A re-imagining of ‘Madame Butterfly’ with Asian makers at the helm

The auditorium lights dimmed, and the cast and crew of Cincinnati’s new opera production of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” anxiously took their places.

For months, the team, made up largely of Asian and Asian American artists, worked to reimagine classical opera, transforming its stereotype of women and Japanese culture. They’ve updated the look of the opera with costumes and sets partially inspired by anime, stripped the script for historical inaccuracies and recast much of the work as a fantasy video game. They gathered at the Cincinnati Music Hall one evening last week to fine-tune their creations before it opened last Saturday.

“It feels like a big experiment,” said the production manager, Matthew Ozawa, whose father is Japanese and whose mother is white. “It’s very emotional.”

“Madame Butterfly,” which premiered in 1904 (and takes place around that time), tells the story of a beautiful 15-year-old geisha in Nagasaki who is abandoned by a US Navy lieutenant after he becomes pregnant. The opera has long been criticized for its portrayal of Asian women as exotic and submissive, and the use of exaggerated make-up and stereotypical costumes in some productions has drawn criticism.

Now, after years of pressure from artists and activists and a growing awareness of anti-Asian hatred, many companies are reworking the opera and giving artists of Asian descent a central role in reshaping its message and story. In a landmark achievement, directors of Asian descent are leading four major productions this year in the United States.

San Francisco Opera Recently organized Copy, directed by Amon Miyamoto, explores the suffering and discrimination experienced by a bi-racial character. Boston Lyric Opera is part of his next production in a nightclub in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the 1940s, and partly in a concentration camp.

New Orleans Opera She rewrote the traditional ending in a modern production to give the title character a sense of agency. Rather than commit suicide, she throws aside a dagger he handed to her, takes her son and storms off stage.

In Cincinnati, the opera opens in the apartment of a lonely white man in his twenties who worships Japanese video games. The show begins when he puts on a virtual reality headset to enter a fantasy about Japan, assuming the character of American Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton.

“We decided we were going to respect the fact that this is a white man’s fantasy — a culture’s fantasy and a woman’s fantasy“,” Ozawa said.

Sometimes, the imagination unravels and the characters freeze, as when Pinkerton says something offensive or the chorus makes stereotypical gestures. “We see these moments where you listen to what the imitation would normally look like and then we erase it,” Ozawa said.

The re-examination of Madame Butterfly comes as cultural institutions face pressure to feature musicians, dancers, choreographers and composers of color prominently amid a broader debate about racial discrimination.

The revision extends beyond the United States: The Royal Opera House recently updated its production of “Madame Butterfly,” ditching the white makeup and other elements, such as wigs and samurai-style hairstyles.

While the changes have alienated some traditionalists, the artists behind the new production say they want to preserve the spirit of Puccini’s work while making it more accessible to a wider audience.

Phil Chan, who directs the production in Boston and helped lead the push to confront stereotypes in opera and ballet, said he hopes to make familiar stories more real and relevant. The Boston-based creative team includes Nina Yoshida Nielsen, founder Asian Opera Alliancewhich was formed in 2021 to help bring more ethnic diversity to the field.

“Some people may fear that we are somehow messing with a masterpiece,” said Chan, whose father is Chinese and whose mother is white. “But we see it as an opportunity to make the work bigger and resonate with more people.”

As they reimagine “Butterfly,” artists of Asian descent work to help each other, share ideas and offer encouragement.

Aria Umezawa, who directed the production in New Orleans, was upset after seeing photos of white choir members in exaggerated makeup and costumes in an old Canadian production of “Madame Butterfly.” I sought Ozawa.

Umezawa said, “It has always been helpful to talk to my colleagues, to hear their concerns, and to understand the nuances and shades of gray that exist between different elements in our society. It is good not to be alone.”

While the experience of the “Madame Butterfly” remake was liberating for many artists, audience reaction was mixed.

In New Orleans, many people praised Umezawa’s production, saying it was refreshing to see such a strong woman at the center of the opera. But some criticized the ending.

“Her lack of death stole the pathos of the story,” one operator wrote in response to a company survey. “I don’t need a strong butterfly. What lesson can I take from riding a butterfly into the sunset?”

Umezawa said she sometimes felt restricted by Puccini’s vision. She said, “In the end, no matter what I do, it’s still Puccini’s music, and it’s still his best guess with Japanese culture.”

Next year, when she directs “Butterfly” in Philadelphia, she says she hopes to try more, perhaps by incorporating taiko drums into the orchestra.

The focus on “Madame Butterfly” helped highlight the dearth of Asian performers in the opera. While Asian singers make up a large proportion of musical repertoire programmes, they are still heavily underrepresented in lead roles in major opera companies, among stage managers and in other leadership positions.

The production in Cincinnati, which closes on Saturdays, almost didn’t happen. In 2020, Ozawa backtracked on a plan to stage a traditional version of “Madame Butterfly” at the opera house, fearing that it would not align with his artistic mission.

But Evans Miragias, the company’s artistic director, insisted he agreed to support Ozawa’s vision of a reimagined work. The idea was supported by several co-producers, including the Detroit Opera, the Pittsburgh Opera, and the Utah Opera, which will stage the Cincinnati production in the coming years.

Miragias said it has become increasingly difficult to ignore Madame Butterfly’s problems due to the rise in violence and harassment targeting Asians in recent years. “It’s a production that found its moment at the right time,” he said.

At Ozawa’s request, the Cincinnati Opera hired three women of Japanese descent—Maiko Matsushima, Yuki Nakase Link, and Kimi Nishikawa—to oversee costumes, lighting, and scenery.

The almost entirely Asian cast and crew brought a sense of camaraderie to the production.

“We can understand each other easily because we know each other’s stories and cultures,” said Karah-sun, the South Korean soprano who sings the title role. She recalled being able to master the geisha dance quickly because she knew what Ozawa wanted.

The production bandleader, Keitaro Harada, used a Japanese phrase to capture the dynamism: “aun no kokyu”, describing the sense of harmony.

“We understand each other in a very natural way,” said Harada, who was born in Japan. “We know what we all think.”

Ozawa said he felt an obligation to “Madame Butterfly” because he is of Japanese descent, even if it was uncomfortable working on it. Earlier in his career, he recalled that white colleagues sometimes blinked their eyes, bowed to him, or greeted him by saying “konichiwa” while working on productions.

He said he was nervous that it would let down Japanese society if its production was not successful. On opening night, however, his fears were allayed when cheers erupted after the final curtain fell at Cincinnati Music Hall.

“We have an enormous duty to this piece, and to the butterfly and the Asian community,” he said. “There may be some discomfort in our story, but change can only come if there is discomfort.”