• Find us on Facebook
  • Follow us on Twitter
  • Follow us on Instagram
  • View Our YouTube Channel
  • Listen on Spotify
  • View our scores on nkoda
Music Text

Libretto by Harald Kunz after a Chinese novel of the 16th century; English version by Robert Gay (G,E)


S,M,T,2Bar,B; off-stage chorus(may be pre-recorded);
2(I=afl,II=picc).2(II=corA).1(=bcl).1(=dbn)- bell).perc(3):glsp/2Bak/4tpl.bl/3cym/4tom-t/3gong/2tgl/tamb/SD/BD/guiro/ratchet/whip/sm sleigh bells/maracas/tam-t-harp-strings

Abbreviations (PDF)

For full details on this stagework, including synopsis and roles, please visit our Opera section.


This work is available from Boosey & Hawkes for the world.


World Premiere
Opernhaus, Nürnberg
Wolfgang Weber, director / Städtische Bühnen Nürnberg / Hans Gierster
Programme Note

Between 1965 and 1972 four operas by Isang Yun were premiered in Germany: Der Traum des Liu-Tung (Berlin, 1965), Die Witwe des Schmetterlings (Nuremberg, 1969), Geisterliebe (Kiel, 1971), and Sim Tjong (Munich, 1972). The first three operas were German translations (and adaptations) of subject matter from classical Chinese literature, while Yun’s fourth and last opera featured the Korean heroine Sim Tjong. Here, for the first time in the history of European opera, we encounter libretti based on authentic sources from China. Nevertheless, the original Asian material was so greatly modified, reworked, and concentrated during its adaptation for the opera that it is also here that a "third space" opens up — something new and foreign requiring mediation both in East Asia and in Europe. This third space aims at endowing a new Korean culture with its identity.

Die Witwe des Schmetterlings, stands in contrast to Der Traum des Liu-Tung. Both works can be performed during a single evening under the title of Dreams. In the second opera Yun set a libretto by Harald Kunz. This text is based on Franz Kuhn’s translation (Freiburg, 1958) of Kin Ku Ki Kwan (Jingu qiguan = Marvelous Tales from New and Old Times). The Chinese source was printed around 1632-44. The opera is generally regarded as "comic". It treats the Tao as well as the marriage of Tschuang-tse, his attachment to his wife.

No. 1. The Butterfly Dream. Choir
No. 2. At Lao-tse’s Hut. Tschuang-tse, the head overseer of the imperial gardens, relates his dream to his old teacher Lao-tse. He was a butterfly — free, light, and flying far and wide in nature. Lao-tse first refers to the Tao "Above and below — are one / Solid and fluid — are one [...] Butterfly and man — are one." Then he interprets the dream: In an earlier life Tschuang-tse was a butterfly and had nibbled on flowers forbidden to him. In punishment, he was pierced through. The soul of the butterfly dwells in Tschuang-tse and yearns for freedom. To experience freedom, he therefore has to leave his home. Tschuang-tse flees and flies in his thoughts until the memory of his wife catches up with him and causes him distress.
No. 3. The Long Way. Orchestral interlude. Scene Tschuang-tse is on the road with his wife Tiaen, and she is carrying a lot of baggage and household items.
No. 4. At the Cemetery. Tiaen complains about their aimless wanderings, which from her perspective are also senseless. Tschuang-tse encounters a young widow in mourning at the cemetery; she has has just fanned dry the fresh soil on her husband’s grave so that, as soon as the ground is dry, she can turn to her lover. The magician Tschuang-tse lends his help here — a wind comes up and dries the earth. In gratitude, the widow gives Tschuang-tse her mourning fan, which she no longer needs. Tschuang-tse is angry that the widow immediately hurries off to her lover, but his wife Tiaen comments, "It is said that they’re all that way." While Tschuang-tse asks her for a concrete example, he uses the young widow’s fan. Enraged, Tiaen claims the fan as a pledge of love. Tschuang-tse gives her the fan for mourning and falls down dead.
No. 5. The Funeral Procession. Orchestral interlude to Scene 3.
No. 6. In the House of Mourning. Prince Fu and his servant enter the house in which the dead Tschuang-tse has been laid out. Having arrived too late to be able to speak with Tschuang-tse, Fu plays the lover’s part. He and Tiaen find that the presence of the coffin interferes. While attempting to remove the coffin, Fu suffers a sort of epileptic attack and remains unconscious on the floor. His servant explains that only the brain of a just-deceased person can help the prince. Tiaen takes an ax, and when the servant takes aim to open the coffin, the coffin lid falls down, Tschuang-tse, and presumed dead, sits up.
No. 7. The Butterfly. Tschuang-tse is now free for life as a butterfly.
Walter-Wolfgang Sparrer (Translated by Susan Marie Praeder)

Stay updated on the latest composer news and publications