The Boston Lyric Opera’s Madama Butterfly emerged this month in colorful flair, premiering a new staging of Puccini’s beloved drama. The singers and orchestra of the BLO delivered a passionate performance of Puccini’s opera, while incorporating several changes in text and setting to reckon with Butterfly’s complicated history.
For the past couple years, the Boston Lyric Opera has presented the Butterfly Process, a series of discussions about the issues surrounding Madama Butterfly featuring Asian creatives and scholars. These topics have particular salience given the wave of anti-Asian violence in the wake of the pandemic. Now, this article is not the place to debate these matters in fine detail —recordings of the Butterfly Process events are publicly available along with many other educational resources. But it is important to recognize the complicated legacy that opera makers and audiences are engaging with, even if briefly.
Puccini’s imagined Japan is informed and populated by fantasy over genuine essence; instead of existing on its own terms, it can only exist as an other in relation to a familiar society assumed as “normal.” Madama Butterfly plays into long-standing stereotypes such as the submissive, seductive Asian woman; the score signifies a vague Asianness through devices such as pentatonic scales and parallel intervals. Butterfly is not alone; complex musical traditions are reduced to simple signs in our popular sound-lexicon all too regularly (for example, Hollywood’s “Oriental riff”).
One could frame these attempts to represent Japan and “the East” as positive comments. Japonisme was, in some way, a result of real fascination and admiration of a foreign culture. But characterizing persons or cultures as “exotic” without recognizing or representing their underlying depth constitutes a gilded offering. Under the fawning smile lurks a patronizing gaze. Exoticization is no compliment to me (a Taiwanese-American): it is a reduction of the complexities I carry, a dehumanization that limits the space which I can assert for my existence.
Does this mean we should avoid Madama Butterfly altogether? The BLO argues to the contrary. Butterfly has immense artistic value; no banning or cancelling is intended or needed. The question is how to present Butterfly by amplifying Asian voices rather than sidelining and stereotyping them.
In a vision led by stage director Phil Chan and artistic advisor and dramaturg Nina Yoshida Nelsen, BLO’s Butterfly transports the characters into the 1940s. The first act is a playful mock-marriage ceremony in a nightclub in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and the second and third acts occur at the Poston internment camp in Arizona, where the American government detained thousands of Japanese-Americans. Madama Butterfly here becomes a specifically Asian-American story, which is appropriate given the clash between Asia and America inherent to the work.
Why Chinatown and not Japantown? Here, Cio-Cio-San is a Japanese-American pretending to be Chinese to avoid discrimination in World War II-era California. Hence when Bonzo (note the name change — now just an uncle, no longer a priest) interrupts the “marriage,” he denounces Butterfly not for changing her religion but for denying her heritage. Thus the Chinatown setting furthers the conveyance of a genuine Japanese-American experience. It also pays homage to San Francisco’s Chinatown as the oldest Chinatown in America, vital to Asian-American history.
The subsequent acts depict Japanese internment. From 1942 to 1946, over 100,000 Japanese-Americans were forcibly incarcerated without any evidence of espionage or disloyalty. There is little value in trying to justify this violation of civil rights, or to downplay its severity in comparison to other atrocities of the time; it is a stain on the American past born from prejudice towards Asian-American people. BLO’s Butterfly adds to Cio-Cio-San’s plight: her child is afflicted with tuberculosis, one of several diseases that affected Japanese internment camps. Health care facilities were chronically understaffed and undersupplied; unsanitary conditions and harsh desert climates exacerbated disease and infection. This element reflects a factual detail of Japanese-American history and intensifies Cio-Cio-San’s dilemma in securing a safe future for her child.
The production also adds a frame story of the events as a memory. A wordless prelude before Act I has two women (in 1983 Hawaii, according to the program) making a cake, with one recalling the past through mementos. Next, in the bridge between Acts II and III, a Butterfly past and a Butterfly future dance in a gorgeously choreographed ballet sequence. At the final scene, Butterfly holds up her child’s stuffed animal as the older Butterfly enters stage left, holding the same toy in painful reminiscence. In addition to adding a layer of recollective gravity, this reframing of Butterfly as a decades-past remembrance works as a metacommentary on our Asian-American pasts. Asian-American stories are full of loss and trauma of all kinds. But in the act of storytelling and memory, we preserve the realities of our experiences and the proof of our resilience.
The ending has a major difference: rather than committing suicide, Cio-Cio-San instead suffers the loss of her child. Tying into the frame story, this allows Cio-Cio-San to survive to remember the events as an older woman. It also shifts the narrative focus away from the spectacle of female suffering all too common to opera. Instead a child dies: a living connection between Cio-Cio-San and Pinkerton, and perhaps symbolically, a broad representation of understanding between cultures. This catastrophe landed extremely potently — paired with the roar of the orchestra, the horrified expressions of Suzuki and Cio-Cio-San upon their realization of the child’s death produced a heartrending effect.
