Marc Shulgold, former music critic of the Rocky Mountain News has put together some fun facts for us on Madama Butterfly. Marc has contirbuted to numerous national music publications and is a popular pre-concert speaker at programs by the Colorado Symphony and others.
• The opera is based on the play Madame Butterfly by David Belasco, an American who authored The Girl of the Golden West, later to become another Puccini opera. While in London in 1900, Puccini saw Belasco’s Butterfly and was immediately inspired. The play had been adapted from a short novel by Philadelphia lawyer John Luther Long – though another possible source is Pierre Loti’s popular novel, Madame Chrysanthème. In any case, the plot stems from a tale that seems to be based in fact. Long’s sister, Jennie, was married to an Episcopal missionary who worked in Japan. Years after the opera’s premiere, Jennie gave talks that recalled the sad tale of a young neighbor, a Japanese tea-house girl named Cho-San (Miss Butterfly) who was wooed by an American sailor, became “a temporary wife,” bore him a child, and was subsequently abandoned by him.
• In November, 1900, as Puccini awaited the arrival of Belasco’s play, he shared with his publisher Giulio Ricordi his anticipation at composing the opera, revealing an interesting concept, later discarded: “I think instead of one act I could make two quite long ones: the first in North America and the second in Japan.”
• Puccini took great pains to bring authenticity to his score, researching traditional Japanese melodies and importing recordings of music from that country as he worked in Italy. He gained valuable information from a Mrs. Oyama, the wife of the Japanese ambassador to Rome, who often sang to the composer songs of her homeland . The score includes at least 10 traditional melodies, including the Japanese national anthem, Kimi ga yo, heard during the wedding of Cio-Cio San and Pinkerton.
• Besides the familiar aria, “Un bel di” (One Fine Day), the most recognizable tune in the opera is “The Star-Spangled Banner,” quoted in the opening act as Pinkerton and Sharpless drink a toast to America. Back then, the music was familiar as the U.S. Navy anthem – it did not become our National Anthem until 1931.
• In 1984, Malcom McLaren, an English rock impresario who founded the notorious band the Sex Pistols, released his techno record, Madame Butterfly. It boldly blended a driving disco beat, snippets of the Puccini aria, “Un bel di,” a narrative spoken by a Southern-accented Pinkerton and a vocal sung by Cio-Cio San. McLaren died earlier this year. This link includes the audio track and lyrics.
Above Right: Yunah Lee in Central City Opera’s MADAMA BUTTERFLY (2010). Photo by Kira Horvath.