Madame Butterfly completes the succession of Puccini’s three most popular operas, written exactly four years apart. Yet the opera’s initial reception was frosty at best, played to the highly reactive Milanese, who whistled, howled and accused the composer of self-plagiarism. Cries of “Butterfly is pregnant; ah the little Toscanini” arose when Rosina Storchio’s kimono caught a draft (the soprano’s affair with the famed conductor was commonly known), and some of the opera’s most beautiful moments were greeted with unmasked hostility. Though the rowdy crowd may have been incited by an anti-Puccini cabal, they had indeed achieved their intended purpose – the evening had truly been a fiasco.
Poor Puccini must have been devastated, another blow in a series of unfortunate incidents that plagued his life during the preceding year. A serious automobile accident in February 1903 left him with a broken leg, which was slow to mend and hampered the progress of his most recent opus. Not to mention that he was homebound with the ill-tempered Elvira, unable to visit his current mistress, Corinna, who was conveniently set up by the composer on the edge of town. Nor did the domestic situation look especially promising. Elvira’s estranged husband had died the day after the crash, leaving open the very likely possibility of her marriage to Puccini (divorce had not been an option in Italy at this time) after the passing of a mandatory 10-month period widows were required to wait before reattaching themselves. The composer had doubts over his 20-year relationship with Elvira (even though they had produced a son, Antonio), but increasing pressure from friends, family and Elvira hastened the dreaded wedding day, which finally took place on January 3, 1904.
On an even more personal note was the bruise to his ego. Puccini had spent great care crafting his most original score to date and was unusually confident on the night of its premiere. Four years earlier, he had witnessed a performance of David Belasco’s play in London while supervising the British premiere of Tosca. In spite of the fact that he spoke little English, he reacted with enthusiasm, in particular to Butterfly’s nightlong vigil, a 14-minute scene during which there was no dialogue, only dramatic lighting effects indicating the passage of time and the coming of the new day (Belasco was a highly innovative turn-of-the-century playwright and producer who would also be the source of Puccini’s next opus, La fanciulla del West). Though Puccini would consider a number of other options, including literary works by Émile Zola (La faute de l’Abbé Mouret), Edmond Rostrand (Cyrano de Bergerac), Alphonse Daudet (Tartarin de Tarascon), Maurice Maeterlinck (clearly poaching on Debussy’s plan to set Pelléas et Mélisande) and Victor Hugo (Les misérables, Notre Dame de Paris), he found himself perennially drawn to the emotional plight of Cio-Cio-San.
The composer turned to his creative team of Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, who had so faithfully served him in the past. Illica brought some experience to the table – he had already worked on a Japan-based libretto, Iris, set by Pietro Mascagni in 1898 (the premiere of which Puccini had attended), and Giacosa was a fervent reader of Japanese poetry. As it turned out, Belasco’s drama only depicted what would become Act II of Puccini’s opera, and in order to work up the preliminary action of Act I, they were forced to consult the playwright’s source, a short story by John Luther Long. From that material, Illica also crafted a third, intermediate scene located at the American consulate, where Butterfly seeks Sharpless to inquire after her overdue spouse. There she meets Kate Pinkerton who, by coincidence, is looking into the whereabouts of her husband’s child. During the awkward encounter, Kate treats Butterfly with little more respect than a “china doll,” which sets the drama distinctly into a different direction, though some of her careless attitude would be retained in the opera’s early versions.
The composer came to see the consulate scene as an interruption and demanded it be dropped. Illica was adamant and insisted that, if the scene wasn’t going to be in the opera, it could at least be included in the published libretto as an addendum. He would not get his way, nor would Giacosa, who warned that Act II, with the recreation of Butterfly’s evening wait, would last at least an hour and a half, too long for the attention span of an Italian audience, who would customarily get an intermission (Verdi once quipped that a 42-minute act of Otello was two minutes too long). Giacosa also complained that many of the lines he had given to Pinkerton at the end of the opera had been eliminated. He threatened to quit and had to be assuaged by the intervention of publisher Giulio Ricordi.
Puccini wouldn’t budge. Still struck by Belasco’s play, his vision of the drama was clear-cut and not open for discussion – the opera would be played entirely in Butterfly’s home. To spice things up musically, he painstakingly researched Japanese-based themes, even diving into The Mikado, the popular operetta by Gilbert and Sullivan. He also picked the brain of soprano Tamaki Miura (who would become a great Butterfly interpreter in the first decades of the 20th century) and consulted with Madame Hisako Oyama, the wife of a Japanese diplomat in Rome, for authentic Japanese melodies. Long’s story rang a note of truth as Oyama recalled a rumor of a similar incident that actually had occurred in Nagasaki.
