During a visit to London in 1900 to oversee the first production there of his latest hit opera, "Tosca," Giacomo Puccini attended a play called "Madame Butterfly."
The composer knew hardly any English, but found himself caught up in the drama of a young geisha who, deserted by an American naval officer in Nagasaki, commits suicide. The idea for another opera was born.
Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" is all about a collision of cultures, starting with the title, which combines Italian and English. Productions of the work usually involve a mix, too, since they most typically feature Western singers who must try to capture the many nuances of the opera's Japanese characters.
That won't be necessary for two stars of Lyric Opera Baltimore's "Madama Butterfly" this week at the Modell-Lyric Performing Arts Center (the company's only scheduled production this season).
The title role and that of the tragic heroine's loyal servant will be sung by Japanese artists — Kyoto-born soprano Asako Tamura as Butterfly and Osaka-born mezzo-soprano Mika Shigematsu as Suzuki, roles they have performed in this country and abroad.
The former Baltimore Opera Company offered 11 productions of the work between 1953 and its final year, 2008; only one, in 1991, featured a Japanese singer as Butterfly (the late Yoko Watanabe). A look through the archives indicates no Japanese artist as Suzuki.
Tamura and Shigematsu, who have known each other for a decade (they both ended up living in New York) but have never shared a stage until now, bring to "Madama Butterfly" an innate understanding of traditional Japanese customs and movements. They also have a heightened sensitivity to the opera's historic roots.
"The story could have happened. Girls like Butterfly existed then [the opera is set in the early 1900s]. They would get 'married' for one month, two months," Tamura says.
Adds Shigematsu: "It was a business, really. For Butterfly's colleagues, this kind of marriage is silly; they don't take it seriously. But she does. She is a really special person."
In the opera, 15-year-old Butterfly agrees to wed a visiting U.S. Navy lieutenant, Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, who is out for a lark, but becomes enraptured by the girl. When his ship leaves Japan, a pregnant Butterfly is convinced that Pinkerton will return, will never stop loving her. He does come back, but with an American wife who wants custody of the child.
"Butterfly is the daughter of a samurai, which is a really, really important point," Shigematsu says. "She has to consider her honor and her pride. If Butterfly stayed in Nagasaki, she would be homeless or a prostitute. She would have no honor. If it was me, I would keep the child and hope that things would be all right."
"I don't get why Butterfly has to give up her child," the soprano says. "She believes it is the better choice, but I don't. As the mother of a young child, I know I would never do that. But I understand how Butterfly always knew she would have to die."
That self-sacrifice clearly touched a nerve in Puccini, who felt he had written his "most heartfelt and expressive opera" to date. The first audience to hear it thought otherwise.
The 1904 premiere at Milan's La Scala was one of opera history's most notorious fiascoes. One witness described a steady progression of "growls, shouts, groans, laughter and giggling" in the house.
But that was mild compared with what happened when the audience heard the artificial bird calls accompanying the music for the break-of-dawn scene in the last part of the opera. The audience took that as a cue to emit their own assortment of barnyard noises.
"Madama Butterfly" was promptly withdrawn. Puccini made some revisions to the piece and, three months later, the opera returned to the stage, this time at a theater in Brescia. The success was instant and, to this day, unstoppable.
The composer and his librettists had no firsthand knowledge of Japan, but they did their homework.
"I am always amazed how Puccini was able to dig down deep into the Japanese mentality," Tamura says.
"And he took a little bit of authentic Japanese melodies, which are amazingly mixed into the score," Shigematsu says.
Still, there is no mistaking this for anything other than an Italian opera, mined from the same richly lyrical vein that fueled "Tosca" or Puccini's other massive hit, "La Boheme."
"The opera is a nice mix of Italian temperament and Japanese traditions, but the emotions are sometimes too strong to be Japanese," Tamura says. "The way Butterfly expresses the love she has for Pinkerton and they way she believes he is coming back would be different for a geisha."
Both singers find their roles challenging physically, vocally and mentally, given the intensity of Butterfly's longing and Suzuki's devotion and concern.
"We shouldn't get involved in the story 100 percent, or we cannot finish the role," Tamura says.
Learning to pace a performance and inhabit a character without losing control is just part of being an opera singer, a profession these two artists were drawn to at an early age.
Tamura began piano lessons at 4 ("My mother forced me; she was a tiger mom"), but dreams of being a concert pianist began to fade when she happened upon an opera broadcast on Japanese television when she was about 15. It was Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor" starring the galvanizing Italian soprano Renata Scotto.
"I heard Scotto's voice and was just amazed," Tamura says. "I thought immediately, 'This is my world. I want to be like Renata Scotto.' I was so moved by her voice, her stage presence."
Shigematsu had a similar epiphany at 16, caused by encountering a TV broadcast of Gounod's "Faust" that also happened to star Scotto.
"It was smashing my heart," the mezzo says. "The music was going round and round in my head for a week. I was in choir in school, but I came from a very traditional Japanese family and didn't have any relationship with Western music. My family was so upset when I said I wanted to study to be an opera singer. For three months, we were fighting. But they decided to give me one chance."
That chance paid off, eventually leading Shigematsu to the San Francisco Opera's young artist program in the early 1990s. From there, her career took off. She has performed with New York City Opera, Canadian Opera Company and Seattle Opera, among many others.
Tamura's career launched a little later, after an appearance with the "Three Tenors" — Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras — at the World Cup Championship in Yokohama in 2002. Her resume includes productions at the Hungarian State Opera and Sarasota Opera, as well as performances with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Tokyo Symphony Orchestra.
Will these artists now look for chances to perform in an opera together again after Baltimore?
"She's very difficult," Tamura says with a laugh.
"She's very difficult," Shigematsu counters. She laughs, too.