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'Madame Butterfly' Turns 100

A century ago today, an abandoned young woman took the stage at La Scala in Milan, Italy, praying for her lover's return. Thus, the world was introduced to Madame Butterfly, Giacomo Puccini's most famous heroine. Her story, set in Japan around 1900, is a tragic one of innocence betrayed. But as NPR's Ketzel Levine reports, Madame Butterfly lives on through an immortal musical score.

Puccini first came across the story of Madame Butterfly in 1900, when he saw a play of the same name in London. Puccini was captivated by the sad tale of a callous American officer, B.F. Pinkerton, who marries and leaves Cio-Cio-San, a vulnerable Japanese girl, and spent four years setting it to music.

The opera, in two acts, contains a world of characters, but at its heart lays one resplendent soprano, with grit and transcendent grace -- all qualities possessed by arguably the most celebrated Butterfly of her generation, Renata Scotto. When Scotto first performed the role in the 1950s, she was barely older than the character she portrayed -- a besotted teen who leaps blindly into marriage and ends up taking her own life. Scotto says it was hard not to develop an emotional attachment to Butterfly.

"You should never be too much involved… otherwise, you suffer and you can't sing," Scotto says. "This is what happened in the very first years I sang Madame Butterfly."

It's easy to feel sympathy for Butterfly. The same cannot be said of Pinkerton, a cad of epic proportions. Acclaimed tenor Placido Domingo, who's played the role many times throughout his career, believes that after Butterfly's suicide, Pinkerton gets his own, unspoken comeuppance: "Probably after that moment, he's unhappy for the rest of his life."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ketzel Levine
NPR Senior Correspondent Ketzel Levine reports for Morning Edition.