P uccini’s Madama Butterflymay be box-office gold these days, but it wasn’t always the hit you might imagine. In fact, the 1904 La Scala premiere turned out to be one of opera’s most notorious fiascos.

It was while on holiday in London in 1900 that the composer caught a performance of Madame Butterfly: A Tragedy of Japanby the American writer David Belasco. According to the playwright, Puccini dashed backstage after the performance in tears, begging for the operatic rights.

A year later, he set to work. With hindsight, there were omens. Two months before opening, Puccini had been involved in a nasty road accident that saw him trapped under a car. More importantly, the singers had only received the printer’s proofs a few pages at a time, while the publisher, Ricordi, determined to enforce the strictest secrecy, had refused to allow anyone to take their parts out of the theatre. Nevertheless, the composer felt optimistic enough about the La Scala premiere to do something he rarely ever did and invite his family along. Big mistake…

It’s hard to be certain what exactly went...

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