Death and Life of a Butterfly

Article by James Naughtie

At the end of the first performance of Madama Butterfly there were no curtain calls.  They didn’t dare.  The reception for the first act had been cool and for the second, which at that performance comprised the whole of the rest of the opera, it was vicious.  This was La Scala at something like its worst, with the audience contributing its own animal noises during the bird calls in the intermezzo and jeering at every opportunity.

It’s even said that when the prima donna’s kimono was inflated by a sudden backstage breeze, cries of “She’s pregnant!” floated down from above and a shout of “Toscanini’s the father” brought the house down.  The singer, Rosina Storchio, was known by everyone in the theatre to be one of a long line who enjoyed a close relationship with that night’s conductor.  Poor old Puccini.  But he was comforted by the composer Pietro Mascagni, who was in the audience. “Your opera has fallen”, he said. “But it will rise again.”

That dreadful opening night, of Norma proportions, casts an interesting light on an opera that has since become so popular.  It may reveal something of the strangeness of it and, paradoxically, touch on the appeal of such stories which can survive even the most gruelling birth pangs of the stage.

Without attributing too much in the way of judgement to a first night Milanese audience, schooled in fickleness, you can see how it was that Butterfly seemed odd. This was Puccini breaking away in the way that would produce such a triumph in La Fanciulla del West half a dozen years later and in his decision to use a rather simple one-act play based on a story by an American lawyer may have seemed a strangeish starting point.  Moreover, the score was more fitful than either La Boheme’s or Tosca’s and at first glance it did not seem particularly appealing. Pinkerton’s Star Spangled Banner motif has always seemed crude to some. But Butterfly’s secret, which was to make it a popular hit and see it in every opera house repertory in perpetuity, is one of the most enduring truths about opera: self-sacrifice is engrossing.

The danger with any story of this sort, particularly with the melodramatic business of a Japanese ritual suicide at the end, is that it produces pathos instead of anguish. But one of opera’s great abilities is to transform such tales into things of real touching power, even when the bare bones seem to point to something much less uplifting.

This is the reason for Butterfly’s return from the dead, so to speak. Puccini and his librettists, Giacoso an Illica, demonstrate how opera can produce a certain frisson not only because it somehow seems to lift the ordinary onto a different plane but – and this is surely the point about Butterfly – because it takes risks with stories and situations which seem doomed to produce crude melodrama. When they don’t, it is not surprising that everyone is moved.

Is this fanciful? I doubt it. The sense of sacrifice which produces the climax in this opera is not something remote, peculiar to Japanese households invaded by hard-drinking American servicemen bent on bigamy or something like it. This picture of a fifteen year old girl -Butterfly is no woman yet, despite what some venerable singers have done to the role over the years – works because it plays to opera’s strengths. No other art form can manage in quite this way to convey the sheer humiliation and agony of a figure who is destroyed in front of us.

There are obvious reasons for it. Great arias can be written for singers to soliloquise in which music adds a second dimension to the drama itself. The power of the direct appeal to an audience is one that composers naturally try to harness as often as they can. From the moment that opera moved from the early representational formulae to the style that romantic composers could exploit, this was the trick. Characters would not be inhabiting roles in which their every move was understood to be following a pattern: they could speak directly to the audience, from the heart, and in ensembles several could speak at the same time explaining quite different things about their own feelings. In other words, the directness of opera- its ability to send clear shafts of light from any stage into a darkened auditorium – became the strength that allowed it to prosper.

This, of course, is the answer to those who still find the inherent artificiality of the form a real problem. To worry about the methods by which opera produces its thrills is as silly as asking of Butterfly: how can a young girl manage to sing so well? That is not the point. The success of an opera like this is, in the end, in turning the horror of Cio-Cio-San’s betrayal and ruin into a special kind of moment in which the sacrifice seems to become something worthwhile rather than just a waste.

The remarkable thing about opera in performance is that this kind of stage magic can work as well in a small theatre – or, thinking of Opera Holland Park, even out of doors – as in a grand palace of culture, and often better. Although great casts and great conductors do sometimes deliver what is promised, they frequently do not. We all know that a note-perfect delivery of a favourite aria or duet on some great stage will not necessarily carry the emotional weight of a “real” performance by someone you’ve never heard of, standing in front of scenery that wobbles before your eyes. I hasten to add that this is no reference to Opera Holland Park here, but I have watched some pretty rickety sets and some unknown singers produce moments of real theatrical excitement seemingly from nowhere. Think, for example, what British Youth Opera can produce on a meagre budget and compare it with some of the work we have seen at certain rather better-funded institutions, which I need not name.

One of Opera Holland Park’s achievements over the years has been to capture exactly this spirit. There have been nights here when by some sort of alchemy an opera that might have seemed unsuitable or overambitious – or, like Iris, practically unknown here – has somehow touched an audience very deeply indeed.

If opera audiences don’t come for that kind of experience, what are we doing here? There is a willingness to make it work. If an audience isn’t moved by the duet between Pinkerton and Cio-Cio-San, where they sing of love as evening falls, they had probably better leave there and then because clearly there is little point in proceeding. And the truth is that capturing that moment is not a skill reserved for the greatest singers and conductors; the magic is there to be worked by any cast with the understanding of what is intended.

