New York City Opera Project: Madama Butterfly

The Fiasco of Madama Butterfly's First Performance: Feb 17, 1904

There are, perhaps, no stories more highly cherished among opera enthusiasts than the tales of the disastrous outcome of a renowned opera's première. Commentators today still refer to events of this sort by the epithet employed by such 19th-century opera composers as Giuseppe Verdi: fiasco. We often marvel at the fact that an opera that is popular by current standards could have been so flagrantly disregarded in its own day.

Italian opera and its Audience

Throughout the 19th century, opera was the primary form of Italian theater, and the press and general public took this artform very seriously. Singers and composers were celebrities, and any home furnished with a piano was likely to have the sheet music of several of the latest operas--these scores were regularly prepared for sale at the opera's première.

A successful composer such as Verdi, and later Puccini, could expect his latest opera to open to an avid audience well versed in his past work. This audience demanded novelty, and yet an opera that strayed too far from the beaten path was dismissed as, at best, nonsensical or, at worst, mere garbage. Moreover, a composer would not have to wait until the reviews in the journals and papers of the following day to ascertain the success of his endeavor; to say that the audience could be vocal in its approval or dismay is a gross understatement. Cheers, applause, and shouts of joy greeted the singers of numbers that particularly pleased.

The audience of the time had little concern for a performance's dramatic continuity, and it was not uncommon to hear importunate cries of "bis" (again!) from the auditorium after a well-received aria or duet, whereupon the action of the drama would stop and the orchestra and singer would simply repeat the entire number to the delight of those in attendance. There were even times when entire acts were repeated upon demand! However, when the audience was not so well disposed toward a piece or the opera as a whole, these cries of "bis" could turn sarcastic. Should the work fail to please, the auditorium would resound with jeers, whistles, catcalls and various admonishments from enraged individuals. A successful opera was an event of great importance in Italian society; an unsuccessful opera, at times, could be of even greater moment. A less commonly told story of just such a failure, but one that had a profound impact on both the work and its composer, is that of the première of Giacomo Puccini's Madama Butterfly.

Puccini's Madama Butterfly

No sooner had Puccini launched his fifth opera, Tosca, in January 1900 than he began yearning to start work on another project. He claimed he was "sick to death of being inoperaio" (a clever neologism implying both "being without work" and "being without an opera"). The composer then poured over numerous possibilities; he even considered several comic subjects--a genre that Puccini was hesitant to attempt and would not do so until 18 years later with Gianni Schicchi. In the summer of that year, Puccini saw the play that would eventually become his next opera, Madama Butterfly. According to the playwright David Belasco (perhaps not the most reliable of sources), Puccini rushed into the green room after the performance, weeping profusely and insisting on the operatic rights. However that may be, the contract was not signed until September 20, 1901.

Despite several setbacks during the composition process, including a devastating automobile accident in which Puccini was trapped beneath the overturned car, the composer was uncharacteristically confident about his latest work upon its completion on December 27, 1903 (less than two months before the première!!). The opera was scheduled to open in Milan at La Scala (one of the most important and influential houses in opera's history) with an outstanding cast that was exceedingly popular with the public, including the soprano Rosina Storchio as Butterfly. Full of enthusiasm for what he proclaimed his favorite opera, Puccini arrived at Milan on January 6, 1904 to oversee the rehearsals. Complications arose from the outset.

Owing to the fact that Puccini had only recently completed the opera, the singers were obliged to learn their parts from the proofs sent from the printer a few pages at a time. To make matters worse, the publisher Ricordi, believing a certain amount of secrecy would heighten the public's expectation, demanded that the printed music remain within the theater. This precaution was also intended to prevent careless singers from losing their parts. In addition, Ricordi forbade the press to attend any rehearsals thereby eliminating the traditional "open rehearsal" for the critics.

Instead of whetting their appetites, this highhandedness merely embittered the press, predisposing them to find fault with the new work. There were even some last-minute arguments as to the length of the second Act, a point of contention throughout the collaboration on the libretto. In the original version, the curtain did not close on Butterfly's Act II vigil, thus emulating the parallel scene in Belasco's play. Through all of this, Puccini remained in unusually high spirits. On the day of the performance, he wrote to Storchio, "Through you I am speeding to victory!" With each of his earlier premières, the composer invariably tried to convince his family not to attend. He did not want to "expose them to the uncertainty of a first experiment." On this occasion all such precautions were discarded. Puccini made sure that his sisters had a box in the theater while his 18-year-old son remained backstage with him. He simply did not foresee the fiasco awaiting Madama Butterfly.

