Madame Butterfly In Film

Ana María Martínez as the title character in Madame Butterfly (2016); Photo: Ken Howard

Ana María Martínez as the title character in Madame Butterfly (2016); Photo: Ken Howard

Between “Nessun dorma” (Turandot) and “O soave fanciulla” (La Boheme), Puccini’s compositions are arguably the most widely used operatic music in cinema. Yet, it is not only his music that has been used, but also his dramatic storylines. Take Madame Butterfly. The story follows the trials of Cio-Cio San, a Japanese geisha, who marries American naval officer Pinkerton. She loves him, but he abandons her and returns to the United States. Pinkerton returns three years later – a new American wife in tow – and demands that Cio-Cio give up their son. Puccini’s tragic east meets west tale has been adapted into many films (including a 1975 filmed opera starring Mirella Freni and Plácido Domingo and a 1995 filmed opera conducted by James Conlon).

Madame Butterfly (1915)

This film is what happens when one of the greatest silent movie actresses – Mary Pickford – tackles Madame Butterfly.

Madame Butterfly (1932)

Marion Gering’s film is not a musical, but it does utilize a significant amount of Puccini’s music and stars a dashingly youthful Cary Grant as Pinkerton.

  1. Butterfly (1993)

David Cronenberg (who made his LA Opera debut directing The Fly in 2008) updated Puccini’s tale to 1960s China, just before the Cultural Revolution. In the film, a French diplomat (Jeremy Irons) falls in love with a Chinese opera diva, unaware that she is actually a man (played by John Lone).

Of all the heartbreaking music in Madame Butterfly, nothing strikes a chord like Cio-Cio-San’s aria, “Un bel di vedremo.” In the aria, she sings about the beautiful day when Pinkerton will return and how she will wait for him to come to her. Many other films have used this aria, including Factory Girl, The Last Station, The American, and Colombiana. Perhaps the most well-known is scenes from the heavily Butterfly inspired film, Fatal Attraction (starring Michael Douglas and Glenn Close). In the film, Dan Gallagher (Douglas) has an affair with Alex Forrest (Glenn Close). Gallagher tries to abandon her, but she will not be thrown away. Forrest identifies with Cio-Cio-San, even solemnly listening to “Un bel di vedremo,” while sitting near a lamp and thinking of Gallagher. The similarities do not end there. Fatal Attraction’s original ending (see below) has Forrest killing herself to the famous aria.

The uses of Madame Butterfly in film are yet another example that – like the Force – the opera and film connection is strong.

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