"The Bishop Who Birthed Butterfly"
Madame Butterfly owes her stage life to David Belasco, the legendary American theatrical producer and author whose career flourished at the dawn of the 20th century. Belasco offered productions which combined spectacular theatrical realism, including cutting-edge lighting and scenic effects, with opportunities for high-octane acting. He adapted or wrote most of his hits, which can be plumbed in vain for any evidence that Chekhov, Shaw or Ibsen ever lived. And while he is often cited as the inventor of the phrase and first practitioner of “the casting couch,” Belasco presented himself to the public as an ascetic clad in religious garb, earning the nickname “The Bishop of Broadway.”
His Madame Butterfly premiered in New York on March 5, 1900. It was not the evening’s featured work, which was a modestly successful three-act farce called Naughty Anthony, but rather a one-act “afterpiece,” added to the bill with the hope that it would extend the former’s run. Butterfly proved to be a sensation, however, thanks to the performance of leading lady Blanche Bates and to Belasco’s technical wizardry, which transfixed audiences during the 14 minute span between the play’s two scenes—14 minutes during which not a single word was spoken, as Butterfly, her servant Suzuki and her child Trouble await the arrival of Pinkerton, whose warship they had spotted arriving in the harbor. As night fell, stars appeared and Butterfly lit candles for lanterns, which flickered out into the darkness, replaced by the grey light of dawn and eventually the rosy glow of sunrise as birds sang in the cherry trees in the garden.
Belasco’s Butterfly was an adaptation of a short story by the same name, written by a Philadelphia lawyer and Japanophile named John Luther Long and published in Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine in 1898. Long had been told the story of a real-life “teahouse girl” and her tragic romance by his older sister Jennie, who had lived in Nagasaki for several years. In addition to the spectacular scene change, Belasco made two major improvements to the source material. In the story, Pinkerton never appears with Butterfly after his return to Nagasaki, and Butterfly’s suicide attempt is successfully interrupted by Suzuki and Trouble. In the play, Pinkerton has a final moment with Butterfly, whose suicide attempt has succeeded.
The play’s New York success led to an immediate production in London. Puccini saw the double bill during the summer of 1900, and seized on it as a possible subject. In his official biography (which was in fact a masterpiece of fiction), Belasco imaginatively described Puccini rushing backstage at the play’s end, embracing the author and begging for the rights to turn it into an opera. “The Bishop” also claimed that he granted Puccini permission on the spot, telling the composer “he could do anything he liked with the play, and make any sort of contract he chose, for it was impossible to discuss business arrangements with an impulsive Italian with tears in his eyes and both arms around my neck.” The negotiations actually took more than a year, and were conducted by Giulio Ricordi, Puccini’s publisher, and Ricordi’s American representative.
Puccini was fired in part by the jousting in the Italian opera world for supremacy following the retirement of Verdi in 1893. Pietro Mascagni, composer of Cavalleria Rusticana and one of his major competitors, had a major success in 1898 with Iris, a tragedy centered on the life of a fifteen-year old Japanese girl who is kidnapped by a would-be lover and forced into a brothel. Puccini attended the premiere of Iris, which featured authentic bunraku puppets, a koto (a traditional stringed instrument), and a battery of percussion. Puccini had strong competitive instincts, and was at once jealous of Mascagni’s success, intrigued by the opera’s Japanese milieu, and critical of its dramatic weaknesses—surefire ingredients to pique his interest in writing something similar and better.
During the course of composing Madame Butterfly, Puccini consulted Ōyama Hisako, the wife of the Japanese ambassardor to Italy, who
sang and played the koto for him, attended performances by a touring Japanese theater company, and collected early recordings of Japanese songs. From these sources Puccini gathered at least half a dozen authentic melodies that are used in Madame Butterfly, in addition to orchestral touches which suggest its locale without being specifically Japanese.
For Puccini and his librettists, Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, the creation of Madame Butterfly was an arduous task, marked by many changes in its structure and delayed by a serious car accident which sidelined the composer for months. Its 1904 premiere at Milan’s La Scala was one of opera’s most celebrated fiascos, for reasons still not fully understood. Puccini withdrew the score after opening night and made a few revisions to it, the most significant being the division of a long second half into two separate acts. Three months later the opera triumphed in the opera house at Brescia, launching its worldwide success.
And what of David Belasco? The indefatigable producer was involved with more than a dozen stage productions between 1900 and 1904. By the time of Madame Butterfly’s operatic premiere, he was at work on another creation destined to achieve immortality in Puccini’s hands—The Girl of the Golden West.
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