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“Madama Butterfly” at Lyric is a timeless, poignant story of joy and sorrow

By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J.

Currently running at the Lyric Opera of Chicago is the Italian opera “Madama Butterfly,” more commonly known in American renditions as “Madame Butterfly,” which tells the timeless story about the love that a Japanese woman has for a charming, debonair American soldier who has stolen her heart and basically saved her and her immediate and extended family members from a life of poverty.

image003 1“Madama Butterfly” is an opera in three acts by Giacomo Puccini, with an Italian libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. It is based on the short story “Madame Butterfly” by John Luther Long, which in turn was based on stories told to Long by his sister Jennie Correll and on the semi-autobiographical 1887 French novel “Madame Chrysanthème” by Pierre Loti. Long’s version was dramatized by David Belasco as the one-act play “Madame Butterfly: A Tragedy of Japan,” which, after premiering in New York in 1900, moved to London, where Puccini saw it in the summer of that year.

For an opera that has been around for more than a century, the themes and situations presented at Lyric Opera are as fresh as if this piece were written last year. Who cannot empathize with a woman who is really a young teen, whose family is near poverty and has a chance to marry a charming stranger, whose marriage has been arranged by a marriage broker?

image001 1The story unfolds: The young geisha’s birth name is Cio-Cio-San, who is referred to as a butterfly. Consequently, once she marries Lt. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, who is due to return to the United States shortly after their ceremony, Cio-Cio San is known as Madame Butterfly.

But a short trip to the States turns into a grueling three years, and Madame Butterfly yearns for her soldier’s return home, as she is nearly penniless and has a young son—whom Pinkerton has never seen.

When word came that Pinkerton’s ship was due to land back in Japan, the scene where Madame Butterfly and her son waited for his arrival was searing, yet breathtaking. The stage revolved around, as if to reveal time passing, while white flowers that had been strewn about covered the entire floor.

The white could have very well represented new life or a new beginning, but in the end, life was not in the cards for Madame Butterfly, as she received word that Pinkerton had taken an American wife.

First time opera patron Helen Warren enjoyed her introduction to the fine arts. “It was an amazing experience to be able to see a performance through operetta. There was a line about butterfly wings that struck a chord with me.” 

(Photos by Todd Rosenberg)

The reference to which Warren points is as follows: The Japanese believe that in the United States, Americans catch butterflies and pin their wings to a hard surface, so the butterfly doesn’t fly away. However, this practice, in effect, kills the butterfly. “In essence when B. F. Pinkerton claimed Butterfly as his own taking her in matrimony, she would not die but would be stifled,” Warren said. And in a sad way, Madame Butterfly was more than just stifled. “She waited in despair for three years for him to return to her, and when he did, her life was shattered.”

I always enjoy the opera, and this time around, “Madama Butterfly” did not disappoint. 

“Madama Butterfly” is performed in Italian with projected English subtitles and runs through March 8; Lyric Opera Chicago is located at 20 N. Wacker Drive.  For more information, visit

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