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Cultural Collision: Puccini's 'Madame Butterfly'

In a typical opera, if there is such a thing, the lead tenor plays a good guy — a dashing, romantic hero. First he sweeps the female lead off her feet. If they're separated, he braves all manner of obstacles to be with her forever. If she dies in the end, he's probably a goner, as well, sacrificing himself for her honor.

Then, there's Puccini's Madame Butterfly. In that one, the tenor may be dashing but he's definitely no hero. In fact, he's an outright cad.

Some say the drama that inspired Madame Butterfly was based on an actual incident — if not one of many. As the story goes, a handsome naval officer was sent to a faraway, exotic land where he used his power and position to seduce and abandon a 15-year-old girl — who then committed suicide.

Theater mogul David Belasco staged a play using that basic story in New York in 1900. When it moved on to London, Giacomo Puccini was in the audience. The drama was performed in English, and Puccini didn't understand much of the dialogue. But he knew the stuff of a good opera when he saw it.

Puccini's Madame Butterfly was first seen at Milan's La Scala in 1904. It wasn't an instant hit, but Puccini reworked the score for a production in Paris two years later and it has since become one of the most popular operas of all time.

Over the years, tenor Placido Domingo has been one of the leading interpreters of Pinkerton, the opera's dastardly American naval lieutenant. But in this presentation of Butterfly Domingo takes a different role, as the conductor of a production by the Washington National Opera, where he also serves as general director. World of Opera host Lisa Simeone brings it to us from the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.