ; the season threatened to be a ruinous failure, and he had no play ready to substitute for “Naughty Anthony.” Some time before a friend had sent him Mr. Long’s book, but he had carelessly tossed it aside. In his straits it came under his eyes again, and this time he saw a play in it a play and a promise of financial salvation. It was late at night when he read the story, but he had come to a resolve by morning and in his mind’s eye had al-ready seen his actors in Japanese dress. The drama lay in the book snugly enough it was only necessary to dig it out and materialize it to the vision. That occupation is one in which Mr. Belasco is at home. The dialogue went to his actors a few pages at a time, and the pictures rose rapidly in his mind. Something different from a stockinged leg now !.
Glimpses of Nippon its mountains, waters, bridges, flowers, gardens, geishas; as a foil to their grace and color the prosaic figures of a naval officer and an American Consul. All things tinged with the bright light of day, the glories of sunset or the super-glories of sunrise. We must saturate the fancy of the audience with the atmosphere of Japan, mused Mr. Belasco. Therefore, Japanese scenes, my painter ! Electrician, your plot shall be worked out as carefully as the dialogue and action of the play’s people. “First drop discovered ; house-lights down; white foots with blue full work change of color at back of drop ; white lens on top of mountain ; open light with white, straw, amber, and red on lower part of drop ; when full on lower footlights to blue,” and so on. Mr. Belasco’s emotions, we know, find eloquent expression in stage lights. But the ear must be carried off to the land of enchantment as well as the eye. “Come, William Furst, recall your experiences on the West-ern coast. For my first curtain I want a quaint, soft Japanese melody, pp you know how !”
And so “Madame Butterfly,” the play, was made. In two weeks all was ready, and a day after the first performance at the Herald Square Theatre, on March 5, 1900, the city began to hum with eager comment on the dramatic intensity of the scene of a Japanese woman’s vigil, of the enthralling eloquence of a motionless, voiceless figure, looking steadily through a hole torn through a paper partition, with a sleeping child and a nodding maid at her feet, while a mimic night wore on, the lanterns on the floor flickered out one by one and the soft violins crooned a melody to the arpeggios of a harp.
The season at the Herald Square Theatre was saved. Some time later, when Mr. Belasco accompanied Mr. Charles Frohman to London to put on “Zaza” at the Garrick Theatre, he took “Madame Butterfly” with him and staged it at the Duke of York’s Theatre, hard by. On the first night of “Madame Butterfly” Mr. Frohman was at the latter playhouse, Mr. Belasco at the former. The fall of the curtain on the little Japanese play was followed by a scene of enthusiasm which endured so long that Mr. Frohman had time to summon his colleague to take a curtain call. At a stroke the pathetic play had made its fortune in London, and, as it turned out, paved the way for a new and larger triumph for Mr. Long’s story. The musical critics of the London newspapers came to the house and saw operatic possibilities in the drama. So did Mr. Francis Nielson, at the time Covent Garden’s stage manager, who sent word of the discovery to Signor Puccini. The composer came from Milan, and realized on the spot that the successor of “Tosca” had been found. Signori Illica and Giacosa, librettists in ordinary to Ricordi & Co., took the work of making the opera book in hand. Signor Illica’s fancy had roamed in the Land of Flowers before ; he had written the libretto for Mascagni’s “Iris.” The ephemeral life of Cho-Cho-San was over in a few months, but by that time “Madama Butterfly,” glorified by music, had lifted her wings for a new flight in Milan.
It is an old story that many operas which are recognized as masterpieces later, fail to find appreciation or approval when they are first produced. “Madama Butterfly” made a fiasco when brought forward at La Scala on February 17, 1904.
So complete was the fiasco that in his anxiety to withdraw the work Signor Puccini is said to have offered to reimburse the management of the theatre for the expenditures entailed by the production.
Failures of this kind are frequently inexplicable, but it is possible that the unconventional character of the story and the insensibility of the Italians to national musical color other than their own, had a great deal to do with it in this case. Whatever the cause, the popular attitude toward the opera was displayed in the manner peculiar to Italy, the discontented majority whistling, shrilling on house keys, grunting, roaring, bellowing, and laughing in the good old-fashioned manner which might be set down as possessed of some virtuous merit if reserved for obviously stupid creations.
