IN: Reviews

Saving Butterfly ?


Butterfly (Karen Chia-Ling Ho, center)  in BLO’s new Butterfly (Ken Yotsukura photo)

Boston Lyric Opera has premised the appropriateness of its well-sung and very-well-played current Colonial Theater production of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly on a story-changing apologia embracing many words, symposia, and discussion groups. In short, the company posits that the original libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, based on a play by David Belsasco which had been based on a short story by John Luther Long and Pierre Loti’s semi-autobiographical novel (which I recommend) “Madame Chrysanthemum,” which seemingly inspired all of the versions, traffics in unacceptable orientalism and demeans Asians. One writer even opined that it should be stricken from the canon absent modifications to the plot. Thus stage director Phil Chan “Reimagined Madame Butterfly.” While we heard 99% of the original words (I used the BLO libretto to confirm my notes and memory of text changes which are summarized HERE), the interpretation made significant departures from the story.

After an inserted prologue of two elderly women silently attending to domestic chores (we later learned that they were Cio-Cio-San and Suzuki), the action began in San Fransisco’s Shangri-La nightclub in Chinatown. After a slightly tawdry vaudeville number, a sham marriage ceremony between Butterfly and Pinkerton ensues over the objections of Uncle Bonze (not the Bonze) and some of the club employees. Butterfly and Pinkerton unexpectedly fall in love. Pinkerton leaves. FDR announces a roundup of Japanese Americans. Act Two finds Suzuki, Butterfly and Pinkerton Jr. in an Arizona internment camp. Spoiler: Butterfly’s baby dies of tuberculosis and Butterfly is given agency so that she can get over Pinkerton’s rejection and choose to live. Did Cio-Cio San have agency from the get-go? She knowingly entered into a contract to restore her wealth and that of her relatives in the standard plot. The crux of the story for me is how love transformed the contract for both signatories.

BLO often updates plots to achieve political correctness or relevance, or both…or neither. I’ll never forget its “feminist” Don Giovanni in which Donna Anna humped the Don to death. In this latest case, one wonders again whether redress was necessary or achieved. Puccini depicted Pinkerton as pleasure-seeking cad, throwing his money around, but he also imagined the Japanese as groveling for those dollars—every aunt, uncle, retainer, and geisha reached out for greenbacks. Every character, western and eastern, exhibited transactional greed. How, then, with all shown to be wanting in morality, could Puccini be said to have demeaned Asians in particular? If anything, all the Asian dramatic personae were shown to be more refined and cultured then the American navy lieutenant. Was the Japanese suicide cult insulting to Asians? Would a male hara-kiri have registered fewer enlightening objections than a female killing herself over love?

Forcibly relocating 125,000 west-coast Japanese Americans to internment camps during WWII constituted an abhorrent violation of their civil rights, but in the context of fascist ideology and of the appeal by fascist leaders to blood-and-soil identity, the concern that Japanese Americans might admire the Empire of Japan was at least understandable. Among all the horrors of war, the experience of Japanese Americans in internment camps, bitter and unjust as it was, was not driven by cruelty. By contrast, treatment of German Jews who escaped Nazi Germany only to be treated as enemy aliens in France and England and rounded up accordingly horrifies us much more.

Among all the horrors of war, the experience of Japanese Americans in camps seems relatively mild. Yes, 1,800 people died from medical problems while in the camps and about one out of every 10 of these people died of tuberculosis—the given cause of death for Cio-Cio-San’s baby in the current version. How many would have died had they remained in San Francisco’s densely populated Japantown? Why did BLO depict the Poston camp with a sharpshooter in a guard tower taking aim at Suzuki during an argument? A Wikipedia article on the Poston camp said that “the site was so remote that authorities considered building guard towers to be unnecessary.” Did the conceit lay a guilt trip on us? Would we do the same thing again if we were attacked?

Moving the action to just after Pearl Harbor vilifies rather than humanizes the then-brutal Japanese and creates even more problematical implications. In the first act, other than trading geishas’ kimonos for blousy 1940 dresses and chorus-girl bathing suits, this production hardly did away with exoticism and orientalism. And one could also wonder about some of the sanitation:  Suzuki became a Christian in this telling instead of Butterfly, the quiz about age found the chorus asking Pinkerton how old he was rather than Pinkerton asking Butterfly…probably because she admitted to being 15; Butterfly is more caught between cultures in the original, and thus her plight is more poignant; BLO cast her as a Japanese in San Francisco’s Chinatown; that’s a less dramatic premise, but it explains why the scene wasn’t set in San Francisco’s equally thriving Japantown, which was completely cleansed of its ethnic Japanese residents after Pearl Harbor.

