Home Backstage BUTFLY99

Return to BalletNotes Home Page



choreography & design Concept: David Nixon

music: Giacomo Puccini & Traditional Japanese

music arranged by: Gary Sheldon

costume executed by: Lynn Holbrook

scenic design: Carla Risch Chaffin

lighting design: David Grill

World premiere of Butterfly by BalletMet Columbus, Ohio Theatre, September 26, 1996
These notes compiled by, Gerard Charles, BalletMet Columbus, September 1999






David Nixon and Madam Butterfly

In the spring of 1983, as part of the National Ballet of Canada's Choreographic Workshop, David Nixon wanted to create a ballet that would showcase the dramatic abilities of Yoko Ichino. A dancer of phenomenal technical prowess, she was often type cast for those skills alone and David wanted to show the other side of Yoko. David was also interested in how stories could be translated into ballet. He chose Madam Butterfly as a perfect vehicle to capture Yoko's lyric and emotional qualities and to explore storytelling. David saw in Yoko "graceful movement that captured the beauty, pain and elegance of Butterfly."


David began by determining the essential elements of the story to include in the half hour long work. Following this process he turned to Puccini’s music to select the appropriate sections to support the story line he had developed: the marriage, development of the relationship, the passing of time, the return of Pinkerton and finally the death. The cast included Yoko Ichino as Butterfly, Thomas Schramek as Pinkerton, Sabina Allemann as Suzuki and Jaques Gorrissen as Sharpless.

This same version of the ballet was presented in 1984 by Austin Ballet with David taking the part of Pinkerton opposite Yoko's Butterfly.

Again in 1990, as part of David's evening of choreography at the Hebbel Theater in Berlin, this Butterfly took flight as part of a program that included African Fantasy and the original version of David Nixon's Dangerous Liaisons.


For the opening performance of BalletMet's 1996-97 season, David chose to present a full evening version of this classic story. Needless to say, his perspective on the work had changed during the 13 years since the original production. Also, in order to create a full evening work, some of the story line had to be expanded from his original version, fuller character development was required and more music was needed.

David turned to the Kabuki theater traditions for inspiration for Butterfly's character development before she meets Pinkerton and to highlight the contrast between the two cultures that clash in Madam Butterfly. David also chose to include traditional Japanese music in the score that was re-arranged from Puccini’s original by Maestro Gary Sheldon.

Gary and David had first met to discuss the options for the music in the Spring of 1996. At that time the discussion centered on exactly what music to use. There were existing versions of Puccini's music that had been orchestrated without singers, both for ballet and concert use, and there was the option to commission a new arrangement especially for BalletMet. Following the original meeting more information was gathered regarding alternate scores, and David listened to other music of Puccini as well as some traditional Japanese music. By June they discovered that all the existing versions of the score were unsuitable for various reasons and that a new version should be created. By this point, Maestro Sheldon was very intrigued by the idea of fashioning a new arrangement of the score. It was mutually agreed that he should be the one to create BalletMet's score for Butterfly.

In between his extensive commitments to the Lancaster Festival Gary met with David to discuss an outline for the changes, including the addition of Puccini's I Crisantemi. By mid July Gary recorded his newly structured version of the music with company pianist Michael Popov and a copy was provided to David to listen to. At the beginning of August Gary and David met once again to discuss the score and to clarify many points. By this time David had begun to work on the ballet and had much clearer ideas on where he wanted to have certain types of music. In addition to I Crisantemi, David wished to include a Puccini minuet which he thought would be a good accompaniment to the scene he envisioned for Suzuki, Butterfly and Trouble. It was also agreed at this time to make the ballet in three shorter acts rather than two longer ones. A new version was recorded with Mr. Popov on August 12, the first day of company rehearsals for Butterfly.


Although the opera and Miss Saigon had already gained deserved acclaim, David believed that in ballet he could better capture the essence of the woman he imagined Butterfly to be. "Though I heard the gentle power, grace and fragility in the voice, I never once saw the ethereal creature which fluttered in my thoughts. Those many wood blocked paintings of gentle creatures whom men fantasized about from afar, belonging to an alien culture thousands of miles distant, I believed could be captured in dance."

