Butterflies in the District

Over the weekend, I discovered a new connection between butterflies and the District – in addition to the Butterfly Pavilion at the Natural History Museum.

I was at a matinee of the opera Madama Butterfly on Sunday, performed by the Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center.

An original poster from an early production of Madama Butterfly.
An original poster from an early production of Madama Butterfly.

The performance was great, and it made me nostalgic for the couple of years I spent living in Japan. It’s set in the city of Nagasaki, which was just a few hours away from the small town where I lived on the island of Kyushu.

I visited Nagasaki several times, including the famous Glover Garden overlooking Nagasaki Bay. It’s attached to the oldest Western house still

standing in Nagasaki, whose Scottish owner married a Japanese woman and was said to have inspired the short story Madame Butterfly. It was later turned into a play, and finally the opera by Italian composer Giacomo Puccini.

Glover House - Nagasaki Japan
The Thomas Glover House in Nagasaki, Japan.

In the gardens I remember seeing two statues – one of Puccini and the other of a Japanese opera singer famous for playing Puccini’s tragic heroine Cio-Cio-San, or Madama Butterfly.

Madama Butterfly statue in Glover Garden, Nagasaki, Japan
Madama Butterfly statue in Glover Garden, Nagasaki, Japan

I didn’t know much about the opera back then, but the connection to Nagasaki all came back to me while watching the show. What I didn’t expect to find was a connection between the opera and my other home, Washington, D.C.

Flipping through the program, I discovered that Madama Butterfly actually had its American premiere in the District in 1906 (Take that, New York!).

The opera was first performed (in English) at the Columbia Theatre near 11th and F Streets NW, before making it to the Metropolitan Opera in New York the following year.

The Columbia Theatre was an early vaudeville house in the District, and the

Puccini Statue in Glover Garden
Puccini Statue in Glover Garden.

stomping ground of many well-known performers in the early Twentieth Century, including Washington-born actress Helen Hayes. It later became a movie theater before it was torn down and replaced with a larger office building.

Readers, I haven’t found a photo of the theater yet, so please send one in if you have it.

And as far as I know, there is no monument in the District commemorating its connection to the most performed opera in the U.S., and one of the world’s enduring classics.

If you can get a ticket, you have until March 19 to see the Washington National Opera’s well-reviewed production before it takes flight.

But don’t worry too much if you miss it. Just like the cherry blossoms, you can count on it coming back another year.

Note: I wrote and posted this blog just hours before the devastating earthquake hit Japan – my thoughts go out to everyone affected by the earthquake and tsunami in a country that was once my home.

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