Surely the power of sacrifice is one of the opera’s great themes because it can exploit this willingness of an audience to go into partnership with a character. If the singer doesn’t make it worthwhile, then of course the revenge is sweet (especially if you’re at La Scala and no-one minds you imitating farmyard animals up in the gods). But if the appeal is there, there is no stopping you. You can somehow find yourself inside the mind of a Japanese girl who is operating to a set of social standards and obligations that most of us can only crudely comprehend, because she seems to explain what it is like to plunge into this emotional abyss.

Opera should explain like this. People speak of feeling as if it is something different from an intellectual understanding, and in the theatre that is making a fundamental mistake. If the sense of sympathy for a hero or heroine who is destroyed is just a pang, the whole thing has probably become close to pathos. But if the characters have managed to enlist us in their cause, whether it is in “traditional” tragedy like Violetta’s in La Traviata or even in the deeply complicated sadness of a Peter Grimes, the sure touch of opera has been preserved. The self-sacrifice of Cio-Cio-San gets its touch of nobility not just from the contrast with Pinkerton and his deceit, but principally because Puccini has crafted a score that somehow opens the character to us in a way that only the very best dramatist could manage in the straight theatre.

That was Puccini’s special gift. Very few composers have been able to paint characters so richly with so few strokes. Think of La Boheme, and the speed with which the world of the students is created in Act 1. In Tosca, by the time the Te Deum brings the first act to an end, and Scarpia looms up in the church, a web of politics and jealousy is already wrapped around everything. In La Fanciulla, life on the gold rush trail springs to life within a few bars… and so on. The swiftness is staggering.

One of the insults thrown at Puccini on that first night in Milan was from a part of the audience that thought it could hear snatches of Boheme somewhere in Butterfly. And of course they were right. But why not? Puccini’s palette was with him always, and he found himself returning to favourite corners of it again and again. This is hardly a crime for a composer who managed to become such an elegant part of the transition from nineteenth century opera and the rough directness of the verismo style to something which was recognisably twentieth century, all with a rich lyrical stream bearing him along. Everything in Puccini is crowded, busy, speedy.

It is worth remembering why Puccini had to interrupt work on Butterfly. He was in a car accident. This was a composer who lived in a world that we can recognise: he did not walk on some distant landscape that we know only from paintings. You can feel the immediacy of that feeling, even in Butterfly, though it is not the opera in which it is most obvious. The great Gustave Kobbe, whose familiar fat guide to opera still props up so many of our bookshelves, was at the first night of the play of Madame Butterfly in New York in 1900 and reported: “The tragedy had been constructed with great rapidity from John Luther Long’s story, but its success was even swifter.” It was this play, when it was seen in London by the stage manager at Covent Garden, that caused Puccini to be summoned. Everyone knew there was something there for the opera stage.

The something was that painfully simple tragedy in miniature, of the girl renouncing the ways of her family and its beliefs to try to demonstrate a real love for a man who will betray her. In that unlikely character lay the opportunity for a composer to forge an understanding between someone in a distant land gazing out to sea in search of the love that will destroy her, and an audience which was willing to try to understand what depth of feeling that involved.

Opera uses the shock of melodrama all the time, but melodrama alone is extravagant action without character. In Butterfly, as in most opera that works, the absorption is not in the mechanics of the story but in the feelings of a character who has somehow come alive in music. It need not be a character with whom we sympathise entirely. It may be a character about who we have strong misgivings or find very disturbing. But somehow the door is opened into places which we secretly want to explore. We do the deal and step through.

Puccini was a natural dramatist. His sense of place, and scene, was sure. As confidently as film directors were starting to develop the techniques that could whisk cinema goers to distant places in seconds when he was in his old age, he had worked the trick in the theatre. Typically, he spent a great deal of time studying Japanese customs, even architecture, when he set to work on Butterfly.  He persuaded the wife of the Japanese ambassador to Italy to sing to him to try to catch some of the character of the traditional styles that he had already heard on his gramophone. Nothing went into the score by accident.

His purpose, obviously, was to explore the way that cultures collide. The swaggering confidence of the Americans was to shatter one family in which traditional beliefs and ways were swept away in pursuit of an illusory love. Yet the power of the opera is not in some grand declamation about such themes; it’s in the horror of what happens to one young woman who is caught in this emotional storm.

This is a story made for the operatic stage. It moves with a simple inevitability from hope to despair, and it turns on a familiar tale of love betrayed – but it ends with an understanding that in the throes of this terrible experience, emotions have been touched so deeply that somehow they have been ennobled. This is what happens in so much of opera: the kind of sacrifice crystallises the emotions that opera catches so well, and explains.

It was maybe not too surprising that the first night audience was so hostile. The Japanese! A Geisha girl! The American national anthem! And they spotted some longueurs in the score, later revised. But the hostility didn’t last long, because the truth is that this opera does very well what much of the best of opera does. It catches the particular quality of an unthinkable experience that lends itself perfectly to the amalgam of music and theatrical drama that proves so irresistible to so many.

The moment Puccini saw the play he plunged into work, listening to these Japanese songs, sinking himself in the study of this remote society. He thought he had stumbled on a human story that was made for him an opera audiences. And he was right.