'Madame Butterfly' and the real Cho-Cho-san

by Angela Jeffs

Jan van Rij’s interest in the story behind Giacomo Puccini’s opera “Madame Butterfly” began on a visit to Nagasaki when he was working here in the 1980s. “I visited Glover Garden with all its confusions — the ugly escalator, music coming out of the bushes. I could see he had a Japanese wife, with mixed-blood children around, but nothing was clear. Was he the model for Pinkerton, who abandoned Cho-Cho-san?”

He found a link with Thomas Glover and wrote a book that wrapped up Glover’s life with fictional stories connected to the “Butterfly” legend. “But apparently it’s a no-no to mix fact and fiction like that.” When a book about Glover was published (not his own), he began all over again.

The full title for Jan’s book, as finally published in 2000, is “Madame Butterfly: Japonisme, Puccini, and the Search for the Real Cho-Cho-san” (ISBN 1-880656-52-3). And this after much discussion with Stonebridge Press. “My original title was ‘A Tragedy of Errors,’ but my publisher thought it too negative, suggestive of a bad marriage between East and West.”

Jan is in Tokyo on a family visit, meeting up with his fashion designer wife’s relations and old friends. Born in Amsterdam, he worked in the holdings department of Dutch Railways before switching to the European Community and working on the Helsinki Agreement. “That’s how I entered the diplomatic field.” It also explains his elegant name card: “Ancien Ambassadeur au Service de l’Union Europienne.”

After postings to Ottawa, Washington, Tokyo, Ankara and Manila, he retired in 1990 and began investigations that took him to America, the U.K., as well as Japan and his own country. There were two phases of meticulous research over some 15 years.

Thomas Glover did have a Japanese wife: Tsuru, whom he met in 1868. She died in 1900, he in 1911. They had two children, Tomisaburo and Hana. “It was no great secret that Tomi was known as the son of Madame Butterfly. In an interview in 1930, he was asked the question directly: Is your mother Cho-Cho-san? And the reporter was assured that this was so.”

People assumed Tsuru was the model for Madame Butterfly. A butterfly “mon,” or family crest, was woven into her kimono and inscribed on her tomb. But if this was so, where did the story of abandonment come from? It was through access to family records that the pieces of the puzzle came together.

“Tomi was not Tsuru’s son,” Jan explains. “The true story was carried to America by Sara Jane Correll, the wife of a Methodist missionary in the mid-1890s. She told her brother John Luther Long, a lawyer in Philadelphia, and he wrote it down for Century Magazine.”

Tomisaburo’s mother was Maki Kaga. Born 1870, he was claimed by the Glover family and adopted. Maki later married and moved out of the picture. “Thomas was not in Nagasaki when Tomisaburo was conceived. He was one of three brothers, one of whom stayed close to the child for a long time, the other who left by ship for the U.S.” In the opera Pinkerton sails away, leaving Cho-Cho-san to her fate.

Sara Jane Correll, who heard the story 20 years later, was the first to call Maki Cho-Cho-san. “Since she worked in the Nagasaki pleasure quarter of Murayama, she was most probably a prostitute.”

Tomisaburo married Waka, a woman also of mixed race — the daughter of a British man and Japanese woman in Yokohama — who had also been adopted by Glover and Tsuru. They had no children, but lived a respectable life in Nagasaki. “Tomi was a man of great resources. He drew and hand-colored illustrations of fish from the seas around Kyushu. Founded ‘gaijin’ clubs, played a lot of golf and hosted famous parties.”

Life became a lot less pleasant in the 1930s, with the rise of militarism. There were two couples in mixed marriages in Nagasaki, and both the Glovers and Walkers were forced to submit to severe restrictions. Waka died of tuberculosis in 1943. Tomi then lived alone.

Albert Walker — he was 6 or 7 at the time — told Jan of how he was living near Glover Garden on Aug. 9, 1945, when the windows broke but the family was not so exposed to radiation. “But Albert did see thousands of people with terrible burns struggling along the coast road out of the city, and huge bonfires for burning bodies.” When he went to check on Tomisaburo, he found the house empty, the maid fled and Tomi dead. “He had hung himself.”

In putting the opera together — he wrote it in two acts, the second an hour and a half long — Puccini got things horribly wrong. “At the premiere in 1907, the audience whistled and booed.” Why did he make such a mistake? “The John Luther Long story had been reworked into a one-act play that Puccini saw in London. Now, Puccini was a very musical man but not a profound intellectual. He translated his visual impressions into music without thinking too much, telling the published story in Act 1, and reflecting on the play he saw in Act 2.”

Audience reaction broke him for a while, but not for long. Within two months he had shortened the opera and divided the second act into two. “He also changed the ending. Cho-Cho-san is made the heroine, the dominating character who sends everyone away and then kills herself. Now it’s a wonderful opera, with lovely music and very modern.” Jan last saw a production in Avignon, France, with the young Japanese soprano Rie Hamada singing the leading role.

His book did very well at first, then went quiet, and is now moving again. “There’s a lot of interest in the opera world.” There is the possibility of a French edition. And he may be going to the U.S. to make a presentation to the Japan Society in Boston. Meanwhile he is hard at work on the story of a Jewish-Russian family who fled Odessa and made their home — and a fortune in trade — in Nagasaki.

“When they returned to Russia, they were received with honor in St Petersburg. Then came the revolution.” Needless to say he is very excited, busy putting in the work to get the story straight.