Jan. 16, 2024

A Note from Maestro Patrick Summers on HGO’s Performances of Act One of Madame Butterfly

Photo credit: Lynn Lane

Madama Butterfly, or Madame Butterfly—either title is in common usage—is one of the most beautiful operatic scores imaginable, and the public’s abiding love for this opera is based as much on affection for the music as on any deep look at the events depicted. What is presented within Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, as with its sources, is a western fantasy vision of Japan, an Italian opera based on an American play based on a French short story. Its powerful emotions are very real, but it is not a historical documentary, so the opera always raises questions of what it means to be artistically “authentic.” Where does authenticity lie within such a tangled family tree of sources, none of them Japanese? Audiences all over the world have long expressed their love for this opera, complexities and all, a love that performers share—and we take our responsibilities to this opera seriously as a result.

Madame Butterfly is one of the few operas with its own audience; it has fans who wouldn’t dream of sitting down to Parsifal. (Change your mind, please! Parsifal is a once-in-a-lifetime epic operatic experience.) Though it is challenging to imagine now, looking back from our 21st Century in which it is so popular, Madame Butterfly almost didn’t survive its world premiere at Milan’s La Scala in 1904, one of the most epic failures in theatrical history. Puccini, in an unprecedented move then or now, refunded his commission money to La Scala because of Butterfly’s disastrous reception.


Puccini then set about revising Butterfly several times, and the revisions resulted in him essentially writing between four and five different operas on the subject, with music and libretto changing considerably each time. He was committed to constantly improving all of his operas, and he particularly longed for Butterfly to be successful. From the beginning, he loved his Cio-Cio-San as much as the world now does, and he wanted her—theatrically—to be vibrant and alive.


For this reason, I’ve had no second thoughts about making a further short cut (which means to remove a section of the opera) in the first act for HGO’s performances, especially in a portion where Puccini made the most changes in his various versions. Since the welcome arrival of supertitles 40 years ago, several moments in famous operas have changed considerably under the scrutiny of the public’s understanding. One of those is certainly the moment when Cio-Cio-San is asked her age following a little guessing game, to which she responds as written in the libretto: “Fifteen years—I’m already old.” The act of reading this on a title always, 100 percent of the time, draws an unwanted laugh, because the singing actress portraying Cio-Cio-San in a live performance is never going to look like a teenager to an audience accustomed to cinematic realism—but neither are actresses playing Isolde or the operatic Juliet, among many others, who are also teenage characters.


Not only does this unfortunate laugh uphold one of opera’s most unfair clichés, that singers often don’t look their roles, it also distracts us from the truly horrifying thing that is happening in the drama, something with no humor of any kind attached to it: Pinkerton is marrying a child. So, for those of you who know Butterfly well, you’ll notice that I’ve cut this section of the opera completely. And I am thrilled it is gone. The story is no less tragic if Cio-Cio-San is at least Pinkerton’s age—and the opera is no less of a searing drama without have a felony as its subject.


For purists who will believe nothing in any work of art should ever be altered, we have only to remember Puccini’s own endless tinkering with Madame Butterfly. We know Puccini wanted, more than anything, to create empathy for his characters, and we echo his love for this delicate, noble, and brave woman who follows her tragic destiny, the wonderful and fictional Cio-Cio-San, made real by the many amazing artists who have played her. Ailyn Pérez is levitating the Wortham in our rehearsals. Performing this opera with her and our wonderful cast is an incredible thrill. Don’t miss it.


Patrick Summers, Artistic and Music Director, HGO

about the author
Patrick Summers
Patrick Summers is the Artistic and Music Director, Sarah and Ernest Butler Chair, at Houston Grand Opera.