LONDON — Donned in a crisp white kimono and a sheer veil, Madama Butterfly kneels next to an American officer as they get married in a religious ceremony. The priest celebrates their wedding as guests dressed in traditional Japanese robes watch.
On the surface, there’s nothing noticeably different about the Royal Opera House’s revival of Puccini’s 2002 production of “Madama Butterfly.” Yet it’s the culmination of a year-long consultation with academics, practitioners, and professionals to remove any hint of cliché. or caricature.
Specifically, this meant removing “the extremely white makeup” the performers were previously wearing. At the turn of the 20th century, the period in which “Madama Butterfly” is set, “no one had white makeup on the street,” said Sonoko Kamimura, an expert in Japanese movement and design hired by the Royal Opera to direct the production. update. †
Ms. Kamimura did her best to eliminate other anachronistic elements such as wigs, samurai-style hairstyles and costumes.
“I really like this opera, because the music is beautiful. But then I’d also say it’s stereotypical,” she said, adding that the Royal Opera House had found a way around the problem. “Instead of canceling the show,” she said, the house had organized “a dialogue” around it that she was “very happy about.”
Since its world premiere in 1904 at La Scala in Milan, “Madama Butterfly” has been a staple of theaters around the world. First performed at Covent Garden in 1905, it is the ninth most programmed work at the Royal Opera House, having been performed over 400 times.
The portrait of a 15-year-old geisha in love, impregnated and abandoned by an American lieutenant, has become increasingly problematic in the 21st century, especially for audiences of Asian descent. Institutions like the Royal Opera House and Boston Lyric Opera are working hard to keep it up to date, in every sense of the word.
“We are all very much aware these days that opera and race have had a complicated relationship and history,” said Oliver Mears, the opera director of the Royal Opera House. “There is always a risk, when a Western opera house portrays a different culture, that it may make missteps and that the level of authenticity is not as high as it could be.”
Mr Mears said there was “certainly an enormous amount of nervousness on the part of fellow opera companies in setting up this opera at this time”, and that many were canceling or suspending their “Madama Butterfly” productions “because it feels like it too dangerous to go there.”
“We are very sorry, because ‘Madama Butterfly’ is a masterpiece,” he said. “We would much rather enter into a dialogue with these pieces than cancel them.”
A similar revision took place across the Atlantic at Boston Lyric Opera. The consultation there, the so-called Butterfly Process, will lead to a production of the opera on the Lyric stage in the autumn of 2023.
The Lyric was initially scheduled to play “Madama Butterfly” in the fall of 2020, but this was postponed for a year due to the pandemic. At the time, “there were incidents of heightened racism and violence against Asian communities across the country,” Bradley Vernatter, the Lyric’s acting general and artistic director, said in an email. After talks with artists and collaborators, production was further postponed, as it was “critical to re-examine the modern context before presenting the work,” said Mr Vernatter.
He noted that operas were not “static museum pieces,” and that shifts in society and politics affected audience reactions to operas. The Metropolitan Opera in New York, for example, performed ‘Madama Butterfly’ 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 opera version. To research Japanese music, he attended a touring Kabuki show in Milan and asked the wife of the Japanese ambassador to Italy to sing Japanese folk songs for him. Because of Puccini’s unfamiliarity with the culture, “the Japanese characters in his opera come across as caricatures,” said Mr. wetter.
Revising operas to reflect contemporary times can have its own pitfalls. In the fall of 2019, the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto released an updated performance 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 DailyExpertNews. To tone down the caricature, the director renamed the characters Jim, Bob, and Bill.
“But the characters continued to play stereotypes of effeminate Asian men as they hopped around the stage and giggled at each other,” Ms Hu wrote in the article. “Changes like this have become part of a wider trend as opera clumsily reckons with its racist and sexist past.”
“To survive, opera must face directly the depths of its racism and sexism, treating classical operas as historical artifacts rather than dynamic cultural productions,” she wrote. “Opera directors should approach the production of these classics like museum curators and professors — by educating the public on the historical context and making stereotypes visible.”
Both the chiefs of the Royal Opera House and Boston’s Lyric Opera said this was exactly what they wanted to do.
“The goal here is for everyone to participate in an art form that has traditionally not been inclusive, and to empower our communities and our audiences through the music and stories we present,” said Mr. wetter. “I believe we can do it by connecting with and listening to people from different backgrounds and life experiences, and incorporating that into our work.”