The Creators of Madame Butterfly
Madame Butterfly began her life as a short story, published in 1898, by the American John Luther Long Two years later, he joined forces with the playwright/producer David Belasco; Butterfly was reborn as a one-act play. In 1904 Giacomo Puccini’s operatic version was whistled off the stage on its opening night. The libretto, in Italian, was written by the composer’s regular duo of librettists, Luigi Illica and GIuseppe Giacoso, the three of them shepherded by Giulio Ricordi, the head of the Italian music-publishing house. This chapter introduces you, briefly, to these various gentlemen.
JOHN LUTHER LONG was born on the first day of 1861 in Hannover, PA; he practiced law in Philadelphia and died on the last day of October, 1927. In the summer months, he wrote and among the collection of his papers housed at the University of Texas at Austin are over a hundred stories and plays. His first published story was Miss Cherry Blossom of Tokyo, and many of his other stories also deal with Japanese themes. His sister, Jennie, was married to a Methodist minister; they lived in Japan from 1892 to 1897 where her husband, Dr. Irvin Correll of the American Methodist Mission, had been appointed Headmaster of a school for boys. On her return to America she told her brother of a woman she’d heard of whose husband had abandoned her. Madame Butterfly was first published in the January 1898 issue of Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine; when it appeared in book-form it was an instant best-seller. With David Belasco, Long adapted his story for the stage and it was first performed as a curtain-raiser to another Belasco play – Naughty Anthony – on March 5, 1900, at the Herald Square Theatre in New York City; Blanche Bates played the title role.
DAVID BELASCO was born on July 25, 1853. His Sephardic Jewish parents had moved from London to San Francisco, and it was there that the young man began his career in the theatre. He moved to New York City in 1882, worked as a stage-manager, wrote and directed plays, and by 1895 had established himself as an independent producer. In 1902 he took over the management of a theatre on 42nd Street, renaming it The Belasco; it became The Republic when, in 1910, he moved a couple of blocks north to a theatre, renamed The Belasco, built to his specifications. At the height of his career he was the most powerful personality in the New York theatrical scene, and actors – including Mary Pickford and Lionel Barrymore – lined up to work with him. As a director he demanded a new kind of naturalism from his casts, and his sets paid great attention to realistic detail. But his greatest innovations concerned stage lighting. Indeed it was the “vigil” scene in Madame Butterfly, with lights leading the audience through the transition from evening, to night, to dawn, that so impressed Puccini when he saw the play in London. Incidentally, Puccini’s next opera after Butterfly was also based on a Belasco play, The Girl of the Golden West. Belasco died in Manhattan in 1931.
LUIGI ILLICA (9 May, 1857 – 16 December 1919). Born in Northern Italy, he quit his studies in Cremona and went to sea for a few years, battling the Turks at Pleven in 1877 – one of those eighteenth/nineteenth-century European battles against a threatened Turkish invasion! It may have been during these years of travel that he lost his right ear in a duel over a woman! On his return to Italy he dedicated himself to journalism, and published stories, plays (mostly comedies) and poetry. His second libretto was La Wally for Catalani. The opera was successful enough to bring him to the attention of Ricordi, which led to his librettos for Puccini: Manon Lescaut (he was one of a quintet who worked on that text!); La Bohème; Tosca; and Madama Butterfly. He wrote the libretto for Andrea Chenier, Giordano’s first, and only, success; as well as that for Iris: Mascagni’s lurid, and pre-Butterfly adventure into Oriental melodrama.
GIUSEPPE GIACOSA (21 October 1847 – 1 September 1906) studied law at the University of Turin but, though he graduated in 1868, never pursued a legal career. His first play was written in 1866, but it wasn’t until 1871 that he met with great theatrical success, and from then on there was a steady flow of plays, novels, stories and poetry. He was a member of the scapigliature, an artistic movement which, in Italy, originated in Milan and spread to Turin and other Italian cities. The word itself means “dishevelled’, but incorporates the French notion of “Bohemianism,” whatever that means! The movement grew to include not just writers, but musicians and painters as well. Basically it sought to energize Italian literature, music, painting and sculpture by incorporating influences from France (Gautier and Baudelaire), from Germany (Heine, Hoffmann and, especially, Wagner) and from America (Edgar Allen Poe). Giulio Ricordi recruited him to contribute to the libretto of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut; after that he versified Illica’s scripts for La Bohème, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly.
GIACOMO PUCCINI (1858 – 1924) was the last in the line of great Italian operatic composers that began with Claudio Monteverdi in the early seventeenth century. No opera company today could survive without regular infusions of La Bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly; occasional injections of Turandot, La Rondine, Manon Lescaut, La Fanciulla del West and at least two-thirds of his triple-bill (Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi) are required to sell tickets. Puccini was also the last of four generations of church musicians in Lucca. He studied there, and was awarded a scholarship to the Milan Conservatory, where his professors included Ponchielli (of La Gioconda fame) who suggested he should write an opera. The result was Le Villi. This early work attracted the attention of Giulio Ricordi (the major music publisher in Italy at the time); after some post-first-performance revisions, it was given at Milan’s La Scala in 1885. His second opera, Edgar, had a luke-warm reception at La Scala in 1889. Manon Lescaut established his credentials as, in George Bernard Shaw’s words, “the heir of Verdi.” It’s interesting that the initial critics were remarkably cool, if not downright icy, to his operas, while audiences (with the exception of those attending La Scala’s première of Madama Butterfly) loved them, and have continued to love them. Even today some critics hold their noses when confronted with his operas. A furious smoker, he developed throat cancer and died in Brussels after undergoing experimental radiation treatment. Turandot was left unfinished. But that’s another story!
GIULIO RICORDI (1840 – 1912) should also be included here. He was the grandson of Giovanni who founded the music-publishing house which was responsible for promoting the careers of Bellini, Donizetti, and, especially, Verdi. He recognized the potential of the young Puccini and insisted, against his Board’s opposition, that the company support him financially. He acted as mediator between Illica, Giacosa and Puccini: sometimes, in a letter, calming the ego of one or other them; or summoning all three to a meeting in Milan to iron out their differences. Many were the differences and much the calming that was required!