David Nixon admits that Pinkerton's character is the hardest to deal with, a problem that has faced creators of every incarnation of Madam Butterfly since its arrival in the late 1800's. The problem centers on how to balance the sympathy one wants to have for Pinkerton with the reality that he is a truly callous person. Pinkerton personifies the former-era Western attitude toward "lesser" cultures. How strong a finger should one point at a Western audience? How many of his flaws do you forgive?

The long wait for Pinkerton in Act 2 can be successfully filled in both the play and opera with extended dialogue and beautiful music. For a dance piece, Butterfly and Suzuki alone is not the most promising material to hold an audience’s attention, but it is important to the story line to show how, especially towards the end, all that Butterfly has left is hope, however thin. She imagines Pinkerton with other women, and fears this, but she must live in hope of his return, if not for herself then for their child.

At the end of the story, first abandoned by her Western 'friends' then having her only hope in life, her child, taken from her, David sees Butterfly retreating to her Japanese traditions for such support as they can give her.


Creating a ballet, especially for an Artistic Director who must be responsible for the overall health of the company, is not just the "simple" matter of creating steps. Of course, the plot must be considered and decisions made about musical content. Another important area is the design of the sets and costumes. David enjoys his active involvement with this process as he finds the discussion of every aspect of the creation stimulating to his choreographic work. The set design is governed not only by the creative muse but also by practical reasons such as allowing enough room to dance, cost and serviceability. In the case of Butterfly, the apparent stage size is important as well. In order to achieve the intimacy of the Japanese theater, careful attention must be paid to scale as traditional Japanese theater stages are nowhere near as large as the Ohio Theatre. Although David presents an initial idea of his concepts, he is receptive to suggestions for changes from his technical staff. Through discussions with them the concept develops and is transformed to a true collaborative work. Once he can visualize the space, David feels he can then begin creating movement to fill that space.

Although the set for Butterfly is mostly muted in color - to suggest an old, hand-tinted black and white photograph - the costuming is more brightly colored, a reflection of David's idea that people bring life to a space. Butterfly's wedding dress is red with a white overlay. Although its style predates the story of Butterfly, David believes this retrospection emphasizes the deep roots of the Japanese culture. He also interprets the red as a symbol of the blood that will be shed later.

Following the premiere performances of Butterfly by BalletMet in September 1996, the ballet was performed to great acclaim by the Cincinnati Ballet in the Spring of 1999 and will be presented by Ballet Austin, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and Dayton Ballet as part of their 2000-2001 seasons.

Return to Butterfly index


Gary Sheldon on the music of Butterfly

"When I was first asked to recommend an orchestrater for the ballet version of Madama Butterfly, I wanted to help find just the right person: an experienced orchestrater with a good knowledge of the opera and a genuine affinity for ballet. After reacquainting myself with the beautiful musical score, it was not long after that I wished to be considered for the opportunity myself. I had further been most impressed and touched by the ballets that David Nixon had already set on the company, and I looked forward to our own collaboration.


"Even given Puccini's endless beautiful melodies, adapting an opera to the ballet provides unique challenges: what "sings" naturally does not necessarily "dance" naturally. And what to do about the recitative-like sections where the orchestra drops out completely?

"Puccini himself provided the first clue for me. At the turn of the century when Madama Butterfly was composed, it was fashionable to give the orchestra a greater role in the opera pit. In operas such as this one and Richard Strauss' Salome, the full, lush, dramatic orchestrations made the orchestra itself a protagonist in the action. Thus, I first sought to "glue" together these major sections of music, leaving most of the original score intact.

"David Nixon also had a keen grasp of the overall musical structure and how long or short the sections of the music should be to balance out his conception of the drama. In addition, his interpolation of two purely orchestral works by Puccini, Chrysanthemums (I Crisantemi) and Minuet, gave further resolve to our opera without words. Add to this my own instrumental touches, particularly the use of extra gongs, bells and tremolo strings to evoke a decidedly Japanese flavor (the sound of the Koto in the case of the strings). The result, I believe, is at all times respectful of Puccini's musical idiom while bringing a new, vibrant version of Madama Butterfly to the stage."

Return to Butterfly index


David Grill and the lighting design

 As the last essential element to be incorporated into a new ballet production, the lighting design must both complement the existing components and help to tie them together. At the same time it must add its own level of artistic creation. Lighting provides more than illumination; it can suggest location or time of day, set a mood, and focus the attention of the audience on certain characters or areas of the stage, often achieving more than one such goal at a time. Although seemingly restricted by already chosen choreography, scenery and costume design, the lighting designer is a very integral part of the creative process. He uses the existing artistic elements to build an atmosphere and add dimension to the work. David Grill believes the design is a process of discovery. Reality can be created in many different ways; seldom is there a right or wrong way, just options.


