GP at the Met: Madama Butterfly

Madama Butterfly in Historical Context

Original 1904 poster by Adolfo Hohenstein

Original 1904 poster by Adolfo Hohenstein

Madama Butterfly is an opera in three acts (originally two) by Giacomo Puccini (December 22, 1858 – November 29, 1924). Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, Puccini’s librettists for Madama Butterfly, had also collaborated with the composer on his previous two operas, Tosca and La Bohème.

The opera is based in part on the 1898 short story “Madame Butterfly” by John Luther Long, which had its genesis in Pierre Loti’s 1887 French novel Madame Chrysanthème. Long’s version was dramatized by David Belasco as the extremely popular one-act play, Madame Butterfly: A Tragedy of Japan, which premiered in 1900 in New York. Puccini first saw it London later that year.

The title character of Madama Butterfly — a young Japanese geisha who clings to the belief that her arrangement with a visiting American naval officer is a loving and permanent marriage — is one of the defining roles in opera. The story triggers ideas about cultural and sexual imperialism for people far removed from the opera house, and film, Broadway, and popular culture in general have continue to riff endlessly on it. The lyric beauty of Puccini’s score, especially the music for the thoroughly believable lead role, has made Butterfly timeless.

December 27, 1903: The original Madama Butterfly is completed

Despite several setbacks during the composition process, including a devastating automobile accident in which Puccini was trapped beneath the overturned car, the composer was uncharacteristically confident about his latest work

February 17, 1904: World Premiere at Teatro alla Scala in Milan

Puccini wrote five versions of the opera. The original two-act version was presented at the world premiere, then was withdrawn. The audience at the premiere reacted badly, hissing and yelling at the stage.

May 28, 1904: The second version is performed in Brescia, Italy

After the disastrous premiere, Puccini substantially rewrote Madama Butterfly in three acts. This second version was a great success. In 1906, it also premiered in Washington, D.C. in October, then in New York in November.

February 11, 1907: The Metropolitan Opera Premiere

Puccini wrote a third version in 1906, which was performed at the Metropolitan Opera. Giacomo Puccini came to the United States for the first time for the Met premiere of Madama Butterfly. Geraldine Farrar sang the title role, and her 139 appearances in this opera remain a Met record. While in New York, Puccini attended a Broadway performance of Belasco’s play The Girl of the Golden West, which would become the basis for his next opera. Puccini made several changes in the orchestral and vocal scores in 1907. This fourth version was performed in Paris.

1907: Puccini finishes his revisions with the “Standard Version”

Puccini made his final revisions to the opera in a fifth version, which is most often performed around the world. The original 1904 version, however, is occasionally performed as well.