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Madame Butterfly: A Journey

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Photos courtesy of Central City Opera, photographer Mark Kiryluk

Madame Butterfly: A Journey

Giacomo Puccini's Madame Butterfly emerged slowly from her cocoon to become one of the world's most beloved operas.

Despite many twists and turns, 123 years since the story was first told it is the most performed opera in the United States, according to Opera America.

The butterfly story debuted as a novel by Julian Viaud, a former French sailor who had visited Japan. He used the nom de plume Pierre Loti.

To get it performed at the Opéra Comique in Paris Puccini was forced to make significant changes in the libretto and music. Even Carmen, a French opera, had to make substantial changes to accommodate the bourgeois taste of Paris, said opera artistic director Roger Cantrell.

Great composers, including Mozart, were often pragmatic.

The resulting version, the fourth, was translated from French into Italian and has become the version most performed now, according to Julian Budden in Puccini: His Life and Works. It has been cut from three acts to two because of union costs. Puccini preferred two acts, according to Cantrel, whose mentor was taught by Cleofonte Campanili, the conducter of the first two Butterfly performances.

One reason the Paris version became the standard is the publisher withdrew the rights to use the earlier versions, although they were later released.

This summer, in the intimate surroundings of the Central City Opera, the story heard so many times seemed fresh. The display of the American flag on the stage is compelling and helps explain why, in 1989, Butterfly inspired a retelling, Miss Saigon.

Nagasaki is another stark reminder of American power. On July 16, 1945, it was hit by an a nuclear bomb dropped by a U.S. Army Air Force B-29 in a successful bid to force the Japanese to surrender, not unlike like Perry's state-of-the-art Paixhans shells forced Japan to agree to trade in 1853.

Chad Shelton, who played the insensitive Pinkerton, performed so well that it seemed the audience, no doubt familiar with many opera villains, seemed to want to hold back on applauding him. Yunah Lee, who played Butterfly, Cio-Cio San, got a standing ovation.

The earlier versions, in fact, displayed too much of the Ugly American for the director of the Opera Comique, Albert Carré. His wife, soprano Marguerite Carré, was to sing the role of Butterfly.

It was the Victorian Age, Europeans and Americans traveled widely, often to places before seen by Westerners. Gunboat diplomacy opened the door in some cases, including Japan, where U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry fired on the port of Uraga, near present-day Tokyo, to force the opening of trade with America.

Japan later became a popular destination as "Japonisme" was in vogue. The country's art and culture captured imaginations.

Viaud wrote a novel in 1887, Madame Chrysantheme.

His story has a much happier ending than the Butterfly people know today, and it is at the expense of the French sailor he writes about. He gets his tattoo and a Japanese "wife" he demeans. He can't wait to get rid of her.

When time comes for him to leave, Chrysantheme bawls and begs him not to leave. He returns later to their home to find her counting her money and waiting for the next prospective husband.

This story was turned into an opera and ballet but lost favor after a few decades.

John Luther Long, a Philadelphia lawyer, tackled the same notion in a short story, Madame Butterfly. He creates the American character Pinkerton. Butterfly has a child by Pinkerton, named Trouble, but the American couldn't care less. His American wife, Adelaide, has accompanied him to Nagasaki, and she tries unsuccessfully to adopt the child. Butterfly also fails in a suicide attempt.

In 1898, Puccini watched a performance of Iris, an Italian opera that focused on Japan.

David Belasco, an American playwright-impressario who was raised in a monastery and joined a theatrical troupe at the age of 18, subsequently wrote a play that ends with Butterfly killing herself.

Stage lighting was such a key to Belasco productions that he was known as "the wizard of the stage. His Butterfly benefits from a wordless 14-minute transition from dusk to dawn.

Puccini saw the play in London in 1900 while he was looking for a new work. He immediately approached Belasco and asked him for operatic rights to it, Puccini: A Biography by Mary Jane Phillips-Matz.

"I agreed at once... because it was impossible to discuss arrangements with an impulsive Italian who has tears in his eyes and both arms around your neck," Belasco said."

Still, "Of all the operas of Puccini's maturity, perhaps none remained at greater risk than Madama Butterfly, first in the years before its premier, then in the course of his many revisions of it," wrote Phillips-Matz.

Almost like the troubled celebrities of today, Puccini had to deal with car accidents and affairs of the heart.

It seemed, though, he had brought things under control, and all the right things were done before the premier of Madama Butterfly at La Scala, Feb. 17, 1904.

Instead, everything went wrong. Part of it may have been fallout from Puccini being declared the king of Italian opera after the recent death of Verdi.

"The Italian public was not reticent about putting a composer in his place," said Cantrell, who has been a director for many operas as well as directing many plays and serving as a voice coach.

The result was one of opera's most famous fiascos. Audience members thought some of the music was similar to Puccini's earlier works. Scattered applause was outweighed by whistles and catcalls.

"A real lynching," Puccini called it. Still he remained committed. "My butterfly remains what is is: the most heartfelt and evocative opera I have ever conceived," he said.

Some called it "a diabetic opera" because one of Puccini's car accidents revealed him to be a diabetic, said Cantrell, who has worn many hats in the opera world at many operas.

Three months after the La Scala failure a revised edition of the opera was a success at the Teatro Grande in Brescia. Productions in the United States and London also were well received.

The Paris production was performed in 1904. Other, small revisions were made in the Paris edition, including one that appeared in 1921.

Around the Web

Madama Butterfly - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Synopsis of Madama Butterfly

Madame Butterfly Story Origins