LONDON — Draped in a crisp white kimono and translucent veil, Madama Butterfly kneels beside an American officer as they wed in a religious ceremony. The priest celebrates their nuptials under the eyes of guests dressed in traditional Japanese robes.
At first glance, there is nothing obviously different in the royal operathe revival of his 2002 production of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly”. Yet it is the result of a year of consultations with academics, practitioners and professionals to eliminate any hint of cliché or caricature.
Concretely, this meant removing the “extremely white makeup” that the performers previously wore. In the early 20th century, the period when “Madama Butterfly” takes place, “nobody wore white makeup on the street,” said Sonoko Kamimura, an expert in Japanese movement and design who was hired by the Royal Opera to put update production. .
Ms. Kamimura made an effort to get rid of other anachronistic elements, such as wigs, hairstyles and samurai-style costumes.
“I really like this opera, because the music is beautiful. But I would also say it’s stereotypical,’ she said, adding that the Royal Opera House had found a way around the problem. “Rather than canceling the show,” she said, the house had organized “a dialogue” around which she was “really happy to be a part.”
Since its world premiere in 1904 at La Scala in Milan, “Madama Butterfly” has been a staple of theaters around the world. Premiered in Covent Garden in 1905, it is the ninth most scheduled work at the Royal Opera House, having been performed over 400 times.
His portrayal of an amorous 15-year-old geisha, who is impregnated and abandoned by an American lieutenant, has become increasingly problematic in the 21st century, especially for Asian audiences. Institutions such as the Royal Opera House and the Boston Lyric Opera are working hard to bring it up to date, in every sense of the word.
“We are all very aware these days that opera and race have had a complicated relationship and history,” said Oliver Mears, director of opera at the Royal Opera House. “There’s always a risk, when a western opera portrays a different culture, that it might take a wrong turn and the level of authenticity might not be as high as it could be.”
Mr Mears said there was “certainly a huge nervousness on the part of other opera companies to put on this opera at the moment”, and that many were canceling or suspending their “Madama Butterfly” productions “because ‘he feels like it’s too dangerous to go there.
“We think it’s a huge shame because ‘Madama Butterfly’ is a masterpiece,” he said. “We would much rather be in dialogue with these plays than cancel them.”
A similar review took place across the Atlantic at Boston Lyric Opera. The consultations there, known as the Butterfly Process, will lead to a fall 2023 production of the opera on the Boston Lyric Stage.
BLO was originally scheduled to perform “Madama Butterfly” in fall 2020, but the pandemic delayed it for a year. During this time, “there were incidents of increased racism and violence toward Asian communities across the country,” Bradley Vernatter, BLO’s acting chief executive and artistic director, said in an email. After conversations with artists and staff, production was postponed further, as it was “critical to re-examine the modern context before presenting the work”, Vernatter said.
He noted that operas were not “static museum pieces” and that changes in society and politics affected audience reactions to operas. At the Metropolitan Opera in New York, for example, “Madama Butterfly” was performed almost every season between 1907 and 1941. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the work remained off the Met stage until 1946.
Mr Vernatter explained that Puccini had never set foot in Japan when he saw David Belasco’s one-act play “Madame Butterfly: A Tragedy of Japan” and decided to write an operatic version of it. To research Japanese music, he attends a traveling Kabuki show in Milan and asks the wife of the Japanese ambassador to Italy to sing Japanese folk songs for him. Due to Puccini’s unfamiliarity with the culture, “the Japanese characters in his opera look like caricatures,” Vernatter said.
Revising operas to reflect contemporary times can have its own pitfalls. In the fall of 2019, the Canadian Opera Company of Toronto presented an update of another Puccini opera, “Turandot”, about a Chinese princess who murders her suitors.
One of the three main characters – whose names in the original libretto are Ping, Pang, and Pong – was played by a Taiwanese American tenor whose daughter Katherine Hu later wrote an op-ed in The New York Times. To tone down the cartoonishness, the director renamed the characters Jim, Bob, and Bill.
“But the characters continued to play into the stereotypes of effeminate Asian men as they walked around the stage, laughing at each other,” Ms. Hu wrote in the post. “Edits like these are now part of a larger trend as the opera awkwardly reckon with its racist and sexist past.”
“To survive, opera must confront the depths of its racism and sexism, treating classical operas as historical artifacts instead of vibrant cultural productions,” she wrote. “Opera directors should approach the production of these classics as museum curators and teachers – educating audiences about historical context and making stereotypes visible.”
The conductors of the Royal Opera House and the Boston Lyric Opera said that was exactly what they wanted to do.
“The goal here is for everyone to participate in an art form that has not traditionally been inclusive, and to strengthen our communities and audiences through the music and stories we present,” Vernatter said. “I believe we can do this by engaging and listening to people from diverse backgrounds and life experiences, and incorporating them into our work.”