It is a dramatic masterpiece and a key component of the core repertoire of any opera house, but Madama Butterfly was also a product of its time, riddled with stereotypes and racist portrayals of Asians.
So what does it mean to stage Giacomo Puccini’s 1904 classic in 2022? That’s the question the Royal Opera House set out to answer when it launched a year-long consultation on how to better respect Japanese culture in its production.
“Instead of canceling the entire show, the Royal Opera House wanted to have a dialogue with him,” said Sonoko Kamimura, a Japanese movement expert who has been working on the revival, which opens to the public on June 14.
Puccini’s story of Cio-Cio-San, a young Japanese woman who falls in love with American naval officer Pinkerton, with devastating consequences, has captivated audiences for more than a century and remains one of the most popular Italian operas. It has been performed by the Royal Opera 416 times, making it the ninth most performed work in the company’s repertoire.
ROH’s latest revival will be played by two casts, including Lianna Haroutounian and Eri Nakamura in the role of Cio-Cio-San, and Kseniia Nikolaieva and Patricia Bardon in the role of Suzuki, while Dan Ettinger will direct.
The consultation involved Covent Garden staff, academics, practitioners, artists and Asian representatives and led to changes to various aspects of the existing staging, including the use of movement and choreography.
“When I start working on a production, there is always a lot to consider: how the costume will constrain the performer and how the work can best reflect the world it represents,” said Kamimura.
“For this production, we focused on refining the pose and adjusting the placement in particular, making sure, for example, that Suzuki’s left hand always sits on top of his right; or that Cio-Cio-San’s mannerisms reflect the character’s upbringing. By making small changes to the way singers express their emotions through music, we can create something more authentic, less prone to stereotypes, and more in keeping with the historical context of the story.”
The new show revives Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier’s 2002 production, and has been put together with the help of Kamimura and other movement experts, including Etsuko Handa and June Iyeda, who worked alongside revival director Dan Dooner.
According to Kamimura, the “Japanese” movement stereotype often found in European and North American depictions of Madama Butterfly often goes hand in hand with the costumes and makeup. “It’s about staying in tune with historical contact and avoiding ‘Japanese’ tropes, which are wrong and offensive,” she said.
The Royal Opera House said its productions, artists and creative teams had a role in defining the future of opera, including what stories were told, how they were performed and who made them.
“There is more that can, and must, be done to ensure that the widest range of artists can benefit from the opportunities on our stages, but the company looks forward to building on the progress already made, working with partners and industry experts to ensure Barriers to entry are broken down, and color-conscious casting is firmly ingrained at the heart of the organization.”
Oliver Mears, the director of the Royal Opera, who led the consultation, said he wanted to “interrogate the representation of Japanese culture in the staging of this work and engage Japanese professionals and academics to help us work towards a Butterfly.” both true to the spirit of the original, and authentic in its representation of Japan.”
Other classical operas that have been revised for modern audiences
Verdi’s Othello – White singers cast as leads in Verdi’s version of Shakespeare’s classic play would traditionally “blacken” for the role. But the measure has been rejected in recent years. Keith Warner, who conducted Otello at the Royal Opera House, said: “It’s about the audience taking an imaginative leap… On top of all that, [blacking up] it so offends the black community in London and elsewhere.”
Turandot by Puccini – The opera about a barbaric Chinese princess in “old Beijing” is full of racist tropes. A Canadian Opera Company production changed the names of Ping, Pang and Pong, the three main characters, to Jim, Bob and Bill, and swapped their Chinese suits for black suits, but… wrote the daughter of one of the tenors – the characters “continued to play up stereotypes of effeminate Asian men as they strutted across the stage, giggling amongst themselves.”
Bizet’s Carmen – After more than 140 years of being stabbed on stage, the heroine of Bizet’s opera has taken revenge in a new Italian production by shooting her lover. The director of the Teatro del Maggio Musicale Foundation in Florence, Cristiano Chiarot, said in 2018:: “At a time when our society is having to face the murder of women, how can we dare to applaud the murder of a woman?”
The Rape of Mozart’s Seraglio – Mozart’s comedy about two European women who are kidnapped and sold to a Turkish Muslim plays on a number of Muslim stereotypes. When the Canadian Opera Company reviewed itWriter-director Wajdi Mouawad said it was not hard to see that the opera could appear “as an exercise in caricature or casual racism.” The English Traveling Opera also avoided “uncomfortable racial baggage”.