Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (1904) was a notorious failure at its world premiere: condemned by Italian critics for its “decorative” surfaces and apparent repetition of earlier Puccinian tropes. The first of the composer’s two operas based on works by American playwright David Belasco, the opera was soon revised and received its belated New York Metropolitan Opera premiere in 1907 as part of a festival of the composer’s works organized in his presence. The decision to visit New York was timely: not only had Belasco’s source play been premiered there in 1900, but New York was by then emerging as the global center of the operatic gramophone industry, with recordings of Puccini’s works made in Camden, New Jersey, frequently featuring performers from the Metropolitan Opera. This development echoed wider operatic power shifts between Italy and the United States at this time, which informed evolving attitudes to new sound reproduction technology on both sides of the Atlantic.
This article re-examines Madama Butterfly from the perspective of Puccini’s 1907 tour. In particular, it focuses on the composer’s interactions with the U.S. gramophone industry during and before his New York visit, examining them in relation to broader questions of the Italian operatic future and ideas of Italian vocality. While Madama Butterfly has long been addressed in relation to its Orientalist depiction of Japan, reframing Puccini’s Belasco-inspired opera within this transatlantic context can illuminate the fraught cultural politics of the gramophone industry, as well as their intersection with the wider musical dramaturgy of Puccini’s opera. Ultimately, I argue, Madama Butterfly emerges as a vital document of a changing auditory culture ca. 1900, as well as of an ambivalent colonial imagination.