This production hardly deracinated or disorientalized the opera as it attempted to harmonize it with current standards. It was nice to see so many Asians in the production… as it is to see them welcome in American conservatories, and I don’t mean this facetiously.

From a sideways orientation on the floor, David Angus led 56 players in a sumptuous, dramatic account of the lush, exuberantly appropriated [Is that ok?] oriental fantasy score. Instrumental solos added all the requisite color, especially the multihued percussion (timpani, cymbals, triangle, snare drum, bass drum, bells, tam-tam, Japanese gong, a set of 4-inch Japanese Bells, one keyboard glockenspiel, a “little bell,” tubular bells, and bird whistles), and concertmaster (Orchestra Leader) Annie Rabbat’s stunning tones.

The proscenium arch of the beloved Colonial Theater framed the scenes with architectural splendor and the nearly overflowing auditorium resonated just enough to support the singing and playing without muddying details. Set designer Yu Shibagaki’s nightclub, candied by an oriental gilt frame and a moon symbol barely contained a busy scene with lots of movement and color. Her much-more-detailed prison camp structures depicted the unfortunate conditions in verismo grit. (Did we really need that gunman?) Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew’s lighting seemingly read the minds of the characters as well as making clear references to the passing of the hours. She played upon the cyclorama like a color organist. Stage director Phil Chan fully realized his concept, though he did no favor to Pinkerton by aging him 20 years for the last act and keeping him in his stiff military tunic throughout the poignant last moments. Did his American wife need to be in a red dress? What were we to make of the solo dancer in the Dream Scene?

The eleven singers (six of whom had Asian-sounding names) all made strong dramatic and vocal impressions. The indefatigable soprano Karen Chia-Ling Ho not only soared over the orchestra, but she also put across a mother’s grief without allowing the child actor (a remarkably pliant and tranquil Neko Umphenour) to upstage her. She certainly received the afternoon’s biggest ovation. Alice Chung’s Suzuki developed over the course of the show and achieved almost heroic stature in her interaction with the Sharpless, portrayed with signal warmth and wisdom by baritone Troy Cook. Dominick Chenes a well-regarded lyrico-spinto tenor, managed Pinkerton’s transformation from lovable cad, to lover, and ultimately to hollowed man in ardent and sometimes adoring tones. His Italianate instrument could sob in the grand manner, though his mother, seated in front of us, mentioned his interest in German repertoire. BLO Emerging Artist Junhan Choi, frequently noticed in these pages, projected well as the Commissioner/Registrar. We also enjoyed hearing dramatic tenor Mathew Arnold’s Yamdori. He served as organist down the street from me and was known to raise a beer.

Non-traditionalists should enjoy this production which continues at the Colonial through next Sunday.

 Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer


16 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Another weak Third Reich (eg Egk’s ” Peer Gynt” to replace Grieg’s) / Soviet ( K. Ismailova to replace Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District) -type effort to ” cleanse” and purge. Wake up, Western Civilization.

    Comment by G.M. — September 18, 2023 at 9:22 pm

  2. G.M., are you perhaps being a bit simplistic? Setting the story in Chinatown strikes me as a subtle way to remind us that Asian racism has also played a role in our fractious history (viz Nanjing). The best way to cherish our cultural patrimony is to engage it in new ways, to offer bold new perspectives — not to worship static idols. Clearly this version of Butterfly got the reviewer thinking! So it does not purge and cleanse but enriches. Raising questions is what we in the Boston area are all about.

    Comment by Ashley — September 19, 2023 at 7:46 am

  3. To the author – One should take care not to conflate Japanese-Americans with Japanese. Echoing the words of Iyko Day: racial capitalism renders Asian labor disposable, often even in the lands they were born in. Let’s be more careful next time. Quite frankly, I am horrified by this review.

