BY MARGARET SIEGRIST AND DR. PAUL HALVERSON
LAST PERFORMED AT CENTRAL CITY OPERA IN 2010, Madama Butterfly is one of the best-loved pieces in the operatic repertoire and regularly ranks among the top ten most produced operas nationwide.
Exoticism permeated visual art, architecture, literature and even performing arts in the mid-nineteenth century as West met East for the first time in generations. Japanese fiction rose as a popular literary genre, and out of that trend, the source material of Puccini’s opera emerged. He first experienced the story of the Madama Butterfly character in a one-act play by American playwright David Belasco, based on a short story by John Luther Long (1898) that compiled first-hand accounts of life in Japan and elements of fiction.
Known as a contributor to verismo [vair-EEZ-mo] style — meaning his operas aimed to portray the world as it really was and/or illustrate relatable experiences — Puccini immediately drew inspiration from Butterfly’s personal psychological drama. Just a few short years later, Madama Butterfly premiered at La Scala.
It might come as a surprise to the modern audience that the opera was highly criticized throughout its early years. Puccini’s publisher, Casa Ricordi, expressed serious uncertainties from the start, considering the story “an insipid tearjerker unworthy of the composer.” Puccini, however, relished the opportunity to hone his theatrical abilities and augment his orchestral palette. Biographer Julian Budden suggests that in Madama Butterfly, Puccini was “sustaining greater and more-prismatic focus on his tragic heroine than he had ever attempted before.”
“Madama Butterfly has stood the test of time by provoking the kind of powerful discourse that fuels introspection and growth.”
Despite Puccini’s best efforts to make Madama Butterfly successful, the premiere was a disaster. Not only did the opera fall short in terms of dramatic pacing, but unlucky errors with props resulted in unwelcome and unintentional humor on stage. Determined, Puccini wrote to a friend “Don’t worry, Madama Butterfly is alive and will soon resurface.” A second edition soon followed. Here, Puccini had come into his own, producing some of the most loved and recognized moments of the piece, like the “Humming Chorus” that bridges Acts 2 and 3 and the heart-wrenching trio between Suzuki, Pinkerton and Sharpless in Act 3. This is the lyrical and dramatic masterwork that appears on the Central City Opera House stage today.
Running far deeper than just the lovely melodies for which it’s recognized, Madama Butterfly has stood the test of time by provoking the kind of powerful discourse that fuels introspection and growth.
Experience the Madama Butterfly live on the Central City Opera House stage, July 6 – August 4. Purchase tickets HERE!
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