29 March 2017 at 10.20am | 3 Comments
For a work so synonymous with sound, it's perhaps ironic that the first adaptation of Madama Butterfly after the 1904 premiere of Puccini's opera was a silent film. All hand-cranked charm and overblown gestures, Sidney Olcott's 1915 film starred 'Queen of the Movies' Mary Pickford, who despite a series of tempestuous bust-ups with the director and a remarkably ropey wig, made a 'winsome' Cio-Cio San according to the New York Times' opening night review.
In the hundred years since, Puccini's opera which tells the story of a young Geisha's doomed marriage to US naval officer Lieutenant Pinkerton has influenced dozens of works across the arts.
Not a million miles from the opera world in the world of musical theatre, perhaps the best known of all adaptations of Madama Butterfly is Boublil and Schönberg's musical Miss Saigon, which swaps the original's setting of Nagasaki Bay for the dying days of the Vietnam War. The adaptation has its genesis when Schönberg came across a photograph in a magazine of a Vietnamese woman saying farewell to her child at Saigon airport, so that child could have a better life with her G.I. father in America. 'It sounded to us like the ultimate sacrifice and a wonderful subject for an operatic story', recalled Boublil later, telling of how the duo's thoughts immediately turned to Puccini's opera. 'We saw how this could be related to Madama Butterfly, but we wanted it to be as far away from that opera as West Side Story is from Romeo and Juliet'.
While opera audiences are used to hearing Butterfly's themes articulated through lyrical coloratura and shimmering strings, rock fans' frame of reference is more likely to include squalls of guitar feedback. In 1996, indie rock band Weezer released Pinkerton, which lyrically drew parallels between the life of a touring rock musician, and Cio-Cio San's absent husband. Like Madama Butterfly, Pinkerton views Japan from the perspective of an outsider who considers the country's culture as fragile and exotic. As if to ram home the point, the album's liner insert quotes lyrics from Puccini's opera in the original Italian: 'Everywhere in the world, the roving Yankee takes his pleasure and his profit, indifferent to all risks. He drops anchor at random...'
Weezer aren't the first pop act to be seduced by Butterfly. Sex Pistols impresario Malcolm McLaren swapped punk rock for opera-influenced electronica in the mid-80s with the single 'Madame Butterfly'. The synth-heavy track sampled Cio-Cio-San's iconic aria 'Un bel dì vedremo' and while to modern tastes, the track may appear saccharine sweet (thanks in part to McLaren's twang-inflected narration as Pinkerton), contemporary pop fans lapped it up – the track was a top 20 hit in both the UK and the USA.
Even the world of comic books (or, graphic novels if you prefer) hasn't been immune to Butterfly fever. As well as Japanese manga adaptation Mademoiselle Butterfly, the story of weekly Spanish language comic El pecado de Oyuki also bears a very similar resemblance to Puccini's opera, but with the original's Stateside antagonist swapped for the son of a British diplomat. In a softening of the opera's ending however, our heroine (Oyuki) lives to a ripe old age, dying of natural causes. The comic, in turn, spawned a Mexican TV adaptation which has gone on to be one of the country's most exported series ever.
'The main reason for the opera's influence is because it is a classic tragedy', says soprano Ermonela Jaho, currently singing the title role in The Royal Opera's production at Covent Garden. 'The story draws us in because it blends all that life offers us: lust for love, blind love, [the need to] believe in ourselves [and the notions of] sacrifice and an honourable death. We see our own life in Butterfly's'.
But perhaps the last word should go to the opera's composer. When asked what makes Madama Butterfly such an emotionally resonant and influential piece, Puccini simply replied: 'Great griefs in small souls... not too much psychology but sympathetic understanding of human grief. To make the world weep – therein lies everything'.
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