    Comment by Stephen — September 19, 2023 at 10:46 pm

  4. This is an appalling review. Did you really just take a giant left turn in an opera review to defend the Japanese internment? There are so many, many issues here, I don’t even know where to begin, but as a Jew, I absolutely protest your aim at moral equivalence: as if what FDR did is OK because at least it wasn’t the Holocaust. What?? So anything short of mass genocide is acceptable?
    Meanwhile, if you are going to review a production that has been worked on for YEARS— BLO has been open and transparent about its “Butterfly Process” in a way that is truly inspiring for other arts organizations that reckon with problematic works in the canon— then please do your homework, and name the performers. Don’t tokenize them with “Asian-sounding” names. Name them and give their backgrounds if they offer that info.
    I used to think Boston was lucky to have a space where anyone could write about performances they saw. It’s clear that this space very badly needs an editor.

    Comment by Amelia — September 20, 2023 at 1:55 am

  5. Mr. Eiseman-
    You have been writing ignorant, grammatically incorrect, and self serving reviews for years, but this one is above and beyond.

    I have been “unfollowing” BMInt for well over a decade but the commotion your Butterfly review has caused made me take a look.

    This review, among many others in BMInt, is out of touch and uneducated. BMInt’s imbalance of ineptitude and injury to any sense of true love for music and the musicians who make this city vibrant is a disgrace. This article should be taken down and replaced with an apology.

    It is your right to dislike something. And, if you feel you must share, it is then also your responsibility to back your thoughts up with intelligent, well thought out commentary. Conisistenly, I have found the angle BMInt chooses—even when “complimentary”—to be distasteful, harmful, self serving, and ignorant. Unabashedly. This is a true shame; to be mean spirited just to look smart is harmful and juvenile. To be clear, this isn’t about having an opinion, this is about making sure you know what you are talking about when you voice it.

    Clearly, you are aware of the power of the pen simply by the number of comments you have already deleted from this thread. Please learn from this.

    Sarah Bob, Pianist and New Gallery Concert Series Founding Artistic Director since 2000

    Comment by Sarah Bob — September 20, 2023 at 8:51 am

  6. Sarah- For the record, I have not deleted any comments. We do require verifiable email addressees from respondents, and six comments were thus unqualified. But your suggestion that a number of comments have been deleted makes me wonder on what basis you could make such a claim.

    Stephen- Didn’t this production also conflate Japanese with Japanese Americans?

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — September 20, 2023 at 9:40 am

  7. Besides word of mouth, which I realize cannot be verified, the basis of my claim comes after seeing comment screenshots from this page that do not seem to be showing up now. I would be delighted to be wrong. Thanks.

    Comment by Sarah — September 20, 2023 at 9:57 am

  8. Sarah- I have not deleted any comments in this thread, nor have I deleted any once they appeared. By the way, you never objected to the many positive reviews of your work that appeared on this site….

    Perhaps I need to remind some commenters that I described the internment of Japanese Americans as abhorrent. What triggered me most about the production, perhaps, was suggestions that Butterfly in its original form should be banned from the canon. That’s as intolerant as statements coming out of Florida.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — September 20, 2023 at 10:06 am

  9. The truth is, I have never objected to ANY of the things I read/heard about over the years until now so I am not sure how your comment is relevant. You can reread my original post about my impression of BMInt’s positive reviews and, to quote myself, “this isn’t about having an opinion, this is about making sure you know what you are talking about when you voice it.”

    I *sincerely* apologize if I have accused you of something you have not done in regards to taking down comments, Mr. Eiseman. Otherwise, I stand by what I say.

    Comment by Sarah — September 20, 2023 at 10:15 am

  10. “Perhaps I need to remind some commenters that I described the internment of Japanese Americans as abhorrent.”

    nah, perhaps you need to read the statement you made downplaying the severity of their experience there and suggesting their experience in Japantown would have been worse.

    Comment by Peter Bobles — September 20, 2023 at 10:25 am

  11. “Boston Lyric Opera’s well-sung and very-well played up-to-date production of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly” sounds to me like a very appreciative endorsement. In addition to praising the production, Lee Eiseman has had the courage to share with us the complex, confused, passionate questions that the bold updating provoked in him. The point is not to agree with every word, but to embrace the vibrant force of our culture. When is the last time that Butterfly prompted such passion? Thank you! Over the years, BMint has been such a source of pleasure, learning, diversity of views and capaciousness for all of us, amateurs and musicians, laypeople and musicologists, forming a real community without borders.

