Madama Butterfly – one of the most picturesque & exotic operas

In 1900 after seeing the David Belasco play in London Puccini became interested in John Luther Long’s original story of Madama Butterfly.

Long’s story was based on a real-life incident which took place around 1900, witnessed in Japan by his missionary sister, Sarah Jane (Jennie) Long Correll.

Puccini understood virtually nothing of the English text but, by the end of the performance, he was utterly captivated by the tragic female lead, Cio-Cio-San. He was immediately convinced that the piece would make a moving and powerful opera. However, although Puccini had decided on the subject, it was not until March 1901 that the rights were secured from the American playwright.

Puccini drew on his most passionate creativity to write this most romantic score for his vulnerable heroine, Cio-Cio-San, striving ceaselessly to intensify the lyrical and the dramatic quality of the opera.

But his confidence and pride were dealt a devastating blow at a disastrous first night in the famous opera theatre La Scala, Milan, in February 1904.

A group of agents provocateurs had been paid to jeer and catcall. They were hell-bent on disrupting the performance and so intimidated the audience that the finale was received in utter silence. A shocked Puccini withdrew the opera for revision.

Three months later the new version was premiered at Brescia where rapturous applause confirmed that Madama Butterfly had risen above its traumatic birth to become established as an international favourite – a tribute to both Puccini’s acute dramatic sense and the innate power and beauty of his music.

Madama Butterfly is rare among Puccini’s operas with its focus on one single central character throughout − and Puccini, Giacosa and Illica’s complex and sympathetic exploration of Butterfly’s character ensured the opera’s dramatic success. Butterfly’s profound capacity for love, her moments of playfulness, her dignity and courage, all make her a compelling, lovable protagonist and one who continues to fascinate. Madama Butterfly remained close to Puccini’s heart. He never tired of hearing it or of seeing it performed − a sentiment that modern audiences share.


One of the most colourful & exotic operas

Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is one of the world’s most colourful and exotic operas.

This tale of the doomed love of an American naval lieutenant and his young Japanese bride inspired Puccini and his librettists Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa to write some of his most sublime and moving music.

Set in Japan at the turn of the century 19th/20th century, Madama Butterfly is among the most vibrant, and, ultimately, tragic of all operas. From its theme of noble self-sacrifice comes the most heart-rending melodies.

Based on a true story, it tells of a Japanese geisha girl who had a son following an arranged ‘marriage’ to a visiting American naval officer who, when duty called, deserted her, leaving her heartbroken.

With all the cultural sensitivity of a day-tripper, Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton is making himself at home in Nagasaki. On the suggestion of his friend, the American consul Sharpless, he takes a Japanese wife and house for the duration of his stay there.

Pinkerton sets his sights on Cio-Cio-San, a fifteen-year-old girl, fragile and delicate as a butterfly. In order to become his bride she abandons her cultural heritage and converts to Christianity thus defying the will, and incurring the wrath, of her family and community.

Pinkerton’s ship eventually sets sail from Japan. In his absence, and unbeknownst to him, Cio-Cio-San gives birth to their child, a son whom she names Dolore (Sorrow). As time goes by, she clings to the hope that Pinkerton will return to her one fine day. She argues furiously with Susuki, her faithful maid, who believes foreign husbands never return.

The most touching moments in the opera are when Butterfly, prepared for the worst, spies his ship sailing into harbour and sings ‘just when you all tell me to weep and forgive him…he’s there! He loves me!’

Pinkerton finally appears with his American ‘real’ wife. He has come to take away his son but leaves it to the American Consul to do the cruel deed. Devastated, the heart-broken Cio-Cio-San obeys her husband’s will and agrees to hand over their son. The grief and dishonour is too much for her to bear and she kills herself. Stricken with guilt, Pinkerton later returns only to find her cold, lifeless body. This touching story of innocent love crushed between two different cultures resonates as strongly as ever in today’s world.

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Madama Butterfly





It is perhaps not surprising that it was Giacomo Puccini’s fate to be a great Italian opera composer as he was born in Tuscany into a dynasty of musical geniuses. His family played a major part in Puccini’s development and at a young age he had already impressed his teachers.

Puccini was quick to adopt his own style and method of working. He believed that God had commanded him to write ‘only for the theatre’, and one can see why. He had the knack of finding the perfect subject to suit his talents. A highly literate man, he worked in depth with his librettists and though he drove them to despair with his demands, he had sound dramatic instincts.

At his best − particularly in his collaborations with Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica − his operas have settings as atmospheric and characters as vivid as those in the novels of Emile Zola and Charles Dickens for whom he had a deep admiration.

This combination of experience and determination resulted in his first international success with the opera Manon Lescaut (1892). Shortly after this, Puccini presented his three most famous pieces to the world: La Bohème in 1896, Tosca 1900 and Madama Butterfly in 1904.

With Tosca, he was revealed as a composer, at the age of 42, at the peak of his powers. However, he was about to enter a period of intense turbulence. For the first time he did not launch himself into a new project simultaneously with the premiere of his latest opera.

Instead, he spent his time frenetically pursuing his favourite pastimes (hunting, driving fast cars and indulging in short-lived love affairs) as well as overseeing productions of his operas outside Italy. A near fatal car accident in 1903 would leave him lame for the rest of his life, forcing him to walk with a stick, even short distances.

Spending a few days in London in 1900 for the July Covent Garden premiere of Tosca, Puccini attended a play by the American David Belasco adapted from a story by John Luther Long − Madama Butterfly. Puccini was utterly seduced by the tragic female lead, Cio-Cio-San and was convinced that the piece could be made into a moving and powerful opera.

For such a gifted composer, Puccini felt oddly insecure about his own abilities; each new work seemed to cause him a great deal of anxiety. Madama Butterfly was no exception. The premiere in Milan on 17thFebruary 1904 was poorly received, due in part to a late completion of the score by Puccini, leaving inadequate time for rehearsals. Changes were made and success was ensured following its relaunch four months later in Brescia.

Following Tosca, Puccini’s compositions were less frequent. In 1906 his librettist Giuseppe Giacosa died and in 1909 there was scandal after Puccini’s wife, Elvira, falsely accused their maid, Doria Manfredi, of having an affair with Puccini. Finally, the 1912 death of Puccini’s editor and publisher, Giulio Ricordi, marked the end of the most productive period of the composer’s career. “I’m afraid that Turandotwill never be finished,” wrote Puccini in 1921.

But he had no real reason to believe this − once again, he was simply in the throes of self-doubt. Yet, ironically, he never did finish the opera. In the event, the last touches were put to it by Franco Alfano, an obscure but conscientious composer. Having moved to Viareggio in 1923, Puccini was enjoying life, buying himself powerful new cars and speedboats. In 1924 he was made Senator of the Realm for his services to music.

However, soon after this award the first serious signs of his fatal illness struck. After showing signs of recovery after an operation for throat cancer Puccini died on 29th November 1924 of heart failure. In Milan, his death was marked by the cancellation of the planned programme at La Scala.

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