Cultural Collision: Puccini's 'Madame Butterfly'

WOO-1617-Madame Butterfly-StoryIn a typical opera, if there is such a thing, the lead tenor plays a good guy -- a dashing, romantic hero. First he sweeps the female lead off her feet. Then, if they're separated, he braves all obstacles to be with her forever -- and if she dies in the end, he's probably a goner, as well, sacrificing himself for her honor.

Then, there's Puccini's Madame Butterfly. In that one, the tenor may be dashing but he's definitely no hero. In fact, he's an outright cad.

Some say the drama that inspired Madame Butterfly was based on an actual incident -- if not one of many. As the story goes, a handsome naval officer was sent to a faraway, exotic land where he used his power and position to seduce and abandon a 15-year-old girl -- who then committed suicide.

Theater mogul David Belasco staged a play using that basic story in New York in 1900. When it moved on to London, Giacomo Puccini was in the audience. The drama was performed in English, and Puccini didn't understand much of the dialogue. But he knew the stuff of a good opera when he saw it. For the libretto, he relied on Luigi Ilica and Giuseppe Giocosa, who had a pretty good track record. The two had already worked with the composer on Tosca and La Boheme.

As it happens, Puccini picked the right time for his new opera. In the mid-19th century, when Japan became one of the last Far Eastern countries to be opened to the West, everything Japanese was suddenly in fashion. Wealthy Victorian men of leisure began traveling to Japan, becoming infatuated with the country and its people. Japanese elements began showing up in the work of painters, poets, playwrights and musicians, and the influence continued into the 1900s. James MacNeil Whistler, William Butler Yeats, Vincent Van Gogh and William Morris were just a few of the Western artists inspired by Japanese culture.

Puccini's Madame Butterfly was first performed at Milan's La Scala in 1904, introducing audiences to one of the most heartbreaking characters in all of opera -- Cio-Cio San, Madame Butterfly herself. The opera wasn't an instant hit, but Puccini reworked the score for a production in Paris two years later and it now ranks among the most popular operas of all time.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Madame Butterfly from the Göteborg Opera in Sweden. The stars are soprano Jung Nan Yoon as Butterfly and tenor Marcelo Puente as Pinkerton, in a production led by conductor Manlio Benzi.