Butterfly : the fiasco

The première of February 17, 1904 would remain a bitter experience for Puccini. As Ricordi described it in the March edition of Musice e Musicisti :

Growls, shouts, groans, laughter, giggling, the usual single cries of "bis," designed to excite the public still more; that sums up the reception which the public of La Scala accorded the new work by Maestro Giacomo Puccini . . . The spectacle given in the auditorium seemed as well organized as that on the stage since it began precisely with the beginning of the opera.

If Ricordi's memory is accurate, the packed theater was hostile from the beginning, but it seems that the onset of the real problems coincided with Butterfly's entrance. As Butterfly approaches her new home, she and a chorus of girls sing "Quanto cielo." To the more belligerent elements of the audience, Butterfly's descending line resembled a melody from the Act III duet of his earlier opera La Bohème. Nineteenth-century Italian audiences were particularly sensitive to and unforgiving of what they termed "reminiscences"; that is, a composer's deliberate or inadvertent borrowing from another opera. When they detected this offense, Puccini's detractors cried out, "Bohème, Bohème!!"

From this point on, the audience divided into two opposed factions: Puccini's supporters and those determined to make a mockery of the performance--needless to say, the latter easily constituted the vocal majority. The beautiful Act I duet could not rival the cacophony in the auditorium (the offending passage mentioned earlier is repeated in this piece--this, no doubt, only added fuel to the fire). The Act I curtain fell to a mixture of hissing and scattered applause. The singers and Puccini were called out onto the stage only to receive torrents of derisive laughter.

During Act II, the demonstrators redoubled their efforts. Only the letter scene and the flower duet could be heard at all; the remainder of the opera was attended by such disruptive noise that the singers complained of being unable to hear the orchestra. At one point, either owing to a backstage draft or a sudden movement on the soprano's part, Storchio's kimono billowed up in front whereupon several cries of "Butterfly is pregnant!" could be heard along with the more offensive "Ah, the little Toscanini!" (this latter affront referred to the highly publicized affair between Storchio and the famous Italian conductor, Arturo Toscanini).

The long Intermezzo (Butterfly's night vigil) provided another opportunity for buffoonery. In an attempt to outdo Belasco's intense realism, the opera's producer placed performers with bird-whistles throughout the opera house to accompany the dawn after Butterfly's sleepless night. Unwilling to allow such a boon to pass unnoticed, the audience joined in with various animal sounds of their own, reducing the poetic gesture to lunacy. Although accounts differ, the final curtain either fell to "a glacial silence" or howls, laughter and disdain.

The reviews of the following day were no more forgiving, boasting such headlines as "Puccini hissed," "Fiasco at La Scala," and "Butterfly, Diabetic Opera, The Result of an Automobile Accident." Even those more disposed to approving of the opera found fault with its structure and various other details. Devastated, Puccini described the incident as a "lynching" and insisted that the score be withdrawn. Although this meant a financial loss for the opera house, they complied and Puccini returned his fee of 20,000 lire to Ricordi.

The exact reasons behind the fiasco are, of course, nearly impossible to trace with any accuracy but there are several likely explanations. First, Ricordi's secrecy during the rehearsals and alienation of the press undoubtedly created an unnecessarily hostile reception in the papers. Second, Puccini incorrectly assumed that the audience would be able to maintain concentration during his abnormally long second act--in the revised version, the curtain wisely falls during the vigil. Finally, and this must remain conjectural, it is possible that the fiasco was "fixed" beforehand. This would not be the only instance of such treachery in operatic history and certainly Ricordi suspected as much as he revealed in his comments recorded above.

The disaster had a lasting effect on Puccini. Madama Butterfly remained his favorite composition, but he could not think of it without recalling the failure of its first performance. Nevertheless, his disappointment did not deter him from arranging a more suitable reception for Butterfly. Convinced that the opera would succeed if presented in a smaller theater, Puccini set to work on the necessary, though minor, revisions. On May 28, the revised version was presented at the Teatro Grande in Brescia. Puccini was right; the work was a success and has remained so ever since.

Chadwick Jenkins