Butterfly: The metamorphosis of a timeless classic

4 November 2021
Cio Cio San and Pinkerton hugging in each other's arms

Madam Butterfly was written at the start of the 20th century and first performed in 1904 at La Scala, Milan with its first performance in the UK in 1905 at the Royal Opera House. WNO first performed it on 29 April 1948 at the Prince of Wales Theatre, Cardiff. Since then, Puccini’s opera has consistently remained in the top ten of most-performed around the world. Madam Butterfly is a classic tear-jerker and with Puccini’s music providing emotional impact, it is one of the most passionate, heart-breaking and influential operas.

Puccini was inspired by David Belasco’s one act drama that he saw in London’s West End in June 1900. Called Madame Butterfly: A Tragedy of Japan it was based on American writer, John Luther Long’s short story, also titled Madame Butterfly, published in 1898. Again, this was based on another work, the 1887 French novel Madame Chrysanthème by Pierre Loti.

Puccini’s version wasn’t the end of the metamorphosis of Madame Butterfly however. With films influenced by the story including the 1932 Madame Butterfly staring a young Cary Grant as Pinkerton, a posthumous filmed version of Belasco’s play that included Puccini’s music in the score. The 1980s classic, Fatal Attraction with Michael Douglas and Glenn Close, not only features extracts from Puccini’s opera but also several references too. In 1993 David Cronenberg filmed a version of the play by David Henry Hwang, M Butterfly, staring a young Jeremy Irons, that tells a story of love and betrayal in 1960s China with an added twist to the classic Butterfly tale.

The influence of the story continues on other stages too, with successful ballets being created to tell the tale – David Nixon producing a version for Northern Ballet in 2002. An earlier adaptation by The Australian Ballet in 1995 was created by Stanton Welch, his first full length ballet at age 25. He became interested in choreography while working with The Australian Opera. Surely a perfect route for a Butterfly conversion?

One of the most famous transformations is that of the 1980s Cameron Mackintosh musical Miss Saigon – another consistently popular stage production. Having moved the action from Japan to Vietnam of the 1970s and the end of the War, it tells the tale of doomed romance following a ‘deal’ brokered between two men.

The opera’s influence has even been felt in the world of fashion – John Galliano’s Spring/Summer 2007 Couture collection for Dior combined the label’s iconic ‘New Look’ with inspiration from the opera. A true homage: the models walked the catwalk while Puccini’s score played. Yet perhaps even more bizarre is the 1996 album Pinkerton by American alternative rock band Weezer. Loosely based on the opera, the lead singer reportedly listened to it every night after their live shows. Then there is the early 80s single from punk superstar Malcolm McLaren, Madam Butterfly, that featured the aria Un bel dì within the track.

The story of heartbreak never grows old and the influence of a story such as Butterfly’s will always make an impression. It can, and has been, morphed into any era and any part of the world – it is a tale that resonates and stands the test of time. Catch WNO’s new production to remind yourself of her heart-breaking tale.