In January 1904 Giacomo Puccini was backstage at La Scala in Milan, rehearsing for the world premiere of Madame Butterfly. He was in a very good humor because the cast was superb, the orchestra excellent, and the scenery and costumes authentic, so he had high hopes.
On opening night, though, the Milanese simply hated it, and they handed him a smacking defeat‹one of the biggest fiascos in the entire history of opera.
At that point, he might easily have put the score aside, but he did not. Instead, facing the sourest of failures, he began reworking it, and three months later his beloved opera rang up an absolute triumph in Brescia. His faith was justified at last. From that moment on, the popularity of Butterfly was guaranteed, and sopranos fought each other for a chance to sing it. Many were Italian, Polish, French, American, or English, but the first great Japanese to sing this role was Tamaki Miura.
Born in Tokyo on February 22, 1884, Miura showed an early interest in music and began taking classes at the capital's Academy of Music when she was just 16. Three years later, still a student, she made her official debut at the Academy Hall in the leading role of Euridice in Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice. She won the school's highest honors at graduation and stayed on as an assistant professor of voice.
Miura may not have seen Madame Butterfly in Tokyo, where part of it was first given in 1914, the year she left for Germany. Her great hope then was to study voice with the celebrated Lilli Lehmann, but World War I forced her to leave Germany for England. There, as writer Duiti Miyasawa reported, Miura came to the attention of Sir Henry Wood, a much-honored English conductor. Wood had begun his career in London in 1889 and had conducted, among other productions, the English premiere of Eugene Onegin. When Miura first met him, he had been doing concerts and teaching, so he was in a perfect position to help her. His recommendation to Lady Churchill, the wife of Randolph Churchill, got Miura on the program of a charity concert in the Queens Hall, conducted by Wood himself. It was a benefit for St. John's Hospital in Battersea. Miura may also have sung for a Red Cross War Fund benefit in Albert Hall on October 24, 1914, the occasion for the last public appearance of Adelina Patti.
While in London, Miura was certainly not looking to Butterfly as a role, but the popular Russian tenor Vladimir Rosing persuaded her to study it. Her first appearance in Madame Butterfly came in London in 1915 at Oscar Hammerstein's London Opera House, in a cast that included Léon Lafitte as Pinkerton, Charles Valmoral as Sharpless, and Georgette Meyrald as Suzuki. According to contemporary reports, the performance had to be stopped right after Miura sang "Un bel dí" because a German zeppelin unleashed an air raid on the city at that moment. The soprano, however, was unfazed, and after the all-clear sounded, she insisted on continuing. As Miyasawa said, "She made a sensational reputation for her courage." In 1917 she also recorded the love duet from Act I of Butterfly for Columbia, while her "Un bel dí" was released later on Japanese Columbia. As to her concept of the character, Miyasawa described a young woman determined to play Butterfly as only a Japanese artist would, "creating a subtle contrast between the virginal girl of the first act and the tragic figure of the finale." Her dignified performances would do much to enhance the opera's standing with the Japanese people, who initially received the work coolly, as they objected to the notion of Butterfly as an American man's plaything.
Soon the Russian-American impresario Max Rabinoff persuaded Miura to leave for America. Here she sang Butterfly with the Chicago Opera, opposite the Kentucky-born tenor Riccardo Martin. On May 28, 1918, she was at the Metropolitan as a guest artist for a Red Cross benefit starring Enrico Caruso. After the concert she and the tenor stood apart from other guests at a party in the Hotel Knickerbocker and chatted about how to protect their voices. Armistice Day in 1918 found Miura in New York's Madison Square Garden, where President Woodrow Wilson made an address about the war's end and she sang, accompanied by John Philip Sousa's band.
In this post-war era she returned to Europe for Butterfly in Rome, where she had a brief backstage meeting with Puccini. Because he was on a hurried visit to the capital, he invited her to his lakeside villa at Torre del Lago. There he showed her his collection of Oriental antiquities and also spoke about Butterfly and the help he had received while composing it: among others, Madame Hisako Oyama, the Japanese ambassador's wife, had sent him albums of Japanese music and almost a hundred phonograph records which he used, he said, in creating the "Japanese air" for his opera. He also discussed the way he approached composing. Then Miura sang Japanese songs for him and invited him to Tokyo. Before the visit ended, he flattered her, saying she was his "ideal Cio-Cio-San," the only soprano who "sang and acted the role very dramatically" and fully understood the character as he had conceived it.
In the years that followed, Miura sang with the Chicago Opera, and under its auspices she took the title role in the American premiere of André Messager's opera Madame Chrysanthème, based on the novel by Pierre Loti that provided some of the source material for Madame Butterfly. In 1926 she sang the world premiere of Alberto Franchetti's Namiko-San, also for Chicago. As a star of Fortune Gallo's touring company, the San Carlo Opera, Miura covered thousands of miles in this country. In Seattle she sang in a Japanese hall; in Owensboro, Kentucky, she was billed as "The world's greatest Butterfly"; in New York she was the "true creator" of the role. In all, she sang Cio-Cio-San 2,000 times.
Because of her connection with the San Carlo, Miura left behind the living memory of herself everywhere, and not just by singing her roles. She also taught them to the great Japanese soprano Hizi Koyke, another member of the San Carlo troupe. Koyke sang for decades with that and many other American companies. This meant that long after Miura returned to Tokyo, and even long after her death, Koyke carried her aesthetic and her characterizations to audiences in almost every state. She was a star of the Cincinnati Summer Opera from 1928 to 1937 and from 1946 to 1949, singing not just in Butterfly but in Iris, L'Oracolo, and other works with Oriental settings, all learned from Miura. And Koyke took them everywhere, from New York City's Center Theatre to Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, and dozens of other cities. No one could have been more loyal to Miura and her traditions than Koyke was. In fact, Koyke went on keeping those traditions alive in the singers she taught or directed. Among her dozens of directorial chores, one counts an important Butterfly for the Chicago Opera and another for the Washington Opera.
Miura eventually went home, to live as a revered icon of Japanese society. In her native country she sang Iris, Mimí in La Bohème, and, of course, Butterfly, in full performances and concerts as well. A pioneer, she certainly affected Japanese women by encouraging them to make careers for themselves or to just do what they wanted, as she had always done. Miura died in Tokyo in 1946.
Japan celebrated Miura by raising a statue of her in the Glover House gardens in Nagasaki. From there she looks out over the harbor and gestures toward the port, and beside her is a statue of Puccini. "Nagasaki; il mar," as the libretto of Butterfly has it‹ Nagasaki and the sea‹with the noble Miura looking as if she owns it all.
Mary Jane Phillips-Matz is the author of biographies of Puccini and Verdi.