Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) was the finest Italian composer after Verdi. Fittingly, his first successful opera, Manon Lescaut, premiered the week before Verdi’s final opera, Falstaff, and it is Puccini who most nearly claimed the place in the hearts of the Italian people that had been held by Verdi, who is uniformly regarded as the greatest Italian composer.Puccini, born in Lucca, was brought up in less than financially secure circumstances, his father dying when the boy was just five years old; there were three sisters and a brother who was yet to be born when his father died. His mother brought up her children on her own by taking in washing and mending, assisted by her daughters while the boys, Giacomo and Michele, were educated as musicians. The Puccinis had been church musicians in Lucca for generations, and Puccini’s father was the music director at the cathedral, a position that would be kept open for Giacomo until he was old enough to take over. Luckily for posterity, Puccini’s mother set her sights on a wider career for her eldest son and managed to put together the money to send him to the Milan conservatory. His younger brother would also attend the same school.
Not the best student (it would later be discovered that Puccini suffered from diabetes), Puccini, nevertheless, composed well enough to attract the favorable attention of the Milanese press and music circles who upon his graduation encouraged him to compose an opera (Le Villi) that was produced primarily at the expense of the librettist, Ferdinando Fontana. This was enough of a success that Ricordi, the preeminent Italian publishing house, published the score and La Scala produced the opera after it was revised; La Scala commissioned two additional operas. Over the next eleven years Puccini composed three more operas, Edgar (not a success), La bohème, and Tosca (wildly successful). The next opera was to be Madama Butterfly.
It might come as a surprise to learn of a direct connection between Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, which premiered in Milan in 1904, and 1870s San José, California. A continent and an ocean separate these cities, and in the 19th century that was considerably farther than it is today. However, after a bit of looking into the life of David Belasco, one finds the beginning of his story in the Bay Area, and a significant part of it took place in the Auditorium Theatre, 140 W. San Fernando Street. Belasco became a brilliant theatrical impresario who wrote and produced the play from which Puccini derived the opera. Born in San Francisco, he wrote, directed, produced, and acted in a number of plays just a few blocks from the California Theatre.
Belasco left the Bay Area for New York City in 1882, where he became America’s most successful theatrical impresario, and for thirty years was the most influential theatrical producer in the nation. He wrote or adapted more than 200 plays, two of which were made into operas by Puccini: The Girl of the Golden West (1905) and Madama Butterfly. The latter opened as a play in New York’s Harold Square Theatre in 1900 where it was a Broadway sensation.
Belasco adapted Madama Butterfly from John Luther Long’s short story of the same name. Long was told the basic narrative by his sister who lived for many years in Japan as the wife of a Methodist missionary. In Nagasaki, she learned of Cio-Cio-san and the American naval officer who married and abandoned her.
Belasco’s play was presented in New York as part of a double bill to prop up his failing Naughty Anthony, but Butterfly became the main attraction, not because of the effectiveness of the drama, but due to a technological scenic advance; it was the first play to utilize electric lighting. In the play, as in the opera, Cio-Cio-san, Suzuki, and Trouble wait from afternoon, through the night, and into dawn for Pinkerton’s arrival from Nagasaki harbor. Belasco abandoned footlights and used electric light and its color change and image projection capabilities to represent the changing light as day blazed into sunset, darkened to a night sky with stars, that, in turn, faded into the gray light of dawn. This was a marvel, and Madama Butterfly left New York for the sophisticated audiences of London, where it continued to impress at the Duke of York Theatre. As it would turn out, this uninterrupted lighting effect would not work in the opera.
The stage manager at the Duke of York knew Puccini, and telegrammed, urging him to see the play, suggesting it was very much suited to Puccini’s unique style. Having just opened the enormously popular Tosca in Rome, following tremendous successes with Manon Lescaut and La bohème, Puccini was looking for a subject that would be at least as effective as these. He came to London.
The suitability of the play was immediately obvious to Puccini, despite his inability understand English, and by 1902 Ricordi had negotiated the rights and Puccini’s favorite librettist, Luigi Illica (La bohème, Tosca), was studying both the play and Long’s short story. Though Ricordi was not enthusiastic and expressed his misgivings, the project continued and the opera was completed in two years. Madama Butterfly premiered at La Scala 110 years ago on February 17, 1904. It was a disaster. By all reports little of the opera was heard over the laughter, whistles, shouts, and catcalls. On February 18 Ricordi withdrew the opera.
Puccini was not discouraged, writing “I feel calm enough in the face of the shame of this commotion, because I feel I have written a living and sincere work that will surely rise again. I have that conviction.” Puccini, one of the more careful opera composers of his time, did recognize the work’s shortcomings. One of the principal problems was the division of the opera into only two acts, preserving Cio-Cio-san’s long wait through the night. This was too long for the La Scala audience.
Puccini, addressing dramatic problems he identified at the premieres of all of his operas except Turandot, revised often and with the objectivity of a surgeon. He immediately went back to work on Butterfly, expanding the tenor part, inserting a second intermission, and at Toscanini’s urging eliminating some of the most exotic harmonic and melodic constructions. In three months the opera was ready for a second production, which took place at Teatro Grande at Brescia, this time with Toscanini conducting, but this was not the last version. Puccini revised again for the Opéra-Comique in Paris, softening and sentimentalizing the drama for a French audience. That version became the standard, was published by Ricordi, and is the version most often used today. In this form it has become one of the most successful operas of all time.
Puccini would go on to compose, in addition to The Golden Girl of the West mentioned above, La rondine, Il trittico (consisting of three one-act operas, Il tabarro, Suor Angelica, and Gianni Schicchi), and Turandot (unfinished). Today, Puccini is a mainstay of American opera production, as La bohème, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, and Turandot, make up much of the repertoire that audiences are most incline to attend.
Opera San José first produced Madama Butterfly in 1985 when Eilana Lappalainen performed the title role. Since then OSJ has produced Butterfly in 1996, 2002, and 2007, making the 2014 production the fifth time Madama Butterfly has appeared on our stage in thirty years. We are very pleased to revive our 2007 production with the same stage director, Brad Dalton, which we hold to be on of the highlights of our history of producing opera in San José.