Reimagining ‘Madame Butterfly,’ With Asian Creators at the Helm

The lights in the auditorium dimmed, and the cast and crew of the new Cincinnati Opera rendition of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly anxiously took their place.

The team of mostly Asian and Asian-American artists has spent months reimagining classic opera and challenging stereotypes about women and Japanese culture. They updated the look of the opera with costumes and sets that were partially anime-inspired, removed historical inaccuracies from the libretto, and reworked much of the production as a video game fantasy.They met at Cincinnati Music Hall one evening last week to fine-tune their production. before opening last Saturday.

“It feels like a bit of a grand experiment,” said production director Matthew Ozawa, who has a Japanese father and a white mother. “It’s very emotional.”

Premiered in 1904, “Madame Butterfly” (set around that time) tells the story of a lovestruck 15-year-old geisha in Nagasaki who is abandoned after being impregnated by a U.S. Navy lieutenant. The opera has long been criticized for portraying Asian women as exotic and submissive, with some of the productions coming under fire for its use of exaggerated makeup and stereotypical costumes.

After years of pressure from artists and activists and a growing awareness of anti-Asian hatred, many companies are now remaking opera and giving Asian artists a central role in reconstructing its message and story. In this milestone year, directors with Asian roots are leading four major films in the United States.

San Francisco Opera recently staged Directed by Amon Miyamoto, this version explored the suffering and discrimination experienced by biracial characters. The stage for the Boston Lyric Opera is future production In the 1940s, he attended a concentration camp at a nightclub in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

new orleans opera In recent works, he rewrote the traditional ending to give the title character more subjectivity. Instead of committing suicide, she threw down the dagger she had handed to her, picked up her son and rushed off stage.

The Cincinnati opera begins in the apartment of a lonely white man in his twenties who adores Japanese video games. Overture begins with him assuming the role of American Lieutenant BF Pinkerton, donning a virtual reality headset and entering a fantasy about Japan.

“We decided to honor the fact that this is a white male fantasy, a cultural fantasy, and a female fantasy.,” Mr Ozawa said.

At times, the fantasy breaks down and the characters freeze, such as Pinkerton saying offensive things or the chorus making stereotypical gestures. “We look at these moments that reflect what tradition is usually like and erase it,” Ozawa said.

The review of “Madame Butterfly” comes at a time when cultural institutions face pressure to give greater prominence to musicians, dancers, choreographers and composers of color in a broader debate about racism.

The rethinking movement has spread beyond the United States, with the Royal Opera House recently revamping its production of “Madame Butterfly,” removing elements such as white make-up, wigs and samurai hairstyles.

While the change has alienated some traditionalists, the artists involved in the new work say they want it to be accessible to a wider audience while maintaining the spirit of Puccini’s work.

Phil Chan, a Boston director who has spearheaded efforts to challenge stereotypes in opera and ballet, said he wanted to make familiar stories more authentic and real. The creative team in Boston has Asia Opera Alliancewas established in 2021 with the aim of bringing more racial diversity to the field.

“Some people might worry that we’re messing with a masterpiece,” said Zhang, whose father is Chinese and whose mother is white. “But we see this as an opportunity to make the work bigger and resonate with more people.”

While reimagining “Butterfly,” the Asian artists are helping each other, exchanging ideas, and encouraging each other.

New Orleans director Aria Umezawa was heartbroken when she found a photo of a white choir in over-the-top make-up and costume in the old Canadian film Madame Butterfly. She found Ozawa.

“Talking to colleagues is always really helpful,” Umezawa said. “To hear their concerns and understand the nuances and shades of gray that exist between different elements of our community.

The experience of remaking “Madame Butterfly” was liberating for many artists, but the public reaction was mixed.

In New Orleans, many praised Umezawa’s direction, saying it was refreshing to have a strong woman at the center of an opera. However, some people criticized the ending.

“Not letting her die took away the pathos of the story,” wrote an opera-goer in response to the troupe’s questionnaire. “We don’t need enhanced butterflies. What lessons can we learn from butterflies riding horses into the setting sun?”

Umezawa said he sometimes felt constrained by Puccini’s vision. “In the end, no matter what I do, it’s still Puccini’s music, his best guess at Japanese culture,” she said.

When she conducts a production of “Butterfly” in Philadelphia next year, she said she wants to experiment further, including incorporating drums into the orchestra.

The focus on Madama Butterfly helps shed light on the shortage of opera artists in Asia. Although Asian singers make up a large proportion of conservatory vocal programs, they are still grossly underrepresented in leading positions, stage directors and other leadership positions in major opera companies.

There were few performances in Cincinnati, which ends on Saturday. In 2020, Ozawa withdrew plans to direct a traditional version of “Madame Butterfly” at the Opera House, concerned that it would not be true to his artistic mission.

But the company’s artistic director, Evans Millergias, was persistent and agreed to support Ozawa’s vision for a reimagined work. The idea has been endorsed by several co-producers, including Detroit Opera, Pittsburgh Opera and Utah Opera, and will be staged in Cincinnati in the coming years.

Mirage said the surge in violence and harassment against Asians in recent years has made it increasingly difficult to ignore the issue of “Madame Butterfly.” “This is the piece that just found its moment,” he said.

At Ozawa’s request, the Cincinnati Opera hired three women of Japanese descent, Maiko Matsushima, Yuki Rink Nakase, and Kimie Nishikawa, to direct the costumes, lighting, and scenery.

The cast and crew were almost all Asian, which brought a sense of camaraderie to the production.

“We know each other’s stories and cultures, so we understand each other easily,” said South Korean soprano Kara Song, who sings the title role. She recalled that she knew what Ozawa wanted so she could master the geisha dance quickly.

The conductor of this work, Keitaro Harada, used the Japanese phrase “Aun no Kokyu” to express the sense of harmony in order to express its dynamism.

“We understand each other in a very natural way,” said Harada, who was born in Japan. “We know what everyone is thinking.”

Ozawa said she feels obligated to appear in “Madame Butterfly” because she is of Japanese descent, even though the job may be uncomfortable. Early in his career, he recalled, while working on a production, his white colleagues would sometimes squint, bow to him, or greet him with “Konnichiha.”

He said he was worried that if his work did not succeed, he would disappoint Japanese society. But his fears were put to rest on opening night when the Cincinnati Music Hall erupted with cheers after the final curtain fell.

“We owe this work, Butterfly, and the Asian community an immense obligation,” he said. “There may be some discomfort in our story, but change will only come when there is discomfort.”

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