‘Butterfly'--Why It Still Flies : Opera: Timeless themes of passion and sacrifice have inspired many variations on Puccini’s work. Music Center Opera’s new, re-conceived production opens tonight.


When David Henry Hwang sat down to write his Tony-winning play “M. Butterfly” a few years ago, he wasn’t yet familiar with the Puccini opera “Madama Butterfly” that lies at its core.

“If anything,” says the playwright, “I knew it as a cultural stereotype--she’s doing a Butterfly, a submissive Oriental number.” But Butterfly is hardly submissive in Hwang’s play, nor in the Music Center Opera’s new production of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” opening tonight with Maria Ewing as Cio-Cio San (Butterfly) and Placido Domingo (tonight only) as naval officer B.F. Pinkerton.

Ewing’s Butterfly is no “flirtatious geisha”; she is a strong heroine, says the opera’s director, Ian Judge. “If Butterfly is allowed all the passion of Puccini’s music, it’s the people around her who become victims.”

Judge began re-thinking the title role when he was here directing Puccini’s “Tosca” for the Music Center Opera’s 1989-90 season. “I’d been deeply troubled by ‘Butterfly.’ I loved what it was about dramatically and musically, but I somehow remained unmoved at a recent production. I couldn’t work out what it was; then I realized the whole conception of Butterfly as a victim was somehow too sentimental. When I started to study the music, it hit me.


“She’s a creature of enormous strength. It was what I had been missing. Anyone who can stand all night waiting for someone to arrive, renounce her entire family and reject her religion is a woman of strength. This was the clue to solving my dilemma.”

Both Judge and conductor Randall Behr were also influenced by the casting of Ewing as Butterfly. “Maria is an astonishingly strong actress,” Behr says. “We saw the determination, the steel . . . she presented it from her first moment of rehearsal.”

Remember passion, Judge says. “Operas are about love and death, and we seem to like it most when they do both at the same time,” he says. “The 19th Century had a complete understanding of romance: It was white hot and intense. I think it lost its currency and we have to try to find it and reacquaint ourselves with that.”

Hwang calls the plot “the mother of most East-West (theatrical) romances that have come since. . . . We have the story of an Asian woman who falls for a Western man and suffers for that devotion. Usually the Asian woman dies, and the Western man survives sadder but wiser and returns to his own world.”


Hwang rewrote her fate in “M. Butterfly,” his powerful commentary on East-West and male-female relationships. But the legend re-emerges virtually intact in the blockbuster musical “Miss Saigon,” where it is retold as the story of a Vietnamese bar girl and a U.S. soldier. “Miss Saigon” was inspired by both the Butterfly legend and a newspaper photo its creators saw of a Vietnamese woman trying to give her baby to a U.S. pilot.

“Miss Saigon” co-creator Alain Boublil has acknowledged the influence of Pierre Loti’s autobiographical novel “Madame Chrysantheme,” which may indirectly have also inspired Puccini. French naval officer Loti’s 1887 book about his own experiences with a geisha probably influenced writer John Luther Long, whose story in Century magazine in 1898 led to David Belasco’s play, “Madame Butterfly.” Puccini saw the Belasco play in London, then rushed backstage to negotiate operatic rights.

Puccini once said he favored Cio-Cio San over all his other heroines, and according to biographer George Marek, even La Scala stagehands had tears in their eyes during initial rehearsals. Yet its first audience and critics so damned “Butterfly” when it opened in Milan in February, 1904, that Puccini withdrew it after one performance. Then, three months later, a revised “Butterfly” opened in Brescia, Italy, to standing ovations and, writes Marek, “within a few years it rivaled ‘Boheme’ in popularity.”

Now comes this new production from Music Center Opera. While the action takes place on one simple set, that set is clearly rooted in Japanese soil, and the opera has not been updated. “Puccini had conceived the place and time very carefully,” says Peter Hemmings, Music Center Opera general director. “He was a master of theater himself.”


Hwang, in turn, says he grew fond of the opera even while he was “attempting to deconstruct it. Ultimately, most creative works have to be taken in the context of their times, and while I think there are many things that reinforce racist stereotypes, at the time Puccini wrote it, I don’t think that was what he was trying to do.

“I’m not in favor of altering classical works to make them more politically correct. But we approach things with a different perspective now than we did then, and things that are progressive in one era often calcify and become reactionary in another. That doesn’t deny the artistic merit of the work, but it means we have to listen to things with our heads as well as our hearts.”