Puccini’s Madama Butterfly may 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 Japan by 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 wrong on February 17, 1904, but the critics were certainly miffed at having been barred from the traditional ‘open rehearsal’. First of all, some in the audience thought they detected Puccini reusing a theme from a previous work – not acceptable to the average opera goer in those days. “Bohème! Bohème!” they shouted, and continued to disrupt the first act with hissing. The Act I curtain fell to a mixture of boos and scattered applause.

Matters deteriorated so badly in Act II that the singers complained they could no longer hear the band. The director’s gimmicky idea to place bird whistles around the auditorium as dawn breaks on the final scene tempted some in the audience to join in making animal noises. Worst of all, at one point, Butterfly’s kimono inadvertently billowed up in front of her heralding cries of “Butterfly is pregnant!”, while one wag called out, “Ah – it’s little Toscanini”, alluding to an affair between the leading lady and the notoriously randy Italian conductor. Some say the curtain came down on total silence. Others maintain there was disdainful laughter. The following day’s headlines included “Fiasco at La Scala” and “Puccini hissed”. Some even blamed the “diabetic” (?) quality of the work on the car crash.

The composer, who called it a “lynching”, withdrew his score, even returning his fee. Convinced of its merits, however, he started on immediate revisions and on May 28, a new Butterfly took flight in Brescia. Puccini would tinker with it for years, but the final ‘Standard Version’ played the Met in February 1907 with Geraldine Farrar and Caruso as Pinkerton. The first Australian performance came three years later at Sydney’s Theatre Royal. And the Butterfly hasn’t looked back since.