    Comment by Ashley — September 20, 2023 at 11:33 am

  12. Dear Mr. Eiseman,

    I’m seeing much discussion of this review on social media, which you should be made aware is pretty unanimously irate. Here’s an example of a post that I think is the most succinct and to-the-point. It describes that your review
    “- engages in a trauma contest of “who had it worse”
    – says the effects of US internment camps were “relatively mild”
    – makes a disgusting and not even well hidden attempt to imply there are already plenty (too many?) Asians in classical music
    – is overwhelmingly racist, out of touch, and generally abhorrent.”

    I agree with all of the above observations, and am further troubled by the fact that (as Sarah Bob has referenced above), one particular commenter with a verifiable email address has had her posts to this comment thread disappear repeatedly, and has the screen shots to prove it. These posts are reasonable, polite and well argued and it is disturbing that they are nowhere to be seen here.

    I think it is a problem that you are the sole proprietor/publisher, editor, moderator of comments, AND author of this review all at once, and that this has perhaps blinded you to how large a misstep you have made here. I think it’s urgent that you listen seriously to some of what’s being said to you, and to be mindful of the harm that is done by some of the racist tropes you are employing. If, in reading your own review, you do not recognize that there are examples of what is commonly described as a “racist dog whistle,” then it suggests that you really are lacking for some crucial cultural points of reference. The only other conclusion I could draw is that you are using these deliberately. At the very least, you are seriously undermining any good works that you have sought to accomplish with this website.

    Please give this some thought, seek to make amends, and allow the critical words posted to this comment thread to stand so that there is an accurate representation here of how your review has been publicly received.

    Comment by Curtis K Hughes — September 20, 2023 at 12:05 pm

  13. I have not blocked any comments from sources who responded to my email verification request. And no comments were posted and then deleted.Perhaps I should explain to new commenters that although they see their comments while they are writing them, they don’t materialize on the site until after moderation.

    I understood that portions of my review would elicit strong responses. It’s the job of a journalist to question received wisdom, even sometimes when he personally agrees with it. By the way, i do not think that there are too many Asians in conservatories. Nor did I say so. That was a response to suggestions that Asians were somehow barred from being cast in opera until recently.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — September 20, 2023 at 12:16 pm

  14. Well sir, it seems to me you’ve dug in your heels and that no apologies or retractions are to be forthcoming anytime soon, which I think is deeply unfortunate. If you feel that what you have done here is merely to “elicit strong reactions,” then I would say that you do yourself (and the rest of us) a disservice in seemingly keeping only your own counsel, neglecting to seriously tune in what a number of us are trying to say to you, and failing to recognize the real hurt that is caused by the types of deep-rooted racist tropes you employ. You’re not arguing in good faith here and on some level I think you know it.

    Rather than cataloging the false equivalencies you draw, the particulars of the dog-whistle & redirection strategies you continue to employ (even in your comment above), and so on, I’ll just point out one example of how wildly problematic your handling of this situation is. In one of your responses to Sarah Bob (above) you say that “By the way, you never objected to the many positive reviews of your work that appeared on this site….” That’s an amazingly bald assertion of your power as the sole proprietor of the Intelligencer, an implicit threat that any positive reviews will come to a halt as a result of Sarah Bob expressing her objections here, and the sort of remark that one actually associates with organized crime, or at least with extremely petty spitefulness. (a hint of “Gee, some nice reviews you’ve been getting here. It’d be a shame if that didn’t continue.”) It’s the sort of bullying tactic that wouldn’t be feasible if the Intelligencer were structured according the kind of professional integrity that your readers deserve, i.e. with some degree of editorial accountability. And I think it is most regrettable. It’s astonishing to me that you don’t seem to perceive that.

    Comment by Curtis — September 20, 2023 at 5:36 pm

  15. Dunno who is bullying whom. I sense a surprising intolerance for differing views from some of the respondents; a quieter discussion would serve everyone better. I never threatened Sarah Bob in any way.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — September 20, 2023 at 6:35 pm

  16. This string of comments has now allowed for ample negative and positive discussion. I am closing it because it has become repetitive and uncivil.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — September 21, 2023 at 4:07 pm

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