A lighting plan must begin when the choreography is only in its infancy. Although there are few steps to be seen in early rehearsals, David Grill says he is enlightened by hearing the choreographer describe the actions to the dancers and how he would like to see them performed. I get "more the passion than the steps," Grill says. He usually begins by talking to the choreographer to gain an overall impression of the work, David then moves on to the more visually concrete elements of costume and scenic design and the placement of action on stage. This "leads the mind in certain directions", David says. He envisions ‘pictures’ of the final look: in Butterfly, for example, the look and feel of the cherry blossoms, the (emotional) atmosphere in the house, the time of day for each individual scene. Based on observation of the world around, impressions about the ballet and previous experience in lighting, David can go to the drawing board and begin to create the scenes one at a time. He then links these ideas together and, by listening to the music or watching a videotape, conceives an idea of the quality of each scene (long and flowing, short and quick, etc.). He will also select a color palette that suits the mood of the piece.

A second visit to talk with the choreographer and observe dance rehearsals either reinforces Mr. Grill’s first ideas or shows where changes should be made. At this point a clearer unfolding of the drama on stage is evident in the rehearsals.

No matter how complete the advance planning and paper work is, it is no more than an artist selecting which paint and brushes to use. The real creation takes place in the theater within a short period of time. Often happy accidents occur when a random showing of a light provides just the desired look. However, for the most part it is fine tuning already well chosen ideas to fulfill the visions of all those involved.


Aside from the obvious realities of moonlight, dawn, etc., David Grill conceived early on some strong ideas for the final look of the ballet. He viewed the opening of the ballet as based strongly in Japanese reality. The image of the three Japanese women together looks very real, but it is not comforting. It is not a ‘warm and fuzzy’ place; the real world lies just outside those enclosing walls. He continues this same sense of the 'real' throughout the ballet. There is a sense of romance in the moonlight scene, but how beautiful is the reality of this moonlight?

The paper lantern can provide a wonderfully warm light at times but can also cast a chilling light reminiscent of the past or the actuality of the present. Thus David Grill casts his light on Butterfly.

Return to Butterfly index


The Synopsis of David Nixon's Butterfly



Pinkerton, an American naval officer, and two of his friends are being entertained in a Geisha house. Enamored by one particularly graceful and fragile woman, Pinkerton speaks to Goro, a marriage broker, about this young lady. Goro points out that the young lady in question, Butterfly, can be purchased as a bride and that he can arrange for a house. Pinkerton is excited by this playhouse philosophy and arranges to marry Butterfly. Being only sixteen and in awe of this American man, Butterfly believes this to be a serious marriage. She betrays her faith and adopts her husband’s religion, committing herself to him forever.

At the hilltop house, Goro shows Pinkerton his new house and the maid, Suzuki, who comes with it. Pinkerton shares with Sharpless, the American Consul, his fascination with his Japanese bride. He also reveals his plans to return to America to marry an American woman. Butterfly and Pinkerton are married and the wedding festivities begin. During the party the Bonze arrives and exposes Butterfly’s betrayal of her faith. All leave the festivities, cursing her. Feeling completely isolated, Butterfly clings to Pinkerton. As night enfolds them, they share a passionate exchange. By morning Pinkerton is gone. A prisoner of her love for Pinkerton, Butterfly begins the wait for his return.


Three years have passed. Butterfly has given birth to a son and is still faithfully awaiting the return of her husband. Soon the Consul arrives with a letter from Pinkerton. The news is not good: Pinkerton has no plans to return. Steadfast in her disbelief, Butterfly presents her child, Trouble, as the guarantee of his return. Sharpless, understanding his duty to the American child, departs.

As she sleeps and time passes, Butterfly is haunted by nightmares that Pinkerton is with other women. One morning, Butterfly awakes to the news that Pinkerton’s ship has been sighted. At last, all her dreams will come true. Suzuki dresses Butterfly in her wedding dress and they wait on the bridge for Pinkerton’s arrival. At dawn, Pinkerton has not yet arrived at the house.


