Love this story from Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac today. I mean, who would have thought Puccini experienced an opening night disaster with Madame Butterfly? Here goes:
It was on this day in 1904 that Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly premiered in Milan, Italy, at Teatro alla Scala. Puccini had first been introduced to the story while he was in London for the premiere of his opera Tosca. There, he saw a one-act play called Madame Butterfly, written by the American playwright David Belasco. Belasco had based his play on a short story of the same name by John Luther Long, who claimed it was a true story told to him by relatives who were missionaries in Japan. Long was probably lying, though, because his story was very similar to a French novel called Madame Chrysanthème (1887) by Pierre Loti.
Even though Puccini had only a basic command of English, he was sure that Belasco’s play had the makings of an opera. He wrote to his friend and publisher, Giulio Ricardo: “The more I think of Butterfly the more irresistibly am I attracted. Oh, if only I had it here, that I might set to work on it! I think instead of one act I could make two quite long ones: the first in North America and the second in Japan.” He worked on the opera for four years, trying to improve on Belasco’s plot and pacing, and consulting frequently with the wife of the Japanese ambassador for advice on names, music, and characters. In November of 1902, he wrote to Giulio: “The action must move forward to the close without interruption, rapid, effective, terrible! In arranging the opera in three acts I was making for certain disaster. You will see, dear Signor Giulio, that I am right.”
So on this night the opera debuted, in two acts. Earlier in the day he wrote to his leading lady, the soprano Rosina Storchio: “My good wishes are superfluous! So true, so delicate, so moving is your great art that the public must succumb to it. And I hope that through you I am speeding to victory. Tonight then — with sure confidence and much affection, dear child.”
But opening night was a disaster. The public hissed and yelled at the actors. Rosina Storchio was so distressed that she announced she would never sing the role of Butterfly again. Madama Butterfly closed after just one night, and Puccini wrote to Storchio: “And so, my Butterfly, the love-sick maiden, would leave me. You seem in your departure to be taking away the best, the most poetical part of my work. I think that Butterfly without Rosina Storchio becomes a thing without soul. What a shame! After so many anxious fears, after pouring out such riches of your keen and delicate intelligence, to receive the reward of brutality. What a disgrace it was! But I am sure that this horrible impression will soon be wiped out of our minds, and so, with warm affection and confidence in the future, I wish you good luck.”
He spent the next few months rewriting the opera — he even changed his mind, again, and gave the opera three acts. It reopened at the Teatro Grande in Brescia on May 28th, 1904, with a new Buttefly, the Ukrainian soprano Salomea Kruszelnicka — otherwise, the cast was the same. This time, it was a huge success, with multiple encores, and Puccini was called on stage 10 times.