How Puccini’s Madam Butterfly catapulted Pavarotti to stardom

When Pavarotti was booked to perform in Puccini's Madam Butterfly in Belfast he wouldn't have known how pivotal his performance would be...

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On the evening of Tuesday 7 May, 1963, an enthusiastic crowd of opera lovers filed into the Grand Opera House in Belfast, Northern Ireland, for a production of Puccini’s Madam Butterfly. In the wings, nervously waiting to make his UK debut as a professional singer, was an unknown young Italian tenor. His name? Luciano Pavarotti.

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When did Luciano Pavarotti start performing?

Pavarotti had sung in the UK before, though not as an operatic soloist. Eight years previously, aged just 19, he had travelled to Wales with the Corale Rossini, a male voice choir from his hometown of Modena, to compete at the Eisteddfod in Llangollen. The choir won first prize in its category, and their success fired Luciano with a desire to launch his own career in music.

Eight years of patient training in his native Italy followed, with Pavarotti working as a teacher and insurance salesman to pay the bills. Then bookings started coming – Puccini’s La bohème in Reggio Emilia, Verdi’s La traviata in Belgrade, a Vienna State Opera debut – and the stage was set for Pavarotti to begin looking beyond continental Europe for further opportunities and experiences. The Belfast Butterfly was the first of these, and it proved crucially important.

How did Pavarotti end up performing in Belfast?

Alerted by the buzz about his voice coming from Italy, the Grand Opera Society of Northern Ireland had booked Pavarotti to sing the part of the caddish American lieutenant BF Pinkerton. The Society was by no means a fully-fledged operatic company. Formed six years previously, its ‘Grand Opera Weeks’ mixed local singers with more experienced soloists from abroad, adding heft in key roles and a whiff of international sophistication. To pay the soloists, fund-raising events were organised, and in 1963 the Society took a punt on Pavarotti’s as yet unproved Pinkerton, hoping that the gamble would prove a good one.

How was Pavarotti received?

It was, as from the outset the strapping young Italian made a positive impression. ‘He was like a big rugby player,’ recalled local soprano Margaret Smyth, who played Pinkerton’s American wife Kate. ‘A very pleasant person and easy to work with.’ Another cast member, Nan Murray, was equally impressed: ‘The voice just blew you away, it really did. It just soared.’

Pavarotti ‘wasn’t a wonderful actor’, Smyth added – a complaint that dogged him throughout his career – but for the Belfast audience it didn’t matter. ‘On the first night people heard this magnificent voice, and the place just erupted,’ Murray remembered. ‘The audience became very animated and were clapping and whistling when he came on for his curtain call.’

The rest is, as they say, history. Within months Pavarotti was making his Covent Garden debut in La bohème, replacing an indisposed Giuseppe Di Stefano. Engagements at Glyndebourne and La Scala followed, and in 1965 he toured Australia with soprano Joan Sutherland, a partnership immortalised in the many classic recordings they went on to make together. The path to operatic superstardom was well and truly established.

It was 36 years before Pavarotti sang in Belfast again, in an open-air concert at Parliament Buildings, Stormont. The city had not forgotten him. A sold-out crowd of 11,000 attended, and a few years later the Grand Opera House named its café Luciano’s in his honour.

Pavarotti himself remembered the Belfast Butterfly fondly, and knew that it was pivotal in his professional development. ‘I was appearing with a Japanese soprano who said I was singing too loud,’ he commented. ‘I ignored her. I knew I was making a big impression in Belfast and it was at the Opera House that my career really took off.’ 

We named Pavarotti one of the greatest tenors of all time

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Top image by Decca