February 17, 1904: Madame Butterfly, an opera by Giacomo Puccini, premieres at La Scala in Milan. Puccini was born in Tuscany to a family with generations of musicians. He became a church organist and choir master. He and his brother walked 18.5 miles to see Verdi’s Aida performed in Pisa. Puccini was so impressed, he decided to become an opera composer. At age 21 he received financial help and was able to study at the Milan Conservatory with Amilcare Ponchielli and Antonio Bazzini.
While still at the Conservatory, Puccini wrote a Messa or Catholic Mass for his native Lucca church. While most famous for his operas – he wrote ten – he also composed orchestral pieces, chamber music, songs for voice and piano, and the aforementioned sacred music. His style has been seen as lacking “seriousness.” His work was popular without pretension. He used arias to advantage but strung them together with a more continuous flow. He also broke with tradition and his operas were not all placed solely in Italy.
Madame Butterfly was based on two previous works – short story “Madame Butterfly” (1898) by John Luther Long and novel Madame Chrysanthème (1887) by Pierre Loti. Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa penned the Italian libretto. The two-act opera opened at La Scala – one of the world’s most famous opera houses. The lead roles were presented by soprano Rosina Storchio, tenor Giovanni Zenatello, and baritone Giuseppe De Luca – all famous at the time. The opera was poorly received, in part due to rushed work and not enough rehearsal time.
Puccini reworked the opera and split it into three acts. The opera opened a second time on May 28, 1904 and became a huge success. Puccini also wrote Lâ Bohème (opened in 1896) and Tosca (opened 1900). Madame Butterfly, set in Nagasaki, Japan, is the tale of a young woman betrayed by the man she loves. Madame Butterfly is presented around the world and is the most performed opera in the US. Many recordings and adaptations have been produced in the more than 100 years since Cio-Cio San first took the stage.
Of all the noises known to man, opera is the most expensive. – Moliere
The opera is like a husband with a foreign title – expensive to support, hard to understand and therefore a supreme social challenge. – Cleveland Amory
Opera in English is, in the main, about as sensible as baseball in Italian. – Henry Louis Mencken
Going to the opera, like getting drunk, is a sin that carries its own punishment with it. – Hannah Moore
Also on this day:
H L Hunley – In 1864, the first successful sinking of a ship by a submarine.
Newsweek – In 1933, Newsweek was first published.
Miles Standish – In 1621, Miles Standish was appointed first commander of Plymouth colony.