Ornithology in the Opera “Madame Butterfly”

If you are in the mood to have a good cry, a performance of Puccini’s celebrated Madame Butterfly almost guarantees it.

In my long musical career, I had the good fortune of being in the orchestra pit for many performances of this classic. Frequently, sobs could be heard coming from the audience during Act 3.

One word in the Italian libretto always piqued my interest. Ornitologia

Could this be a reference to ornithology; the scientific study of birds?

After attending a performance as an audience member, I saw that, indeed, it is a reference to birds.

In the second act aria “C’e. Entrate ( She is there. Go in.)”, Butterfly asks the United States Consul at Nagasaki “When do the robins make their nests in America?” She asks this because her husband of a few days, a Lieutenant in the US Navy, promised to return to her when the robins began to nest in Japan. She informs the Consul that, in Japan, robins have already nested three times. Do they nest less frequently in America? Horrified by this, and even more so when he discovers that Butterfly has a 3 year old, blue-eyed, blond son, the Consul replies that he doesn’t know about robins because he is not an ornithologist.

Here is a look at and some information about the Japanese Robin (Turdis cardis).

As you can see, the bird resembles a young American robin. Robins arrive in Japan in April or May to breed and leave around October to winter is southern coastal China, northern Laos and northern Vietnam.

Just like our robins, they are found in forests, woodlands, gardens and parks.

Like our robins, they feed on the ground for earthworms and insects and also forage for fruit.

Miles Hearn


3 thoughts on “Ornithology in the Opera “Madame Butterfly”

      1. Rosemarie Fischer

        Yes, I agree with the people above, may have “missed” that comment in Act 2….as you say, it’s so heartbreaking to see her wait for her “man” to come back, or….if he comes back….makes me think it’s time to watch the opera again…… thank you Miles…..

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