Madama Butterfly


Madama Butterfly

Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

"Wood, stone, water, fire, air: the universe distilled into a harmonic equation. Inside is outside, boundaries are doorways... A breath of fresh air equals the wind. One woman's death equals all life..."

These are the words two young designers wrote as they described their vision for Madama Butterfly.

Russell Cohen and Peter England looked at Japan through Pinkerton's eyes, striving to capture the wonder and beauty that sparked a young US sailor's desire. "Our ambition was to convey this sense of discovery and exotica," they said. "When Pinkerton enters, he and the audience must be thrilled by this 'new world'."

The pair turned to Japanese traditions to create this world of beauty and passion.

Costumes of brilliant colour and fabrics that move sensuously, billowing in the performer's wake come from the traditions of Kabuki Theatre. From Noh Theatre, the striking spare wooden platforms and timber bridges, a floating world about a moat of water. From the traditions of Zen Buddhism, a commitment to restrained simplicity and a respect for the elements.

There are moments of breathtaking beauty in their use of wood, the movement of gossamer silks and the combination of water and flame. The Japan that Pinkerton sees is an ethereal, exotic world — fragile and beautiful, like the innocent Butterfly that he so desires.

After wowing us as Tosca last year, Alexia Voulgaridou returns as Butterfly, immediately before performing the role in London.


Rejected by her past, forgotten by the man she loves, Butterfly clings to the promise of honour, just beyond the horizon.


Conductor Anthony Legge
Director Moffatt Oxenbould
Set & Costume Designers

Peter England
Russell Cohen

Lighting Designer Robert Bryan
Rehearsal & Movement Director Matthew Barclay
Cio-Cio-San Alexia Voulgaridou (until 22 Feb)
Antoinette Halloran (25 Feb - 18 Mar) 
Hiromi Omura (19-28 Mar)
Pinkerton James Egglestone (until 18 Mar)
Diego Torre
Suzuki Sian Pendry
Sharpless Michael Honeyman (until 18 Mar)
Barry Ryan
Goro Graeme Macfarlane
Kate Pinkerton Jane Ede
The Bonze Jud Arthur
Yamadori Samuel Dundas
Commissioner Jonathan McCauley
Simon Meadows (from 19 Mar)
Registrar Dean Bassett

Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra

Opera Australia Chorus

Running time: approximately 2 hours & 45 minutes, including one 20-minute interval.

The StoryHide

The American naval Lieutenant, Pinkerton, fascinated by the exotic beauty of the geisha Cio-Cio-San, marries her while visiting Japan. Cio-Cio-San, enthralled by his American ways and promise of a modern life in America, falls wholeheartedly in love with the stranger. But Pinkerton already has a foot out the door, looking forward to the day he will marry “a real wife, a wife from America.”

Years pass, and Cio-Cio-San waits faithfully for her husband’s return. Long abandoned by her family, she is alone with her servant Suzuki and a living memento of her American love. She refuses all offers of marriage, singing of her great hope for the day Pinkerton will return. The faithful Suzuki tries in vain to convince her to abandon hope.

But when his ship comes in, Pinkerton is not alone. As dawn breaks, what will become of Butterfly’s great hope?

Not afraid of spoilers? Read the full synopsis.

Act I

On a terrace above Nagasaki harbour, US Navy Lieutenant B F Pinkerton inspects the house he has leased from a marriage broker, Goro, who has procured for him a geisha wife known as Madama Butterfly (Cio-Cio-San). To the American Consul, Sharpless, who arrives breathless from climbing the hill, Pinkerton describes his carefree philosophy of a sailor roaming the world in search of pleasure. For the moment, he is enchanted with the fragile Cio-Cio-San and intends to undergo a marriage ceremony with her — a 999-year contract, but subject to monthly renewal. When Sharpless warns that the girl may not take her vows so lightly, the lieutenant brushes aside such scruples, adding that he will one day take a ‘real’ American wife.

Cio-Cio-San is heard in the distance joyously singing of her wedding day. After she has entered, surrounded by her friends, she tells Pinkerton how, when her family fell on hard times, she had to earn her living as a geisha. Soon her relatives arrive and noisily express their opinions of the marriage. In a quiet moment, Cio-Cio-San shows the bridegroom her little store of possessions, one of which she hides from public view. Goro explains that it is a sheathed knife which the Mikado sent to Butterfly’s father, with the ‘invitation’ to commit hara-kiri —which he obeyed. Butterfly confesses to Pinkerton that she, on the previous evening, secretly went to the Mission and adopted the religion of her new husband.

The wedding ceremony completed, the guests toast the couple. Suddenly Cio-Cio-San’s uncle, a priest, bursts upon the scene, cursing the girl for having renounced her ancestors’ religion. Pinkerton angrily orders the priest and family to leave.

Alone with his bride, he dries her tears in the moonlit garden, where they discover the depths of their love.

Act II

Three years later, Cio-Cio-San still waits for her husband’s return. Suzuki prays to her gods for aid. The maid shows Cio-Cio-San how little money is left but is told to have faith: one fine day Pinkerton’s ship will appear on the horizon.

Sharpless is announced. He has not seen her since the wedding, and Butterfly receives him with joy. He has come with a letter from Pinkerton asking him tactfully to inform Butterfly of his marriage with an American woman, but his attempts to tell her the contents of the letter are frustrated by her constant questions about Pinkerton. Had Pinkerton not said that he would return ‘in the season when the robins are nesting?’ In Japan, she remarks, ‘the robins have already nested three times, but perhaps in America these birds behave differently?’ ‘I never studied ornithology,’ replies Sharpless.

Goro, who has been lurking outside, brings in a suitor for her hand. The girl dismisses the wealthy Prince Yamadori, insisting that her American husband has not deserted her. When they are alone, Sharpless again starts to read her the letter and suggests as tactfully as he can that Pinkerton may never return. Cio-Cio-San proudly shows him her child, insisting that as soon as Pinkerton knows of his son he will surely come back, though if he does not she would rather die than return to her former life. Moved by her devotion and lacking the heart to tell her of the lieutenant’s marriage, Sharpless leaves.

Cio-Cio-San, on the point of despair, hears a cannon report; and watches Pinkerton’s ship entering the harbour. Delirious with joy, she orders Suzuki to help her strew the house with flower petals. Then, as night falls, Cio-Cio-San, Suzuki and the child begin their vigil, awaiting Pinkerton’s arrival.

As dawn breaks, Suzuki insists that Cio-Cio-San rests. Humming a lullaby to her child, she carries him to another room.

Knocking is heard: it is Pinkerton and Sharpless, with Pinkerton’s wife, Kate, remaining discreetly outside. They have come, they explain to the startled Suzuki, so early in the morning in the hope of finding her alone and of enlisting her support in persuading Butterfly to accept Kate’s offer to adopt the child. Pinkerton, overcome with remorse, bids an anguished farewell to the scene of his former happiness and rushes away.

Meanwhile Suzuki has gone into the garden to speak to Kate and, moved by her sincerity, she promises to convey to her mistress her offer to adopt the child. Butterfly rushes into the room in joyful expectation to find Pinkerton, but is taken aback when she sees only Sharpless and a foreign lady. She takes only a moment to guess the truth. She agrees to give up her child if the father will return for him. Then, she takes the dagger with which her father committed suicide, choosing to die with honour rather than live in disgrace. Just as she raises the blade, Suzuki pushes the child into the room. Tearfully she bids him a last farewell. With solemn ritual, she stabs herself as Pinkerton’s anxious cries ‘Butterfly! Butterfly!’ are heard from outside.

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