“The Pall Mall Gazette” reported that at the time the composer told a friend that on this fateful first night he was shut up in a small room behind the scenes, where he could hear nothing of what was going on on the stage or in the audience-room. On a similar occasion, nearly a century before, when “The Barber of Seville” scored an equally monumental failure, Rossini, in the conductor’s chair, faced the mob, shrugged his shoulders, and clapped his hands to show his contempt for his judges, then went home and composedly to bed. Puccini, though he could not see the discomfiture of his opera, was not permitted to remain in ignorance of it. His son and his friends brought him the news. His collaborator, Giacosa, rushed into the room with dishevelled hair and staring eyes, crying : “I have suffered the passion of death !” while Signorina Storchio burst into such a flood of tears and sobs that it was feared she would be ill. Puccini was cut to the heart, but he did not lose faith in the work. He had composed it in love and knew its potentialities. His faith found justification when he produced it in Brescia three months later and saw it start out at once on a triumphal tour of the European theatres. His work of revision was not a large or comprehensive one. He divided the second act into two acts, made some condensations to relieve the long strain, wrote a few measures of introduction for the final scene, but refused otherwise to change the music. His fine sense of the dramatic had told him correctly when he planned the work that there ought not to be a physical interruption of the pathetic vigil out of which Blanche Bates in New York and Evelyn Millard in London had made so powerful a scene, but he yielded to the compulsion of practical considerations, trying to save respect for his better judgment by refusing to call the final scene an act, though he permitted the fall of the curtain ; but nothing can make good the loss entailed by the interruption. The mood of the play is admirably preserved in the music of the intermezzo, but the mood of the listeners is hopelessly dissipated with the fall of the curtain. When the scene of the vigil is again disclosed, the charm and the pathos have vanished, never to return. It is true that a rigid application of the law of unities would seem to forbid that a vigil of an entire night from eve till morning be compressed into a few minutes ; but poetic license also has rights, and they could have been pleaded with convincing eloquence by music, with its marvellous capacity for publishing the conflicting emotions of the waiting wife.
His ship having been ordered to the Asiatic station, Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, Lieutenant in the United States Navy, follows a custom (not at all unusual among naval officers, if Pierre Loti is to be believed) and for the summer sojourn in Japan leases a Japanese wife. (The word “wife” is a euphemism for housekeeper, companion, play-fellow, mistress, what not.) This is done in a manner involving little ceremony, as is known to travellers and others familiar with the social customs of Nippon, through a nakodo, a marriage broker or matrimonial agent. M. Loti called his man Kangourou ; Mr. Long gave his the name of Goro. That, however, and the character of the simple proceeding before a registrar is immaterial. M. Loti, who assures us that his book is merely some pages from a veritable diary, entertains us with some details preliminary to his launch into a singular kind of domestic existence, which are interesting as bearing on the morals of the opera and as indicative of the fact that he is a closer observer of Oriental life than his American confrère. He lets us see how merchantable “wives” are chosen, permits M. Kangourou to exhibit his wares and expatiate on their merits. There is the daughter of a wealthy China merchant, a young woman of great accomplishments who can write “commercially” and has won a prize in a poetic contest with a sonnet. She is, consequently, very dear 100 yen, say $100 but that is of no consequence ; what matters is that she has a disfiguring scar on her cheek. She will not do. Then there is Mlle. Jasmin, a pretty girl of fifteen years, who can be had for $18 or $20 a month, (contract cancellable at the end of any month for non-payment), a few dresses of fashion-able cut and a pleasant house to live in. Mlle. Jasmin comes to be inspected with one old lady, two old ladies, three old ladies (mamma and aunts), and a dozen friends and neighbors, big and little. Loti’s moral stomach revolts at the thought of buying for his uses a child who looks like a doll, and is shocked at the public parade which has been made of her as a commodity. He has not yet been initiated into some of the extraordinary customs of Japan, nor yet into some of the distinctions attendant upon those customs. He learns of one of the latter when he suggests to the broker that he might marry a charming geisha who had taken his fancy at a tea house. The manner in which the suggestion was received convinced him that he might as well have purposed to marry the devil himself as a professional dancer and singer. Among the train of Mlle. Jasmin’s friends is one less young than Mlle. Jasmin, say about eighteen, and already more of a woman ; and when Loti says, “Why not her?” M. Kangourou trots her out for inspection and, discreetly sending Loti away, concludes the arrangement between night-fall and 10 o’clock, when he comes with the announcement : “All is arranged, sir; her parents will give her up for $20 a month the same price as Mlle. Jasmin.”
