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Music Monday: Madama Butterfly

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Music Monday image of a traditionally dressed Japanese woman in a kimono, looking out a window. A view of cherry blossom trees are present
Image from poster by Leopoldo Metlicovitz of Madama Butterfly opera, 1904

On February 17, 1904, Giacomo Puccini's opera Madama Butterfly had its premiere performance at Teatro alla Scala in Milan, Italy. It tells the story of a tragic romance between a young Japanese woman and an American naval officer. Several different versions of the opera are available for streaming at Hoopla; it is also available on CD and on DVD.

The libretto was written by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, based on the short story "Madame Butterfly" (e-book) by John Luther Long. There is much disagreement about Long's inspiration, but some scholars believe that he was very loosely inspired by the life of Scottish businessman Thomas Glover, who lived in Japan for most of his adult life, and whose wife was Japanese. A somewhat fictionalized version of Glover's life can be found in Alan Spence's novel The Pure Land (e-book).

Puccini's opera was not well received at its premiere, in part because he had been late to finish writing it, and the cast and orchestra had not had sufficient rehearsal time. He revised the work, changing it from two acts to three, and the new version was much more successful when it premiered in May 1904. Puccini would continue to revise the work for the next several years. The fifth and final version, which is the one usually performed today, did not arrive until 1907.

From the beginning, Madama Butterfly has been criticized for stereotypical depictions of its Japanese characters, particularly the central character Cio-Cio-san, who embodies Western fantasies about Japanese women, simultaneously demure and seductive. Jan van Rij explores those depictions in his history of the opera, Madame Butterfly: Japonisme, Puccini, and the Search for the Real Cho-Cho-San (print).

Madama Butterfly has inspired many adaptations. It's been adapted for film several times, including at least three silent films (the mind boggles just a bit at the notion of turning an opera, of all things, into a silent film). Malcolm McLaren's 1984 album Fans featured mashups of several different operas with 80s R&B; "Madam Butterfly (Un bel di vedremo)" was a pop hit in England. The 1996 album Pinkerton, by Weezer, is loosely inspired by the ideas of Madama Butterfly.

And Broadway was visited by two Butterfly-inspired shows in the late 1980s. The 1989 musical Miss Saigon (streaming, CD) updated the story to Saigon at the end of the Vietnam war. David Henry Hwang's 1988 play M. Butterfly (print) told the true story of the affair between a French diplomat and a Chinese opera singer who the diplomat believed (incorrectly) to have been a woman, using the story to reflect on how racial and sexual attitudes have, or have not, changed since Puccini told the story of Cio-Cio-san and Pinkerton. John Lithgow and B.D. Wong re-create their roles in the LA Theatre Works audio production of Hwang's play; Jeremy Irons and John Lone star in the 1993 film adaptation, available on DVD.

Despite its troubled beginnings and its problematic stereotypes, Madama Butterfly is now firmly entrenched in the standard operatic repertoire, and is one of the most frequently performed operas.