Life & Culture

Boston Lyric Opera reexamines Puccini’s ‘Madama Butterfly’ through cultural discussion series

How do we deal with works of art written at a time when stereotypes of non-Western cultures were widely accepted? How do we understand them now? These are the questions that Boston Opera Lyric’s series of discussions, Operation Butterfly, seeks to address, by re-examining Puccini’s popular opera Madama Butterfly and opening a conversation about its history and legacy and how it can be interpreted today, particularly in light of the rise of anti-Asian racism around the world. . Through a series of conversations, artists, guest speakers, and the wider community examine how we can view opera from a core of law that, though we take pride in it, requires a conversation about race, while still holding artistic value or merit.

The idea for Operation Butterfly came about after BLO’s scheduled showing of “Madama Butterfly,” scheduled to open in the fall of 2020, was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was pushed into the following fall, but in early 2021, the team began “reassessing the products we’ve been showing on our stage and the stories we’ve been telling,” Bradley Vernatter, acting Stanford Calderwood general manager and artistic director, said. He added that as these explorations continued, “we realized we were not in a position to make a respectable production of ‘Butterfly’ this fall.” Instead, they decided to put together a series that would deal with challenges people have faced with their traditions, with discussions beginning in December 2021 and ending in May 2022. Phil Chan, Director of Conversations, Co-Founder and Author of Yellowface’s Ultimate Arc, said he wished A re-imagining of “Madama Butterfly” productions, not a cancellation.

“If you think of works in the performing arts as living rituals that we do, as opposed to static art, such as a movie or a statue or a painting, those things capture the zeitgeist of the moment.”

Phil Chan

“Our approach says a lot, that works like ‘Madama Butterfly’ are beautiful… they can bring in a new audience, and there’s some amazing work out there,” Chan said. But there are some problematic elements for them. So what do we do, to keep it fresh, to keep it alive? If you think of works in the performing arts as living rituals that we do, as opposed to static art, such as a movie, a statue, or a painting, these things capture the zeitgeist of the moment. You can’t put a mustache on the Mona Lisa. But every time we decide to do “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” we say it a little differently. Different parts resonate at different moments.”

Featured in the first conversation was guest Kunio Hara, a professor at the University of South Carolina, whose interests include the Puccini opera. During the discussion, speakers addressed the caricatures and depictions of geisha in Madama Butterfly, suggesting that some of these representations may have resulted from Western concern about Japan’s emergence as a military power. Wernatter later said that even during World War II, production of the “Madama Butterfly” in the United States was canceled because it painted a “too sympathetic” portrait of the Japanese people. Zach Boreshevsky, who intended to play Pinkerton in an unrealized BLO performance, said earlier versions of the opera presented the naval officer as racist, a portrayal that belittles the Butterfly Agency, or Cio-Cio-San, seeing her fall in love with him.

Screenshot of the first installment of Operation Butterfly. (courtesy of Boston Lyric Opera)

What Vernatter sees as a more empowering representation of Cio-Cio-San can be found in productions committed to the title character’s journey, with which listeners and spectators have bonded over the years.

“The piece really does explore the depths of emotion for this character. It focuses on Cio-Cio-San. It really is her story,” Wernather said. “It beautifully and powerfully explores this whole range of feelings for this woman. His production has fallen victim to some metaphors, to stereotypes, but this is not the essence of the work. It’s Butterfly’s emotional experience that captivates us as an audience.”

Nina Yoshida Nielsen is a miso-soprano character who was originally supposed to play Suzuki, Cio-Cio-San’s maid and friend. For her, she said, caricatures seen throughout history of how Japanese women act and act have led to incidents of hate and violence, noting recent cases in the United States. While “Madama Butterfly” has a history of contributing to negative perceptions of Asian women, it remains popular because of the beauty of its music, the passion of its main character and, ultimately, the sacrifice it makes. In order to produce stories like “Madama Butterfly” more sensitively, Nielsen said, we need to get to their emotional core.

“I think the most important thing is that we’re playing real relationships, real people, real human emotions and feelings.”

Nina Yoshida Nielsen

“We go back to telling the story of humanity. It is a human story, not a cultural one,” she said. “For me, this is the first step in producing this opera more responsibly. …I think the most important thing is that we play real relationships, real people, real human emotions and feelings.”

The next talk, to be held on January 18, will focus on “Orientalism and Cultural Appropriation,” exploring how Orientalism has influenced Western European art and “reinforcing the specific and parochial attitudes of AAPI peoples and cultures.” Another discussion, in February, will focus on the artists’ experiences, while the topic of BLO’s conversation on March 8 will highlight “the symbolism and patterns of indigenous women.” The April 5 committee will break up the casting, and at the end of May there will be a public and in-person town hall to discuss what was learned during Operation Butterfly.

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