So Mlle. Chrysanthème became the wife of Pierre Loti during his stay at Nagasaki, and then dutifully went home to her mother without breaking her heart at all. But she was not a geisha, only a mousmé “one of the prettiest words in the Nipponese language,” comments M. Loti, “it seems almost as if there must be a little moue in the very sound, as if a pretty, taking little pout, such as they put on, and also a little pert physiognomy, were described by it.”
Lieutenant Pinkerton, equally ignorant with Lieutenant Loti but uninstructed evidently, marries a geisha whose father had made the happy dispatch at the request of the Son of Heaven after making a blunder in his military command. She is Cio-Cio-San, also Madama Butterfly, and she comes to her wedding with a bevy of geishas or mousmés (I do not know which) and a retinue of relations. All enjoy the hospitality of the American officer while picking him to pieces, but turn from their kinswoman when they learn from an uncle, who is a Buddhist priest and comes late to the wedding like the wicked fairy in the stories, that she has attended the Mission school and changed her religion. Where-fore the bonze curses her : “Hou, hou ! Cio-Cio-San, hou, hou ! ”
Sharpless, United States Consul at Nagasaki, had not approved of Pinkerton’s adventure, fearing that it might bring unhappiness to the little woman ; but Pinkerton had laughed at his scruples and emptied his glass to the marriage with an American wife which he hoped to make some day. Neither Loti nor Long troubles us with the details of so prosaic a thing as the marriage ceremony ; but Puccini and his librettists make much of it, for it provides the only opportunity for a chorus and the musician had found delightfully mellifluous Japanese gongs to add a pretty touch of local color to the music. Cio-Cio-San has been “outcasted” and Pinkerton comforts her and they make love in the starlight (after Butterfly has changed her habiliments) like any pair of lovers in Italy. “Dolce notté ! Quante stelle ! Vieni, vieni !” for quantity.
This is the first act of the opera, and it is all expository to Belasco’s “Tragedy of Japan,” which plays in one act, with the pathetic vigil separating the two days which form its period of action. When that, like the second act of the opera, opens, Pinker-ton has been gone from Nagasaki and his “wife” three years, and a baby boy of whom he has never heard, but who has his eyes and hair has come to bear Butterfly company in the little house on the hill. The money left by the male butterfly when he flitted is all but exhausted. Madama Butterfly appears to be lamentably ignorant of the customs of her country, for she believes herself to be a wife in the American sense and is fearfully wroth with Suzuki, her maid, when she hints that she never knew a foreign husband to come back to a Japanese wife. But Pinkerton when he sailed away had said that he would be back “when the robins nest again,” and that suffices Cio-Cio-San. But when Sharpless comes with a letter to break the news that his friend is coming back with an American wife, he loses courage to perform his mission at the contemplation of the little woman’s faith in the truant. Does he know when the robins nest in America? In Japan they had nested three times since Pinkerton went away. The consul quails at that and damns his friend as a scoundrel. Now Goro, who knows Butterfly’s pecuniary plight, brings Yamadori to her. Yamadori is a wealthy Japanese citizen of New York in the book and play and a prince in the opera, but in all he is smitten with Butterfly’s beauty and wants to add her name to the list of wives he has conveniently married and as conveniently divorced on his visits to his native land. Butterfly insists that she is an American and cannot be divorced Japanese fashion, and is amazed when Sharpless hints that Pinkerton might have forgotten her and she would better accept Yamadori’s hand.
First she orders him out of the house, but, repenting her of her rudeness, brings in the child to show him something that no one is likely to forget. She asks the consul to write to his friend and tell him that he has a son, so fine a son, indeed, that she indulges in a day dream of the Mikado stopping at the head of his troops to admire him and make him a prince of the realm. Sharpless goes away with his mission unfulfilled and Suzuki comes in dragging Goro with her, for that he had been spreading scandalous tales about the treatment which children born like this child receive in America. Butterfly is tempted to kill the wretch, but at the last is content to spurn him with her foot.
