Movie-making has come a long way since then, of course, but there is one sense in which opera films retain a kinship with those early silent efforts - the singers on screen are, more often than not, miming their parts rather than singing them. The stop-start, cut-and-edit, rerun-each- scene-ad-nauseam techniques of modern-day film-making basically demand that the singers have pre-recorded their parts before they stand in front of a camera. (The warning lesson here is that of Fyodor Chaliapin, the great Russian bass who wore out his voice singing for every re-take of GW Pabst's 1933 film of Massenet's Don Quichotte.) That feeling that the singers aren't actually singing, the visible absence of any of the physical effort of vocal production, seems to minimise the voices themselves, to remove their presence - a distancing effect only emphasised by the fact that most opera films strive for a conventionally cinematic realism.
Frederic Mitterrand's new film of Puccini's Madame Butterfly doesn't wholly avoid these problems - the vocal and orchestral soundtrack was pre-recorded, and Mitterrand strives to make his sets and costumes convincingly Japanese (or as convincingly Japanese as you can manage when you choose to film in Tunisia). But there are moments when he intervenes to remind us that this is a film, not real life, nor even simply opera. In Puccini, Butterfly's wedding is interrupted by her disapproving uncle, the Bonze - a Buddhist priest who, in Mitterrand's hands, finds himself transformed into a spirit hovering in the middle air. Later, during an instrumental interlude, Mitterrand inserts scratchy silent footage of Japanese streetlife, in which kimono-clad women show their distance from Puccini's idealised Butterfly by smoking cigarettes with manic enthusiasm. These are details that don't remove the film from the mainstream of opera movies. What makes it more unusual is the performance of the 26-year-old Chinese soprano Ying Huang, who had never performed in a complete opera when, as the last of 200 candidates at audition, she landed the role of Butterfly. The results are remarkable, less for the voice, which nevertheless makes a good job of disguising that it is too small for the part, than for the singer's ability to act with a subtlety better suited to the cinema screen than conventional opera-house acting, which still retains something of the rhetorical style of silent movies.
Appropriately enough, it was seeing Francesco Rosi's film of Bizet's Carmen, and Zeffirelli's film of Verdi's La Traviata that introduced Ying Huang to opera: "I saw La Traviata at the movies, and Carmen on video, and they inspired me. It was another world: the culture, the people, the countries. It was a shock. Even though I didn't understand them very well, I was so moved by the music, and at that moment I thought I would become an opera singer, but not necessarily Western opera.
"My first voice teacher told me I was singing differently from the other children, that I had a natural bel canto voice, even though I hadn't studied it. When I was 18, I entered the Shanghai Conservatory to train as a Western- style opera singer. I spent five years there, and fortunately I got very good teaching in bel canto technique.
"My teacher studied in Paris in the late 1940s, so I was lucky - there weren't many teachers who had been in the West, and I learnt a lot about repertoire and style from him." The lessons paid off when she was sent to Paris in 1992 to take part in the 19th Concours International de Chant. She came second. Then came the auditions for Mitterrand and conductor James Conlon, current music director of the Paris Opera Bastille. Both were won over, and a new Butterfly was born, albeit one as yet unlikely to be seen on any opera stage. "I love Puccini's music," Ying Huang says, "but Madam Butterfly isn't my role - it needs a big voice. During the recording session, Maestro Conlon kept on reminding me, `Don't push the voice'. It was difficult, because the music is so emotional, and I was so involved in it. I wanted to push the voice so as to get the feeling of the role. Maybe in 20 years' time, if my voice grows, I'll see if it's possible to sing it on stage."
Inexperienced as she was as an opera singer, Ying Huang was already, to her director's surprise, a dab hand at lip-sync. "I'd had some experience in China, where I'd done TV programmes performing Chinese folk songs and some popular Western art songs - Dvorak, Mendelssohn, Strauss, Schubert. Not all Chinese directors were very strict about lip-sync, but it was good to get the experience."
There was plenty else that she had to learn about movie-making, though, and, she says, she had to learn fast. "At first, I didn't know how to communicate with the camera, or with the other singers. Of course, making a film is not going through the whole opera in one go; you're always repeating, cutting from a sad scene to the extreme opposite, or you have to repeat the sad scene, try again to get the feeling inside to express the moment, then stop, come down from that and start again. It was real torture."
Despite her talent for lip-sync, Ying Huang soon found that mime was not enough, that nothing quite works on camera like the real thing: "You don't need to sing on set," she says, "but I did, all the time, and with full voice. At the beginning, I thought I didn't need to, but when I saw the first rushes, it was just not real. There wasn't a proper fit with the acting, so I decided I had to sing. Otherwise, the emotion is different. It's like dialogue - you have to talk; and I needed to sing, to get the emotional truth.
"At the same time, you have to make adjustments when you sing with full emotion - the facial movements mustn't be too exaggerated. The director said to me, `Don't overplay'. On stage, you can exaggerate so as to show the audience, but, in a movie, the expression has to be subtle, natural. That was very good for me at this point. You shouldn't look at the camera, but you should feel it, and I quickly got the technique of communicating with the camera, as well as with the other singers."
However it was achieved, Ying Huang's performance as Butterfly is one of the more convincing of screen opera performances, even in those moments when the listener is aware that the voice isn't completely right for the role. Forget the fact that this little geisha girl is Chinese - Ying Huang brings an emotional authenticity to the part that clearly benefited from the film's authenticist aspirations in terms of ambience and decor. "What makes this different from most opera movies," she says, "is that it was not filmed in a studio. It was filmed on location, very close to Tunis, in a town called Bizerte. There they built a small Japanese village, including Butterfly's house. My kimono was an antique Japanese kimono - all the costumes were from Japan - and the furniture was authentic, whether they found it in antique markets in Paris or Japan. Even the hair designer was Japanese. It was very serious, and that made it real for me. It took two and a half hours every morning to make up, put up my hair and get the kimono right. And when you're in a real kimono, you can only sit there, so resting is difficult, and so is singing, of course."
Whether Ying Huang can avoid the fate of Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez, the unknown but extremely photogenic young black soprano who starred as Jean-Claude Beneix's Diva, strutted her brief moment on the world's operatic stage and then disappeared from view remains to be seen. Few singers of Ying Huang's age and experience get the international exposure that has come her way thanks to the film, and she is making the most of her successes, which include learning English very quickly: "People tell me I'm an elegant vagabond. Vagabond - that's a good a good word, isn't it?"
Mozart and Handel are on the agenda, as is an album of medieval Chinese songs prepared for her by the New York-based Chinese composer Tan Dun. "Opera singers should extend the repertoire - audiences need new blood," she says. "I'd like to have the chance to introduce more Western music to China. Like most Chinese people, my parents don't understand Western music, but they do know that it's noble and high-class." Precisely the sentiments that made cinema turn to opera in the first place.
`Madame Butterfly' is at the Barbican Cinema, London EC1 (0171-382 7000) from 20 June to 10 July. The soundtrack CD and Ying Huang's recital of bel canto arias are both available on Sony