His effort was for naught, as the opera’s novelty was lost on the opening night public, resulting in one of the greatest theatrical failures since the Paris premiere of Tannhäuser in 1861. The composer returned the 20,000 lire commissioning fee, withdrew his score and canceled the next production in Rome. Ricordi, initially skeptical of Puccini’s choice in subject, believed the opera deserved a second viewing, albeit with a few changes. Giulio’s son, Tito, recalled that the city of Brescia had always been warm to Puccini’s works, and arranged for a production to be mounted in May. Puccini went back to his new opera and made many revisions, dividing the action into three parts with two intermissions and adding a short tenor aria, “Addio, fiorito asil,” to the final scene, as operatic custom demanded (Giacosa had been correct on both counts).
As predicted, the Brescia premiere was warmly greeted, and Butterfly began a tenuous journey around the world, making it to Buenos Aires, London, Bologna, Budapest and Washington, d.c. Puccini always feared another failure and was careful to approve all aspects of each production. At nearly every juncture, more small changes were made, but nothing as drastic as those for the Paris production at the Opéra-Comique in 1906. The director, Albert Carré, required the softening of certain troublesome aspects to satisfy his bourgeois audience [who still hadn’t sacrificed their upright mores in spite of having been nursed on progressive works such as Carmen (1875) and Pelléas (1902)]. Granted, it was an unconventional and daring opera for its day. The impresario was opposed to Pinkerton’s portrayal as both a sexual adventurer and boorish “barbarian” with his politically incorrect jibes at Butterfly’s family and local culture (in particular, the behavior of her alcoholic uncle, Yakuside, whom he incites to get drunk after the marriage ceremony). Also found distasteful was Kate Pinkerton’s confrontation with Butterfly near the end of the opera, an unforgiving image of a cold Western woman – most of her lines were reassigned to Sharpless. Equally suspect was Butterfly’s disclosure of how much Pinkerton paid for her and her vow to live economically – this turned into a joyous admission of how she and her new husband will now worship the same deity.
At first reluctant, the ever-sensitive Puccini made the changes and even published them as the final, “definitive” version, fearing those elements were the cause of Butterfly’s initial downfall. It was this Paris edition that returned to La Scala for its second performance run in 1925 – one year after Puccini’s death (the original Milan version wouldn’t be revived until 1982, at Venice’s Teatro La Fenice). Still, one wonders if the insecure composer was simply bowing to pressure. Many believe the earlier versions of the score represents his truest intentions.
The Search for the Real Butterfly
In 1853, American naval Commodore Matthew Perry positioned five ships led by the uss Powhatan in Edo (Tokyo) Bay and demanded the Japanese to open their ports to foreign trade. The xenophobic shogunate had enjoyed a self-imposed exile for 200 years, but outmatched and outgunned, the Japanese agreed to Perry’s terms. Both sides were to benefit – America obtained a strategic refueling and intelligence base, and Japan was quickly ushered into the Industrial Revolution.
Perry’s audacious American colonialism would have a profound effect on Western civilization, particularly in the art world. As Japanese culture was soon featured in subsequent World Exhibitions of the Industrial Age, artists from all disciplines were quickly attracted to the unusual perspective found in highly aesthetic and skillfully executed artworks from the Far East. The Realists and Impressionists were excited by the cropping of figures, the oblique angles, the emphasis on nature and overall asymmetry of composition; the Post-Impressionists and Art Nouveau painters drew from the simple forms and emphasis on pattern.
The music world was equally invigorated. Already touched by the Occidental and the Near East, composers yielded such works as Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles (1863; set in ancient Ceylon), Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine (1865; set on an island in the Indian Ocean, presumably Madagascar), Verdi’s Aida (1871; Memphis and Thebes), Saint-Saëns’s La princesse jaune (1872; Japan), Bizet’s Djamileh (1872; Cairo) and Mascagni’s Iris (1898; Japan). Biblical subjects typically set in the Middle East once again became fair game, with La reine de Saba (Gounod; 1862) and Samson et Dalila (Saint-Saëns; 1868) as popular examples. Even Bizet’s Carmen (1875; Spain) had an exotic flare.
As they often spawned these musical adaptations, it’s not surprising that literary works set in foreign locales began to proliferate as well. In particular, Louis-Marie-Julien Viaud, a French naval lieutenant writing under the pen name of Pierre Loti, retold his tales of the high seas under such far-away titles as Aziyadé, Rarahu, Les trois dames de la Kasbah, Japoneries d’automne, Pêcheur d’Islande, Fantôme d’Orient, Jérusalem, La Galilée and Ramuntcho, among others. Several of these were adapted for the stage: Rarahu became Léo Delibes’s Indian opera Lakmé (1883), African-based Spahi was set by Lucien Lambert (1897) and the Japanese Madame Chrysanthème (1893) was adapted by André Messager. Puccini knew Messager from his student days and had reconnected with him in recent years for the French premieres of his earlier works (Messager was a conductor at the Opéra-Comique) and likely knew of the opera.