At this moment a cannon shot is heard. A man-of-war is entering the harbor. Quick, the glasses ! “Steady my hand, Suzuki, that I may read the name.” It is the Abraham Lincoln, Pinkerton’s ship ! Now the cherry tree must give up its every blossom, every bush or vine its violets and jessamines to garnish the room for his welcome ! The garden is stripped bare, vases are filled, the floor is strewn with petals. Perfumes exhale from the voices of the women and the song of the orchestra. Here local color loses its right ; the music is all Occidental. Butterfly is dressed again in her wedding gown of white and her pale cheeks are touched up with carmine. The paper partitions are drawn against the night. Butterfly punctures the shoji with three holes — one high up for herself to look through, standing ; one lower for the maid to look through, sitting ; one near the floor for the baby. And so Butterfly stands in an all-night vigil. The lanterns flicker and go out. Maid and babe sink down in sleep. The gray dawn creeps over the waters of the harbor. Human voices, transformed into instruments, hum a barcarolle. (We heard it when Sharpless tried to read the letter.) A Japanese tune rises like a sailors’ chanty from the band. Mariners chant their “Yo ho !” Day is come. Suzuki awakes and begs her mistress to seek rest. Butterfly puts the baby to bed, singing a lullaby. Sharpless and Pinkerton come and learn of the vigil from Suzuki, who sees the form of a lady in the garden and hears that it is the American wife of Pinkerton. Pinkerton pours out his remorse melodiously. He will be haunted for-ever by the picture of his once happy home and Cio-Cio-San’s reproachful eyes. He leaves money for Butterfly in the consul’s hands and runs away like a coward. Kate, the American wife, and Suzuki meet in the garden. The maid is asked to tell her mistress the meaning of the visit, but before she can do so Butterfly sees them. Her questions bring out half the truth ; her intuition tells her the rest. Kate (an awful blot she is on the dramatic picture) begs forgiveness and asks for the baby boy that her husband may rear him. Butterfly says he shall have him in half an hour if he will come to fetch him. She goes to the shrine of Buddha and takes from it a veil and a dagger, reading the words engraved on its blade : “To die with honor when one can no longer live with honor.” It is the weapon which the Mikado had sent to her father. She points- the weapon at her throat, but at the moment Suzuki pushes the baby into the room. Butterfly addresses it passionately ; then, telling it to play, seats it upon a stool, puts an American flag into its hands, a bandage around its eyes. Again she takes dagger and veil and goes behind a screen. The dagger is heard to fall. Butterfly totters out from behind the screen with a veil wound round her neck. She staggers to the child and falls, dying, at its feet. Pinkerton rushes in with a cry of horror and falls on his knees, while Sharpless gently takes up the child.
I have no desire to comment disparagingly upon the dénouement of the book of Mr. Long or the play of Mr. Belasco which Puccini and his librettists followed ; but in view of the origin of the play a bit of comparative criticism seems to be imperative. Loti’s “Madame Chrysanthème” was turned into an opera by André Messager. What the opera was like I do not know. It came, it went, and left no sign ; yet it would seem to be easy to guess at the reason for its quick evanishment. If it followed the French story, as no doubt it did, it was too faithful to the actualities of Japanese life to awaken a throb of emotion in the Occidental heart. Without such a throb a drama is naught a sounding brass and tinkling cymbal. The charm of Loti’s book lies in its marvellously beautiful portrayal of a country, a people, and a characteristic incident in the social life of that people. Its interest as a story, outside of the charm of its telling, is like that. excited by inspection of an exotic curio. In his dedication of the book the author begged Mme. la Duchesse de Richelieu not to look for any meaning in it, but to receive it in the same spirit in which she would receive “some quaint bit of pottery, some grotesque carved ivory idol, or some preposterous trifle brought back from the fatherland of all preposterousness.” It is a record of a bit of the wandering life of a poet who makes himself a part of every scene into which fortune throws him. He has spent a summer with a Japanese mousmé, whom he had married Japanese fashion, and when he has divorced her, also in Japanese fashion, with regard for all the conventions, and sailed away from her forever, he is more troubled by thoughts of possible contamination to his own nature than because of any consequences to the woman. Before the final farewell he had felt a touch of pity for the “poor little gypsy,” but when he mounted the stairs to her room for the last time he heard her singing, and mingled with her voice was a strange metallic sound, dzinn, dzinn ! as of coins ringing on the floor. Is she amusing herself with quoits, or the jeu du crapaud, or pitch and toss ? He creeps in, and there, dressed for the departure to her mother’s, sitting on the floor is Chrysanthème ; and spread out around her all the fine silver dollars he had given her ac-cording to agreement the night before. “With the competent dexterity of an old money changer .she fingers them, turns them over, throws them on the floor, and armed with a little mallet ad hoc, rings them vigorously against her ear, singing the while I know not what little pensive, birdlike song, which I dare say she improvises as she goes along. Well, after all, it is even more completely Japanese than I could possibly have imagined it this last scene of my married life ! I feel inclined to laugh.” And he commends the little gypsy’s worldly wisdom, offers to make good any counterfeit piece which she may find, and refuses to permit her to see him go aboard of his ship. She does, nevertheless, along with the Japanese wives of four of his fellow officers, who peep at their flitting husbands through the curtains of their sampans. But when he is far out on the great Yellow Sea he throws the faded lotus flowers which she had given him through the port-hole of his cabin, making his best excuses for “giving to them, natives of Japan, a grave so solemn and so vast” ; and he utters a prayer : “O Ama-Térace-Omi-Kami, wash me clean from this little marriage of mine in the waters of the river of Kamo !”
