February 17: Madama Butterfly

M ButterflyIf I’ve learned anything in my years of study of the creative arts, it’s that if you are to write an opera about a romance between an American sailor and a Japanese girl, then you have to write it in Italian. Why am I mentioning this? Because today we celebrate the 110th anniversary of the premier of the opera Madama Butterfly, music by Giacomo Puccini with a libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa

The opera tells the story of an American Naval officer named Pinkerton who while staying in Japan falls in love with a 15-year old Japanese girl named Ciocio-san, nicknamed “Butterfly.” They marry, Ciocio-san is disowned by her family and shortly after the wedding Pinkerton returns to America, promising he’ll return. Later on in the opera, it is revealed that Ciocio-san has given birth to a son and is still holding out hope that her husband will return. After three years, Pinkerton does return to Japan…with his new American wife. After an extremely awkward reunion, Ciocio-san agrees to give her son to Pinkerton. Tragically, the show ends with Ciocio-san killing herself.

Madama Butterfly premiered at Milan’s famed opera house La Scala on February 17, 1904 where it was an instant failure. Yes, Puccini’s now much beloved opera was not particularly well received upon its premier. There were a couple of problems with the show: The first being that Puccini completed the score later than initially planned. This of course meant that the cast of the inaugural production did not get much time to rehearse. The other problem was that the second act was too long. So, Puccini withdrew the opera and began to rewrite the opera and amongst other changes split the second act into two acts. This version was met with much better reviews, but over the next three years, Puccini would continue to tinker with the show until he settled on a fifth draft which has now become the “standard” version of Madama Butterfly that is still performed around the world.

According to Operabase, an online opera database, 418 different productions of Madama Butterfly have been staged in the last 110 years, making it the sixth most frequently performed opera of all time. Additionally, the opera has been adapted in many different media. There have been films based on Madama Butterfly including silents, straight drama (with Puccini’s score used on the soundtrack) and full filmed versions of the opera. Two different plays have drawn inspiration from Madama Butterfly: David Henry Hwang’s fact based drama M. Butterfly and  Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil & Richard Maltby, Jr.’s Vietnam War set musical Miss Saigon. Butterfly‘s influence has even spread to pop music with Weezer’s album Pinkerton being partially inspired by the opera.

Of course, the opera’s legacy has spread to the cocktail scene. Madame Butterfly is a sweet and creamy Japanese influenced cocktail. The key ingredient in this drink is the Japanese melon liqueur Midori which is used in a quite interesting fashion.

Madame Butterfly

  • 1 ounce Passoã Passion Fruit Liqueur
  • 1/2 ounce Midori Melon Liqueur
  • 1/2 ounce White Crème de Cacao
  • 1 ounce pineapple juice
  • 1 ounce cream
  • 1/2 ounce Midori

Shake the Passoã, crème de cacao, pineapple juice and one half-ounce of Midori with ice and strain into a coupette glass. In a second shaker, shake the cream and the remaining Midori together with ice and then layer this mixture on top of the liquid that’s already in the glass by pouring the Midori-cream mix over the edge of a bar spoon. Garnish with a strawberry.

Tomorrow: Airmail.


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