Giacomo Puccini’s iconic work Madama Butterfly has long been a staple of what people think of as “opera.” Most have heard of it, mostly due to the universal story of love lost in translation, female abandonment, and tragic consequences.
Butterfly was attractive from the time of its premiere in 1904 because of its exoticism to western audiences. At the time “Japonisme,” the act of dressing up and doing tasks that were “Japanese,” was a fad in Europe after Asian ports opened up for trade late in the 19thcentury: the culture was different and, therefore, exotic. Travel to Asia was much too grueling and expensive if one wanted to experience it for oneself, so pictures, literature, and textiles provided the dream.
Performing Butterfly in the 21st century is influenced by a globalized sensitivity to other cultures and beliefs. Travel is easy. The Internet gives us answers. Television transports us. The imagined Japanese setting as seen by Puccini (who never went there) is a device from 1904 about something that happened “over there.” It is a far cry from our reality. To dress up as if for a pageant and smear on eyeliner to make someone “appear” Asian should most definitely be a practice of the past, and yet some opera companies continue do it in the name of what audiences “want” from the work.
The production I’m currently directing for Opera Columbus combines the world of 19th century Japan with contemporary couture, views of race/religion, and the effect of clothing/behavior. The costumes are meant to evoke the proper lines and silhouettes of kimono and uniforms through a uniquevisual interpretation, connecting ageless emotion with a contemporary audience. There was no attention paid to race or ethnicity when rounding up the best singers possible for this particular production.
There is every reason to continue to produce Madama Butterfly, but keeping it in its early 20th century box does not gives it proper reverence. We owe it our fullest and most careful attention so that it may continue to ring across changing times in all of its beauty and sadness.