There are some bumps along the readapted road. The pre-show prelude was unclear without the program notes. In Act I, the narrative quotation marks around the “marriage ceremony” were somewhat awkwardly executed; an added speech from Butterfly about immigration felt a bit on-the-nose. Later, the change of Yamadori to a white man with an estate in Chicago (“Signor Dori”) was incongruous with his name and the pentatonic orchestral accompaniment to his entrance. But in general the edits do important work to center Asian voices. Drawing from real history, the staging portrays a Japanese-American Butterfly who, despite the injustices committed against her family and community, still believes in the goodness of America and its dream.
Conductor David Angus wove together the singers and orchestra masterfully. The tender, heartfelt Act I love duet was a musical standout of the afternoon. Under Angus’s direction, the orchestra expertly carried out Puccini’s soaring melodies and harmonies. In particular, Amanda Romano Foreman’s harp solos had striking presence in the hall; the strings, headed by concertmaster Annie Rabbat, achieved great depths of timbre and expression; and the horn section, led by principal Lauren Winter, was remarkably consistent. Surprisingly, the singers and orchestra were quite well-balanced in volume, given that there was no pit; the orchestra was on the floor, on the same level as the orchestra seating. Puccini’s orchestrations came richly to life in the hands of the Boston Lyric Opera orchestra.
The Butterfly cast delivered strong and memorable performances, with several of the leads (Butterfly, Suzuki, and Pinkerton) making their BLO debuts. Karen Chia-Ling Ho’s Butterfly was captivating. Ho evinced a vast dramatic range: from alluring romance to intimate wistfulness, from comedic imitation to despairing anger. Alice Chung, as Suzuki, was deeply endearing, her full tone lending a sweet warmth to the character. Dominick Chenes gave Pinkerton a robust, lively sound, with impressive high notes and convincingly anguished guilt. Troy Cook played a steadfast, empathetic Sharpless; though sometimes the orchestra covered him slightly in lower ranges, his voice was solid and grounded. Finally, Rodell Rosel was a joy to watch as Goro: scheming, a little sleazy, his sound cutting through the texture with markedly expressive diction. The chorus sang with tight ensemble and unified character. Finally, Cassie Wang’s ballet as Butterfly in the dream sequence was absolutely mesmerizing, with credit to choreographer Michael Sakamoto.
Excellent design supported the performers. Sara Ryung Clement created colorful and aptly matched costumes for each character. Set designer Yu Shibagaki created a ritzy Chinatown nightclub with neon lights and elegant table settings, backed by a design of intricate curlicues; contrasting was the spartan internment camp, surrounded by barbed wire. Expressive lighting by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew added polish, especially the subtly shadowed tableaus for introspective moments. I appreciated that a majority-Asian creative team headed the production. Rather than falling into orientalist designs that rely on hazy notions of Asian-ness, BLO’s Butterfly allowed Asian artists to draw from their own heritages to set the stage.
Overall, the Boston Lyric Opera created a fresh, poignant take on Puccini’s work. Still, one might take issue with the narrative reworking. From a certain perspective, the alterations appear to condemn Butterfly as unperformable or inappropriate, committing a sacrilege against the original text. But I don’t see it that way. It’s not unlike the many reimaginings of Shakespeare that we see, such as the 1996 Romeo + Juliet, or even certain opera productions, like that wild space version of La Bohème. These are green takes on veteran material, where refreshed temporal and spatial trappings bring out new angles to the musical-textual core.
Back in May, I attended a BLO event at the Boston Public Library for AAPI Heritage Month: “Representation Matters: AAPI Events and Stories.” As the presenters spoke, I thought, why all this effort to “save” Butterfly? If there’s so much cultural baggage, is it really worth all the issues? But I saw BLO’s Butterfly and I understood: yes — the love story is timeless; the music is hauntingly beautiful. Hearts soar and tears flow from Puccini’s ink. Yes, it is worth doing the labor to perform this opera.
Madama Butterfly isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. But it’s not perfect, as has been discussed, nor are many of the productions. I don’t want to see any more Butterfly productions decked out in yellowface. And I’ve seen too many depictions of Asian suffering based on clichéd, essentializing stereotypes. So I thoroughly appreciate the Boston Lyric Opera’s production, which centers a Japanese-American story and Asian creators. It’s still a thoroughly depressing tragedy, but the presentation is informed by authentic history and dramaturgical research, combined with genuine passion. The end product is all the better for it.
I don’t see the changes as disrespectful or insulting to Puccini. If anything, they show respect for the immense craft and pathos of his art even alongside its flaws. Rather than disregard Butterfly altogether, these alterations acknowledge its dated nature through a nuanced understanding of Puccini’s historical environment. It is through a reverence for Puccini’s compositional mastery that these artists have carried Butterfly from 1904 into 2023. Thus the creative team of BLO’s Butterfly has allowed Asian-Americans to partake in the act of operatic storytelling — as we all should be able to do, in artistically fulfilling and honest ways.
“All I have, I give for love.” These are the key words of the Boston Lyric Opera’s current season, from Sarah Ruhl’s libretto to Eurydice. Choosing Madama Butterfly to tell our stories is a sign of love: for Puccini’s masterful creation, for the love that blossoms and withers between Butterfly and Pinkerton, for the memories and histories of our communities, and for each other.