It’s a dramatic masterpiece and a key part of any opera’s core repertoire – but Madama Butterfly was also a product of its time, riddled with stereotypes and racist portrayals of Asian people.
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.
“Rather than canceling the whole show, the Royal Opera House wanted to engage with him,” said Sonoko Kamimura, a Japanese movement expert who has worked on the revival, which will open to the public on June 14.
Puccini’s story of Cio-Cio-San, a young Japanese girl who falls in love with American naval officer Pinkerton – with devastating consequences – has captivated audiences for over a century and remains one of Italy’s most iconic operas. more popular. It has been performed by the Royal Opera 416 times, making it the ninth most performed work in the company’s repertoire.
The latest ROH revival will star two actors, including Lianna Haroutounian and Eri Nakamura as Cio-Cio-San, and Kseniia Nikolaieva and Patricia Bardon as Suzuki, while Dan Ettinger will direct.
The consultation involved Covent Garden staff, academics, practitioners, performers and Asian representatives and led to changes in several aspects of the existing staging – including the use of movement and choreography.
“When I start working on a production, there’s always a lot to consider: how the costumes will limit the performer and how the work can better reflect the world it represents,” Kamimura said.
“For this production, we focused on refining the posture and adjusting the placement in particular – ensuring, for example, that Suzuki’s left hand always sits above his right; or that Cio-Cio-San’s gestures reflect the character’s upbringing. By making tiny changes to the way singers express their emotions through music, we can create something that’s more authentic, less prone to stereotypes, and more in tune with the historical context of the story.
The new show revives the 2002 production by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier and was put together with the help of Kamimura and other movement experts, including Etsuko Handa and June Iyeda, who worked alongside the director of Dan Dooner revival.
According to Kamimura, the stereotypical “Japanese” movement often found in European and North American performances of Madama Butterfly often goes hand in hand with the costume and makeup. “It’s about being attuned to historical contact and avoiding ‘Japanese’ tropes, which are incorrect and offensive,” she said.
The Royal Opera House said its productions, performers and creative teams had a role to play in shaping the future of opera, including what stories were told, how they were performed and who had to do 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 society is eager to build on the progress already made, working with partners and industry experts to ensure barriers to entry are knocked down and the color-conscious cast is firmly anchored at the heart of the organization.
Oliver Mears, the director of the Royal Opera, who led the consultation, said he wanted to “question the representation of Japanese culture in the staging of this work and involve Japanese practitioners and scholars to help us work towards a butterfly that is both faithful to the spirit of the original, and authentic in its representation of Japan”.
Other classic operas that have been revised for modern audiences
Verdi’s Otello – White singers chosen to play the lead role in Verdi’s version of Shakespeare’s classic play would traditionally be “black” for the part. But this decision 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] is so offensive to the black community in London and beyond.
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 costumes for black ones, but – wrote the daughter of the one of the tenors – the characters “continued to play into stereotypes of effeminate Asian men as they walked around the stage, laughing at each other”.
Bizet’s Carmen – After more than 140 years of being stabbed to death on stage, the heroine of Bizet’s opera has exacted revenge in a new Italian production by killing her lover instead. The director of the Teatro del Maggio Musicale Foundation in Florence, Cristiano Chiarot, said in 2018: “At a time when our society has to deal with the murder of women, how dare we applaud the murder of a woman?
Mozart’s Abduction from the 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 it, writer and director Wajdi Mouawad said it was not difficult to watch the opera appear “as an exercise in caricature or occasional racism”. English Touring Opera also avoided “awkward racial baggage”.