The story has no soul, and to give his story, which borrowed its motive from Loti’s, a soul, Mr. Long had to do violence to the verities of Japanese life. Yet might not even a geisha feel a genuine passion?
The use of folk-tunes in opera is older than “Madama Butterfly,” but Puccini’s score stands alone in the extent of the use and the consistency with which Japanese melody has been made the foundation of the music. When Signor Illica, one of the librettists, followed Sâr Péladan and d’Annunzio into Nippon seeking flowers for “Iris,” he took Mascagni with him metaphorically, of course. But Mascagni was a timid gleaner. Puccini plucked with a bolder hand, as indeed he might, for he is an incomparably greater adept in the art of making musical nosegays. In fact, I know of only one score that is comparable with that of “Madama Butterfly” in respect of its use of national musical color, and that is “Boris Godounoff.” Moussorgsky, however, had more, richer, and a greater variety of material to work with than Puccini. Japanese music is arid and angular, and yet so great is Puccini’s skill in combining creative imagination and reflection that he knew how to make it blossom like a rose. Pity that he could not wholly overcome its rhythmical monotony. Japanese melody runs almost uninterruptedly through his instrumental score, giving way at intervals to the Italian style of lyricism when the characters and passions be-come universal rather than local types. Structurally, his score rests on the Wagnerian method, in that the vocal part floats on an uninterrupted instrumental current. In the orchestral part the tunes which he borrowed from the popular music of Japan are continuously recurrent, and fragments of them are used as the connecting links of the whole fabric. He uses also a few typical themes (Leitmotive) of his own invention, and to them it might be possible, by ingenious study of their relation to text and situation, to attach significances in the manner of the Wagnerian handbooks ; but I do not think that such processes occupied the composer’s mind to any considerable extent, and the themes are not appreciably characteristic. His most persistent use of a connecting link, arbitrarily chosen, is found in the case of the first motive of the theme, which he treats fugally in the introduction, and which appears thereafter to the end of the chapter (a, in the list of themes printed here-with). What might be called personal themes are the opening notes of “The Star-Spangled Banner” for Pinkerton and the melody (d) which comes in with Yamadori, in which the Japanese tune used by Sir Arthur Sullivan in “The Mikado” is echoed. The former fares badly throughout the score (for which no blame need attach to Signor Puccini), but the latter is used with capital effect, though not always in connection with the character.
If Signor Puccini had needed the suggestion that Japanese music was necessary for a Japanese play (which of course he did not), he might have received it when he saw Mr. Belasco’s play in London. For the incidental music in that play Mr. William Furst provided Japanese tunes, or tunes made over the very convenient Japanese last. Through Mr. Belasco’s courtesy I am able to present here a relic of this original “Butterfly” music. The first melody (a) was the theme of the curtain-music ; (b) that accompanying Cho-Cho-San, when discovered at the beginning spraying flowers, presenting an offering at the shrine and burning incense in the house at the foot of Higashi hill ; (c) the Yamadori music ; (d) the music accompanying the first production of the sword ; (e) the music of the vigil. There were also two Occidental pieces the melody of a little song which Pinkerton had taught Cho-Cho-San, “I Call Her the Belle of Japan,” and “Rock-a-bye, Baby.”