Puccini’s initial interest in Madam Butterfly as a possible opera libretto was aroused during a visit to London in 1900. He had come to supervise the first English production of Tosca at Covent Garden. In spite of speaking no English, he attended a performance of the original play at the Duke of York theatre. The American author, David Belasco, had based his work on a true story of a Japanese girl who had had a child by a wealthy English merchant and attempted hara-kiri after he deserted her.

By all accounts, the maestro was so profoundly moved by the tragic fate of the heroine and so fascinated by the exotic setting that he instructed his publisher, Ricordi, to enquire about the rights to the play. He then met the celebrated Japanese actress Sada Jacco to gain a first-hand impression of the timbre and range of the female Japanese voice. He also consulted the wife of the Japanese ambassador to Italy who had known of the actual incident with the little geisha. Considerable time and effort went into listening to gramophone records of Japanese music and to reading books on customs, religious ceremonies and architecture.

Puccini had never been so confident of the success of an opera as he was of Butterfly. But the opening night at La Scala in 1904 was an even greater fiasco than the premières of La traviata in Venice or Carmen in Paris. The opera was immediately withdrawn and replaced by Faust.

There is little doubt that the débâcle was engineered by Puccini’s antagonists, but the work itself was clearly a contributing factor. The original version was divided into two acts with a prologue and the excessive length of the first half seems to have exceeded the stamina of the Milanese audience. Tito Rocordi’s production aroused the mirth of the spectators when a whole chorus of twittering birds accompanied the break of dawn at the beginning of the third act. Then there was the character of Pinkerton and his American wife Kate. Both were portrayed as unsympathetic and arrogantly rude and patronising towards the Japanese. In addition to Pinkerton’s insensitivity is the cowardly way he expects Sharpless to do his dirty work for him. The revised edition three months later in Brescia attempted to rectify this impression. The work was divided into three acts and offensive references to the customs and appearance of the Japanese were cut. Pinkerton was given an aria in the last act which gives him an opportunity to express his remorse for his behaviour.