Sharpless arrives at the hilltop house with Pinkerton and his American wife, Kate. All are struck by the potential tragedy of their visit. Sharpless and Kate impress upon Pinkerton the need to go through with their plans. Pinkerton is overcome with the realization of his actions and runs from the scene. Initially happy that the Americans have arrived, Butterfly’s joy soon turns to sorrow when she realizes that Pinkerton has another wife. Her second realization -that they want her son - brings her to desperation. In a final, tender exchange with Kate, she delivers her son - the one last reason for her existence - into the arms of her true love’s wife.

Left alone, deserted by family, husband, religion and child, Butterfly turns back to the only thing she has left - her culture. In this culture, freedom from life’s dishonor can be found through death. This dance of death frees Butterfly at last.

Return to Butterfly index


Other versions of Madame Butterfly as ballets

Madame Butterfly (Solo)
Choreography: Sir Frederick Ashton
Premiere: June 29, 1954, International Festival of Music and Dance, Granada, Spain.
Music: Arthur Sullivan, arr. Robert Irving
Costume: Christian Dior
Principal dancer: Margot Fonteyn


Madame Chrysantheme
Choreography: Sir Frederick Ashton
Premiere: April 1, 1955, Covent Garden, Sadler's Wells Ballet Theatre
Music: Alan Rawsthorne
Design: Isabel Lambert
Principal dancers: Elaine Fifield, title role, Alexander Grant, Pierre
U.S. premiere: September 27, 1955, New York
Maryon Lane, title role
Alexander Grant, Pierre

Madame Butterfly
Choreography: Johnathon Thorpe
Premiere: May 8, 1979, Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester Northern Ballet Theatre
Music: Puccini, arr. Christopher Tachman-Robins
Design: Michael Holt
Principal dancers: Sui Kan Chiang, Butterfly; Ian Knowles, Pinkerton

Madame Butterfly
Choreography: Charles Moulton
Premiere: October 15, 1993, Empire Center at the Egg, Albany, New York Berkshire Ballet
Music: P.M. Dawn and Puccini

Madame Butterfly
Choreography: Paul Rizo
Premiere: September 1994, Big Bear Lake Ballet Ecarte
Music: Puccini (adaptation)
Design: Will Templin
Principal dancers: Nadezhda Kalmanovskaiya, Golden Koscuik

Madame Butterfly
Choreography: Stanton Welch
Premiere: February 1995, State Theatre, Melbourne Australian Ballet
Music: Puccini, arr. John Lanchbery
Design: Peter Farmer
Principal Dancers: Miyako Yoshida, Butterfly; Steven Heathcote, Pinkerton; Adam Marchant, Sharpless; Miranda Coney, Suzuki

Return to Butterfly index


The music of the ballet

Puccini 'discovered' Madam Butterfly in the form of David Belasco's play of 1900 when he was in London for the premiere of his Tosca at Covent Garden. So moved was he by the performance that he rushed backstage to embrace the playwright and to ask permission to use it as an opera. Belasco agreed, stating Puccini could "make any sort of contract, because it is impossible to discuss business arrangements with an impulsive Italian who has tears in his eyes and both arms round your neck."


It was not that simple; formal negotiations between Ricordi, acting as Puccini's agent, and Belasco dragged on. However in November 1900 Puccini began to work on the projected "American" opera. Initially he thought of a one act opera (as the play), then a two act version with the first act taking place in America and the second in Japan. These thoughts were interrupted by the death of Verdi which prompted Puccini to return to Milan. (In 1905 he wrote a requiem for Verdi for chorus and organ.) It was not until the end of September 1901 that agreement was reached with Belasco and the plans could proceed.

Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica (Boheme and Tosca) were contracted to produce the libretto. Due to the strength of structure of the original play this was none too difficult a task. By this point Puccini had decided that a three act format would be best. In November 1902 he would return to the idea of two acts which caused some friction between himself and the librettists.

Meanwhile Puccini met with the wife of the Japanese Ambassador to Italy who gave him many insights and sang him traditional Japanese folk music. He rejected her suggestions that the names in the opera were not appropriate according to the traditions of Japanese theater. She also told him that she was familiar with a true story very similar to the plot of the opera. Puccini immersed himself in the study of Japanese art, literature, religion and music.

Work progressed well in the fall of 1902 only to be interrupted by a car accident which left Puccini unable

to work until the spring of 1903. The first act was completed in September 1903 and the full opera by December 27. "at 11.10 p.m."

