The fragile geisha known as Madame Butterfly may be the ultimate victim of tragedy, but her legacy has proven its lasting endurance through novels, plays, operas, and ballets. It is Giacomo Puccini's musical genius that has significantly branded her image onto our consciousness, given that his opera Madama Butterfly ranks fourth on the list of operas most often performed around the world. But Puccini's creation had its predecessors and continues to inspire new spin-offs as well, such as choreographer Stanton Welch's ballet Madame Butterfly, which makes its Houston Ballet premiere on September 19.
The Western fascination with Japanese themes, such as in the Butterfly tale, is historically traced back to 1854, when Commodore Perry coerced the Japanese to open their ports to foreigners. The perceived exoticism and charm of that culture quickly infiltrated Occidental minds. The trend known as "Japonisme" lent its aesthetics and sensuality to literature, theater, fashion, and interior design.
Pierre Loti, a French novelist who had toured Japan as a naval officer, was among the first to capitalize on the notion of a love affair between a Western man and a compliant Japanese woman. Published in 1887, his novel Madame Chrysantheme relates the story of a lieutenant who buys a Japanese wife, O-kiku-san, whom he quickly finds tiresome. When his tour of duty ends, she cries and begs him to stay. But in a cynical twist that contrasts with future Butterfly story adaptations, the officer returns to the house to retrieve some forgotten items‹only to find the geisha counting her money and waiting for her next "husband."
In 1898, the American writer John Luther Long published a short story titled "Madame Butterfly" for Century magazine. It was based on a true account‹Long's sister had met the real Butterfly's grown son‹that more closely follows the plot line audiences know today. Long delineated the familiar characters: the duplicitous Lieutenant Pinkerton, the graceful Madame Butterfly, their young son, and Suzuki, the protective maid. The story ends, however, with Butterfly's suicide attempt thwarted. When Pinkerton's American wife comes to collect the child, the mother and son have fled.
Long selected the revered New York producer and playwright David Belasco to translate his popular work to the stage. On March 5, 1900, Belasco premiered his one act Madame Butterfly at the Herald Square Theater with the actress Blanche Bates as Cio-Cio-San. The play strayed from Long's ending, in that Butterfly committed hara-kiri with Pinkerton subsequently cradling her body in remorse. Belasco took a theatrical risk by having Butterfly remain stationary for 14 minutes during her vigil for Pinkerton, while a lighting effect showed the passing of the night. The play was a smash hit.
Puccini, who attended the London premiere, was so moved by the play (although he understood little of the English dialogue), that he rushed backstage to meet Belasco and to secure the rights to the material for his next opera. The composer chose Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giocosa, his librettists for La Bohème and Tosca, to collaborate on the project. Puccini immersed himself in Japanese culture to authenticate the musical motifs, including pentatonic scales. He premiered Madama Butterfly at La Scala on February 17, 1904. The opening night was a fiasco, however, possibly ambushed by the jeers of rival composers and publishers. "It was a real lynching," wrote Puccini. "Those cannibals didn't listen to one note. What a horrible orgy of madmen, drunken with hate! But my Butterfly remains what it is: the most deeply-felt and imaginative opera I have conceived!"
Puccini nonetheless immediately revised the work, tightening the drama, and presented it at the Teatro Grande in Brescia on May 28, 1904 with the Polish soprano Salomea Kruszeniski as Cio-Cio-San. On this occasion, it was a resounding success, and Puccini was called in front of the curtain ten times. Throughout his life, the composer expressed his love for the opera, stating that he never tired of hearing it.
Over the last century, nearly every opera house, even the most avant-garde, has found a place for Madama Butterfly. The director Ken Russell staged a version for the Spoleto Festival in 1993 with Cio-Cio-San as an opium-addicted prostitute during the World War II bombing of Nagasaki. But whatever the theatrical context, Puccini's dramatic music carries the action with its melodious arias and choruses.
The story of the doomed geisha and her lover had fascinated choreographer Stanton Welch since boyhood, when he prodded his father to tell him opera stories. "The one he spoke about most passionately, and in the most detail, was later to become my passion; it is the story of Cio-Cio-San and her fatal love for Pinkerton," says Welch. His vibrant choreography‹ballet with a dramatic flair‹has become a signature style for Welch. "People seem to need that story, that emotional connection. Audiences want to come to the theater to cry, or laugh, and that's our job as artists," says the choreographer.
Welch wisely chose the venerable conductor and composer John Lanchbery to adapt and orchestrate Puccini's score for the new piece, which was premiered by the Australian Ballet in 1995. With its touchingly romantic pas de deux and brilliantly conceived fantasy sequences, the ballet brings physical life to the emotionally complex relationship between Pinkerton and Cio-Cio-San. At its New York premiere, the dance critic Clive Barnes called it "a vividly compelling piece of dance theater which could prove a genuine addition to the international ballet repertory." The work has already been taken into the repertoires of the Boston Ballet and Atlanta Ballet before this month's Houston premiere.
Madame Butterfly's poignant story has not failed to captivate audiences during the last century. Miss Saigon, after all, played on Broadway for over 4000 performances. Now, supported by Puccini's luscious score, the ballet not only lets the story sing, but dance, as well.