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In reviewing the terms to a lease for a Japanese wedding house, which overlooks Nagasaki harbour, includes a geisha wife and runs for a period of 999 years but can be terminated on any given month, Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton of the U.S. Navy is quite pleased with its flexible terms. Just the day before, the American consul, Sharpless, who was invited as the Lieutenant’s best man and has a much more refined ear than he, overheard the lovely voice of the young geisha, Cio-Cio-San, known as Madam Butterfly, who had visited the US consulate the day before, heeding him to question: could her voice be the sound of true love? He warns his compatriot against carelessly “eliciting tones of sorrow from this voice.” Knowing that what might be irresponsible game for Pinkerton could result in existential seriousness for Cio-Cio-San. After all, she had broken all ties to her family and culture in order to dream the American dream as “Madame F. B. Pinkerton”. After Pinkerton left Madam Butterfly, she continued to defend her dream against the cold reality of her situation for three years, trusting the American marriage laws and the child she gave birth to after Pinkerton's departure: a blond, blue-eyed boy whom she named Dolore (“Sorrow”). Sharpless believes he can relieve the socially isolated and destitute Cio-Cio-San by persuading Pinkerton, who in the meantime sought a “real marriage” to a “real American girl”, to adopt the child. Madame Butterfly agrees to give up her last remaining tie to Pinkerton – her son – if Pinkerton himself comes to collect him. Then she confronts him with a Japanese suicide ritual, which she performs in the presence of her son just after blindfolding him.
To musically portray a Japan in conflict with open borders and forced westernization through the American Navy in 1853, Puccini leaves behind his distinct musical language and in doing so incorporates material from original or mediated Far Eastern sources: In addition to borrowing from transcriptions of Japanese music by Rudolf Dittrich, a student of Bruckner, he used melodies from a music box made in Switzerland for export to China, added Japanese percussion instruments and was also inspired by a Kabuki theatre performance. The latter refers to an important aspect of the main character. For as a geisha, Cio-Cio-San is trained to entertain a man through conversation as much as through artistic performances such as singing, dance and pantomime. Throughout, the viewer may question whether her self-portrayal is authentic or if she is fooling both her partners in the play – and the audience – with an act of artistic masquerades. For example, in acting out one of the play’s most famous arias "Un bel dì vedremo", "One day we will see”, she uses her body and voice to display to her confidant, Suzuki, her longed-for return of her American husband; and during a scene in which she improvises a humorous dialogue for the consul at an American divorce court; and yet again, when she recalls the degrading fate of a street dancer for her son. The supposed naivety of the main character thus continually proves to be in an abysmal state and often broken. The exoticism in Puccini's Butterfly score is more than, and different than, a folkloristic decoration. He stages a critique of colonialism that makes the work fruitful for post-colonial questions and readings.