Another creative artist was aware of Loti’s Japanese tale. John Luther Long, a lawyer from Philadelphia with literary aspirations, created his own geisha story with many of the same elements: a naval lieutenant’s temporary marriage with a Japanese woman, a close male companion, Yves, and a female counterpart to complete the quartet, the landlord’s daughter Oyouki. Where Loti’s narrative is merely descriptive, told from a male perspective with meticulous documentation of their various outings and scrutiny of the local mileau, Long’s novel throws the focus on the heroine. And while the climax of Madame Chrysanthème is the suspicion of an affair between Yves and the title character, Long’s Butterfly faces a succession of agonizing situations – living as an outcast among her family and friends (save Suzuki), painfully waiting for Pinkerton’s arrival after his ship had docked and an excruciating confrontation with Mrs. Pinkerton at the American consulate, during which “Adelaide” casually remarks “How very charming – how lovely – you are, dear! Will you kiss me, you pretty – plaything!” Long concludes with Butterfly’s botched suicide attempt (after which Suzuki binds the wound, and the two spirit the child away to locations unknown), where Loti’s marriage ends amicably and unemotionally after a mere three months, with his former bride tactlessly testing the validity of his final payment with a metal hammer. In contrast, with more youthful naïvété, Butterfly mistakes the parting divorce settlement as a promise of return.
Japonisme reached North America at the turn of the century when innovative playwright David Belasco was looking for new ideas. Belasco had spent his early years on the West Coast, working in all facets of the theater business, learning it from the bottom up. When his play La belle russe was accepted by a New York theater in 1882, a chapter in theater history was born. Already there was a trend in naturalist theater, as evidenced by Emile Zola’s treatise on the subject (Le naturalisme au théâtre, 1881), and Belasco’s particular brand of realism took theater production to a new level. Among his enhancements included bloody sides of beef used to enhance the brutality of a slaughterhouse, the spreading of pine needles onstage to augment the sense of being in the forest, and even the frying of pancakes onstage to recreate the authentic feel of New York’s famous Child’s Restaurant. To heighten the plight of Butterfly, he lopped off Long’s preliminary information to create unity of time and place (generally 24 hours within a single setting) and portrayed Butterfly’s night-long silent vigil with a dramatic change in color and lighting with watershed electrical techniques. Belasco realistically retained Butterfly’s broken English, an aspect that delivers as live theater much more successfully than as written text (“Sa-ay! Mebby you also don’ thing he go’n’ take us live in his large castle at United States America?”). Finally, to heighten the drama, Butterfly is successful in her attempt at hara kiri.
Pinkerton is curiously absent in both Long and Belasco – in the novel, though frequently referenced, most of his utterances are made in the shadow of the past, and he is only seen from a distance in Butterfly’s present world. During the play, Pinkerton makes two appearances, but only has a handful of spoken lines. Clearly his role had to be augmented to satisfy the expectations of Puccini’s audience, who would require a romantic leading man, caddish as he may be. Also needed to heighten the conflict and irresolution of Act I was the inclusion of a dramatically decisive moment – the appearance of the Bonze. In Long and Belasco, Butterfly’s conversion to Christianity is merely footnoted as a denial of her ancestors, in particular the living ones whom her husband finds so tedious.
John Luther Long did not only have Loti’s novel at his disposal – he also had the recollections of his sister, Jennie Correll, who had worked as a missionary in Japan during the latter part of the 19th century. She apparently had known the son of a Scottish merchant, Thomas Blake Glover, whose mother was a Japanese “tea house” girl, Yamamura Tsura, also known as Ochô-San. She had a son of mixed parentage, Tomisaburo, yet it is likely he was adopted – according to Jan van Rij (Madame Butterfly, Stone Street Press); the abandonment issue comes from a possible Glover relation’s liaison with another woman of the “entertainment industry,” Kaga Maki, who was forced to give up the illegitimate child. Correll claimed to be intimate with all parties (Tomisaburo had been her student), and with a dash of sensationalism, revealed her account “previously known to only two people,” in the early 1930s, after Madame Butterfly had become an enormous hit. She was sketchy about the suicide, which was brought up by soprano Tamaki Miura a few years later. Long apparently had told her about the Glover family and Ochô-San’s attempt on taking her own life, which may or may not be true, yet the motivation appears unclear as Glover continued to stay with her in Japan. Of course, Long only knew the facts his sister told to him, and as it turns out, she is a potentially unreliable source. Equally plausible, Correll simply may have picked the story up as shop-talk gossip – there were certainly an abundance of temporary marriages at this time (as Loti indicated in his memoirs), many of which resulted in unexpected pregnancies and absent fathers.
In a related argument, Arthur Groos (Cambridge Opera Journal, 3, 2, 125–158) draws notice to a naval officer, William B. Franklin, and a ship’s doctor, John Stamford Sayre (Long’s surname for Puccini’s Sharpless) serving aboard a Japan-bound ship in the last decade of the 19th century, at the same time as Correll was in Nagasaki. But the identity of any actual “Cio-Cio-San” associated with these two men remains elusive.