Get Closer: The Metamorphosis of ‘Madame Butterfly’

Behind the Scenes: Understanding the Metamorphosis of Madame Butterfly


The 2017 Opera Theatre season opens with Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, which is one of the ten most performed operas in the world. Puccini was a true genius when it came to composing smash hits. His other operas include La bohème, Tosca, and Turandot…titles that many people, even opera newbies, instantly recognize.


Madame Butterfly premiered in 1904, and was immediately unusual for its time in that it offered a powerful critique of Western cultural imperialism. After all, the male lead in the opera is an American naval officer, who takes a young Japanese bride despite knowing he does not intend to stay with her for long...hardly Prince Charming! The opera was also unusual in that it depicted a strong female lead, a woman passionate and courageous enough to forsake her family and friends for the man she loves, no matter the consequences.


The opera appealed to Western audiences partly because it was set in an “exotic” culture (however inaccurately depicted) that they would likely never get to visit. After America opened diplomatic ties to Japan in the 1850s, Western society became increasingly obsessed with anything Japanese. Madame Butterfly was perfectly poised to capitalize on that interest.


But how did Puccini first get the idea to compose this opera? He actually took the idea for the opera from the play Madame Butterfly: A Tragedy of Japan, which he saw during a trip to London in 1900. This play was in turn based on a popular short story by John Luther Long, whose sister had served as a missionary in Nagasaki, Japan. Puccini began composing the opera in 1902, and finished the opera while recuperating from a bad motorcar accident in 1903. The opera premiered in February 1904, almost exactly a year to the date from Puccini’s accident.


However, Madame Butterfly needed more time to finish its metamorphosis. Puccini had fallen slightly behind on finishing the opera, and the rehearsal period had been rushed as a result. The composer was determined to perfect his newest work, and spent the next three months revising it. When he re-premiered Madame Butterfly in May, the audience was so rapturous that Puccini was summoned onstage for no fewer than 10 curtain calls!


Since 1904, the opera has inspired countless adaptations and spin-offs, from the Weezer album Pinkerton to the Broadway musical Miss Saigon. In fact, the film Fatal Attraction even features several extracts from the opera’s score. This opera has become a part of our shared cultural consciousness, and we look forward to bringing new meaning to it in 2017!