The first and only performance of this version took place at La Scala on February 17, 1904. A "no expense spared" production and the general enthusiasm of everyone involved made all confident of success. However, the performance ranks high in notoriety for the organized destructive behavior of the audience. Whether it was total silence, angry shouts of "That's from Boheme," or a cacophony of animal calls, laughter and hisses, the response was dismal and the cast did not take a curtain call. At one point an audience member was heard to shout "Butterfly is pregnant!" which was answered with "Yes, with Toscanini's child" an allusion to the relationship between the singer and conductor. The press did little to bolster the reputation of the evening, and Madama Butterfly was replaced by Faust at the next performance.

In as intimate a country as Italy, overflowing with talent, intense rivalry - especially in the arts - was not uncommon. In the period following Rossini it was no longer considered acceptable to borrow music from previous works, and audiences would often go out of their way to establish links to old works. Puccini was highly successful at this point in his career and was not always tactful in relationships with his fellow composers. Much of the foregoing could have led to the triumph of the claque of his musical rivals on that evening of Madama Butterfly’s premiere.

This failure hit Puccini hard as it was a favorite work of his. The next day a meeting was held at which it was decided to return the royalties from the premiere to the management of La Scala. A revised version would be presented away from Milan, in Brescia, a more intimate theater, on May 28. The revised version (with the long second act now divided into two, making it once again three acts) was a huge success with five numbers being encored.

A performance in Paris was considered desirable by the composer and was only achieved once the director, Albert Carre, and Paul Ferrier had made alterations and cuts to suit what was considered to be the Parisian taste. Eventually being persuaded to travel to Paris to meet with Carre, Puccini accepted in one day the proposals of change. Due to its popular success, this 1906 Paris production of the opera is the one that we know today with only minor changes. These occurred with the staging of the opera at the Teatro Carcano where the manuscript notes that Puccini restored three cuts in the first act.


I Crisantemi (Chrysanthemums) was composed as a tribute to Prince Amadeo, Duke of Savoy on his death, in 1890. Puccini said he composed the piece 'in a night'. He was later to used the two principal themes from I Crisantemi in the last act of Manon Lescaut.

The Chrysanthemum is a flower associated with funerals and remembrance rites in Italy.


Only 2 of the 3 Minuetti were published in Paris in 1898. Written in 1892 in an 18th century style there are few clues as to why they were composed. Perhaps there is some connection between them and the composition of Manon Lescaut which opened in 1893 and features a scene with a dancing lesson.

Return to Butterfly index


Events of 1904, the year of Madama Buttefly’s premiere



  • Peter Pan - James Barrie
  • The Golden Bowl - Henry James
  • The Sea Wolf - Jack London
  • Recherches sur les Substances Radioactives - Marie Curie
  • The Cherry Orchard - Anton Chekhov
  • The Abbey Theatre in Dublin founded
  • London Symphony Orchestra first concert
  • George Balanchine, Salvador Dali, Marlene Deitrich, Graham Greene, Christopher Isherwood
  • Anton Chekhov
Popular Songs introduced:
  • Give my Regards to Broadway
  • Yankee Doodle Boy
  • Frankie and Johnny
World Events:
  • Olympic Games held in St. Louis, first time in U.S.
  • Britain and France establish "Entente Cordiale."
  • Japan acquires Korea and Manchuria.
  • Russo-Japanese War begins.
  • Theodore Roosevelt was U.S. President.
  • (Meiji) Mutsuhito rules Japan.
  • Rudolph Diesel unveils his invention, the Diesel engine.
  • Work begins on Panama Canal.
  • Helen Keller graduates from Radcliffe College.
  • Silicones are discovered.
  • First radio transmission of music, from Graz, Austria.
  • Ice cream cone introduced at St. Louis Fair.
  • First telegraphic transmission of photographs.
  • Pork and Beans introduced by Campbell's.
  • Ten hour work day established in France.
  • Gillette razor patented.
  • Rolls Royce founded.
  • 1st section of New York Subway opened (I.R.T.)
  • First U.S. speed limit law passed in New York, 10 m.p.h. town & 20 m.p.h. country.
  • Tea bags pioneered in New York.
  • President Roosevelt begins the popularity of jujitsu by having a regular instructor at the White House.
  • Woman arrested in New York for smoking in public while riding in an open car.

Return to Butterfly index
Return to BalletNotes Home Page