Was There a Real Madame Butterfly?

Classic Arts Features   Was There a Real Madame Butterfly?
Jan van Rij, author of Madame Butterfly: Japonisme, Puccini, and the Search for the Real Cho-Cho-San, reveals the story behind the story.

The story of Madame Butterfly is an old one. In 1616, the Italian adventurer Carletti wrote that as soon as foreign sailors arrived in Japan "the pimps who control this traffic in women call on them ... and enquire whether they would like to purchase or to acquire in any other method they please, a girl for the period of their sojourn," a contract to that effect being signed with the go-between or the family. This practice was continued by the Dutch merchants during the 250 years that they were allowed, as the only foreigners, to stay in Japan on the tiny, artificial island of Dejima in the harbor of Nagasaki. It still existed when, in 1885, the French navy officer and author Pierre Loti arrived, who invented nothing new in his well-documented and very popular French novel about his "marriage" of six weeks with "Madame Chrysanthème."

So, when, in 1892, Irvin and Jennie Correll came to Nagasaki as missionaries of the American Methodist Mission, it was not surprising that their attention was drawn to this practice. They were initially discreet about it; it would only be much later that Jennie recounted one particular story which she said she had heard from her local shopkeeper around 1895, although the events in the story had taken place more than twenty years earlier.

When Jennie went home on leave to the U.S. in 1897, she stayed some time with her brother John Luther Long, a Philadelphia lawyer. Long had literary aspirations and wrote as a sideline. The year after his sister's visit, he published in the Century Illustrated Magazine a short story called "Madame Butterfly," which was based on the Nagasaki story his sister had told him. Long's story was soon afterward turned into a play by the playwright David Belasco. Puccini saw the play in London in the summer of 1900 and was inspired to create the opera of the same name.

The few, simple facts that Jennie Correll had learned in Nagasaki were professionally amplified by Long and Belasco into a well-structured novella and an elaborate one-act play by adding numerous authentic details, most of which had been taken from Pierre Loti's Madame Chrysanthème. Persons like Pinkerton, Goro, and Suzuki are clearly inspired by Loti's prototypes. But Long's account was also based on the events conveyed to him by his sister, many of which remained hidden for a long time, only gradually becoming public knowledge.

This is the story Jennie Correll told her brother: Around 1870 there lived in Nagasaki three Scottish brothers: Thomas, Alex and Alfred Glover. One of them (probably Alex, although we don't know for sure) had an intimate relationship with a Japanese woman called Kaga Maki, who worked as an entertainer in a local teahouse under the name of Cho-san, Miss Butterfly. Normally such a link with a foreign man was considered a temporary "marriage," for which an amount was paid to the "bride" (usually 100 yen or 20 Mexican dollars) and which could be ended by the "husband" at any time.

In the course of her relationship with the Scotsman, Kaga Maki became pregnant and on December 8, 1870, she gave birth to their son, naming him Shinsaburo. The father later abandoned the woman and her child and eventually left Japan. After a while, the father's brother Thomas and the latter's common law Japanese wife, Awajiya Tsuru, successfully claimed the boy, who then became part of the household of his adoptive mother. His name was changed into Tomisaburo (Tom, for short) and he eventually became known as Tom Glover. During the time that Jennie Correll lived in Nagasaki, Tom Glover, having finished his education in Japanese and American universities, returned to his hometown, took up residence there and established himself officially as the head of a newly registered Japanese family called Guraba (which is the Japanese transliteration of Glover).

Those who knew Tom Glover was Butterfly's son remained discreet about it, although John Luther Long privately identified him as such. By the early 1930s Jennie Correll and the Japanese soprano Miura Tamaki (who sang the Butterfly role numerous times and had spoken with John Luther Long a few years earlier about the facts of the story) were the only surviving witnesses. When questioned about his identity in a 1931 interview, Tom Glover confirmed that his mother had been the original Madame Butterfly. Research in Japanese family registers has confirmed these facts.

What happened to the real persons of this drama? After her child was taken away from her, Kaga Maki, the real Cho-cho-san, married a Japanese man with whom she moved away. Subsequently they divorced and she came back to Nagasaki, where she died in 1906.

Her son, Tom Glover, the real life model of Butterfly's son, Trouble, in the opera, lived in Nagasaki. He married a woman called Nakano Waka, whose father was a British merchant, but they had no children. He lost his wife during World War II. The years of the war were hard on him and in August 1945, after the surrender of Japan and during the chaos caused by the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, he committed suicide.

Thus the heartbreaking drama of Puccini's opera was exceeded by the real life tragedies hidden underneath. There is no evidence that Kaga Maki, the original Butterfly, ever saw Tomisaburo again. Her son, who in the opera is promised that one day his name, Dolore (Trouble, or Sorrow), will be changed into Gioia (Joy), remained troubled until his death.

Jan van Rij lived in Tokyo for five years on a diplomatic mission for the European Union. He has written extensively about international affairs and is now preparing a book on Russian merchants in Nagasaki in the late 19th century.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2004 issue of Houston Grand Opera's magazine, Opera Cues.

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