In 1900, Giacomo Puccini visited London for the Covent Garden premiere of his opera Tosca. During this time, he attended a performance of the play Madame Butterfly, by American Impresario David Belasco. Puccini was especially captivated by a scene where Madame Butterfly herself (Cio-Cio-San), her maid (Suzuki) and her son (Trouble), stay up through the night waiting for her estranged husband, Pinkerton, to return. During the staging of this scene, the audience waits with them through fourteen minutes of silence as Belasco’s innovative lighting effects show the passage of time from dusk to dawn. Puccini would later sustain this sentiment through his interpretation of the scene, incorporating the beloved Humming Chorus.
Belasco based his play on prior sources. The first was a short story by writer and lawyer, John Luther Long, published in Century Magazine in 1897. Long’s story, MADAME BUTTERFLY, was inspired by tales from his sister during her time in Japan with her husband, a Methodist missionary. Long also took material from an 1887 story, Madame Chrysanthème, written by French naval officer and travel writer, Pierre Loti. Loti wrote a semi-autobiographical account of his brief relationship with a geisha while stationed in Nagasaki.
Belasco’s innovative production techniques, paired with the exotic setting of Japan, attracted Puccini to adapt the story to an opera. Upon returning to Italy, Puccini asked Ricordi, his publisher, to pursue obtaining the rights to Belasco’s play. He officially obtained the rights in 1901 and started developing the opera with collaborators Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, who also worked with Puccini on TOSCA and LA BOHÈME.
In their adaptation of the story, Act I includes elements from the works of Long and Loti (such as the meeting and marriage of Cio-Cio-San and Pinkerton) and Act II incorporates elements of Belasco’s play (such as Cio-Cio- San awaiting Pinkerton’s return). It is interesting to note that both Long and Belasco assigned Butterfly a Pidgin English accent – not necessarily what one thinks of when picturing Puccini’s heroine with her beautiful, eloquent vocal music paired with the romance of the Italian poetry.
Their work was halted slightly in 1903 when Puccini survived the first motor accident to receive wide spread media coverage in Italy. As Puccini recovered, the work on the opera progressed, and MADAME BUTTERFLY (the opera adaptation) premiered at La Scala in Milan on February 17th, 1904. Unfortunately, the performance proved a catastrophe, with accounts of the audience yelling. Puccini was accused of plagiarizing his previous work, LA BOHÈME. The ambitious composer immediately pulled the score and started revisions, the first of which was considered a success when performed in Brescia just three months later. Puccini continued to see successful revisions of the production, although he never saw it performed again at La Scala.
Puccini did, however, see MADAME BUTTERFLY premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in 1907. During this first visit to New York, Puccini also happened to see another Belasco play which inspired his next opera, THE GIRL OF THE GOLDEN WEST.
Butterfly’s tragic tale captivates the audience with a story where cultural complexities and global generalizations are threaded through a slighted love affair. Cio-Cio-San’s poise and passion, along with Pinkerton’s carelessness and callousness, are expressed through Puccini’s poignant orchestration and mesmerizing melodies.