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Madama Butterfly Musical Highlight: The Humming Chorus

Puccini describes Cio-Cio-San’s vigil, as she desperately awaits the return of Pinkerton, with a chorus of ethereal beauty.

By Kate Hopkins (Content Producer (Opera and Music))

17 March 2015 at 5.05pm | 11 Comments

When Giacomo Puccini saw David Belasco’s play Madame Butterfly in London in 1900, he fell in love with the production. Belasco was a true man of the theatre, known for his spectacular stage effects. Madame Butterfly featured the heroine’s magnificent ‘all-night’ vigil for her husband Pinkerton. Butterfly sat on stage in silence for 14 minutes, while subtle shifts of light illustrated the passage from dusk to dawn – the first time, Belasco claimed, that electricity had been used for a poetic purpose. Puccini knew he would need to come up with music that was equally poetic for his operatic vigil.

He certainly succeeded. The ‘Humming Chorus’ has become one of the most famous of opera excerpts. It is often played over loudspeakers in Glover Garden, Nagasaki, where young lovers come (perhaps unwisely) to be photographed at a shrine dedicated to Butterfly. It’s also had some surprising reincarnations in film: in Heavenly Creatures (1994) it’s heard as two adolescent girls plan the murder that they hope will free them to love each other; and in M. Butterfly, partly inspired by Puccini’s opera, a French diplomat listens to the ‘Humming Chorus’ as he yearns for his (male) Chinese lover.

What makes this three-minute chorus so enchanting? There’s its musical beauty, but also its sense of calm, such a contrast to the passion of Act II. Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly) has been badly frightened by the US Consul Sharpless’s hints that Pinkerton has abandoned her: she would rather die than lose her husband’s love. So, when she spies Pinkerton’s ship in the harbour, she becomes manically excited and strews flowers round the house. She orders her maid Suzuki to dress her in her wedding gown, and declares that they and her child will make three small holes in their shoji (Japanese screen) and watch for Pinkerton. The rich musical textures become increasingly delicate as Cio-Cio-San, to tender melodic fragments in the strings and woodwind, takes up her place at the screen. Three pizzicato (plucked) notes on the cellos open the ‘Humming Chorus’, loosely based on a fragment from Sharpless’s attempt to read Pinkerton’s letter to Cio-Cio-San in Act II.

The unusual scoring of the chorus creates a striking contrast with its surroundings. Staccato flutes and muted, pianissimo pizzicato strings accompany the chorus of sopranos and tenors as they hum a long, arching melody in octaves. This melody, a rare example of an operatic vocalise (wordless song), is doubled by solo viola d’amore – an archaic instrument with a distinct sound, used only this once in the opera. Puccini creates a sense of repose by ensuring the vocal lines never move at the same time as the accompanying instrumentalists. The melody and its repetitive, lulling accompaniment are as simple as a lullaby. Precise stage directions state when moonlight illuminates the room, and when the baby and Suzuki fall asleep.

Later on, the textures briefly grow richer; the melody becomes wider ranging and the harmonies more adventurous. But after only a few phrases the opening hushed mood returns. The singers return to their initial vocalise, but in a fragmented form, as if they are growing drowsy. Then, to shimmering chords in the clarinets, horns and viola, and gentle figures in the harp, the vocal parts slow, rising gently to a pianissimo high B flat (not easy to hum!). The chorus ends in an ethereal B flat major chord.

The ‘Humming Chorus’ is a rare episode of calm in Cio-Cio-San’s tragic tale. The delicate, peaceful mood of these 50 bars makes the drama of Act III – when Cio-Cio-San’s illusions are destroyed forever – all the more poignant.

The production is a co-production with Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona. It is sponsored by Coutts, with generous philanthropic support from Mr and Mrs Christopher W.T. Johnston and The Royal Opera House Endowment Fund.

Madama Butterfly runs 20 March–25 April 2017. Tickets will be available soon.

This article has 11 comments

  1. John Baker responded on 19 March 2015 at 12:21pm Reply

    The beauty of this chorus is only fully apparent if the audience remains silent at the end of it and allows the music to die away. Almost always the effect is ruined by applause, often before the orchestra has finished playing.

  2. Butterfly's entrance when it is done correctly with the voices heard approaching from the distance gradually becoming louder as she gets close.A few years ago I stayed at Restorante Butterfly situated next to Puccini's home at Torre del Lago. I saw the view across the lake with the sun rising from behind distant hills.The magical effect was captured by Puccini at the start of the third act.No one can know how wonderful this scene can really be who has not seen the sun reflected on the lake's water a few feet away from Puccini's bedroom.An experience I shall never forget.

  3. Olivia P responded on 7 April 2015 at 5:57pm Reply

    I fully agree with the article, the chorus is simply breathtaking. And ROH's current production's simple, starry backdrop for that moment is simply stunning.

  4. Ann O'Hanlon responded on 19 April 2015 at 8:17pm Reply

    I attended the Opera last night at the Irish National Concert Hall in Dublin it was magnificent. Would go again.

  5. Ann O'Hanlon responded on 19 April 2015 at 8:18pm Reply

    Watched this Opera at the Irish National Concert Hall in Dublin. It was truly magnificent.

  6. Patrecia Jacobson responded on 23 July 2016 at 8:17am Reply

    Thank you for this wonderful article that has helped me understand some of the reasons this piece delights and fascinates me.

  7. Patrecia Jacobson responded on 23 July 2016 at 8:19am Reply

    We were so blessed to have Madame Butterfly performed in Northern Minnesota by the Northern Lights Music Festival.

  8. Bernard carroll responded on 21 March 2017 at 12:51am Reply

    What a truly remarkable piece of music. I always say, if one ever wanted to give an example of the power and phenomenal beauty of music, one could not give a finer example than this stunning, exceptional piece of music.

  9. This is the moment I fell in love with opera. I was a child, playing in my room. The NBC Opera was on, Elaine Malvinas Madama Butterfly. Suddenly I heard music so beautiful, it was transcendent....The Humming Chorus...

  10. Roy Sullivan responded on 31 October 2017 at 11:08pm Reply

    Watched this opera in Verona a night I shall never forget. Outstanding

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