I was excited to hear that Seattle Opera was performing Madame Butterfly because I love Puccini’s music and Butterfly is one of the most famous operas ever written. I didn’t know the opera was controversial for its racist depiction of the Japanese – especially its promulgation of the stereotype that Japanese women are suicidal, subservient sex puppets – until I heard about Seattle Opera’s free community panel discussion “Asian Arts Leaders Respond to Madame Butterfly,” moderated by Frank Abe, co-founder of Seattle’s Asian American Journalists Association.
Since I haven’t seen Butterfly before, I am only familiar with the broad strokes of the story, and I’m not quite clear on how Butterfly’s race problem differs from opera’s general woman problem. The character of Butterfly sounds typical. If every maiden who died tragically (usually by her own hand) for love was removed from the dramatic opera canon, the only roles left for women would be prostitutes who died tragically for love (usually by their own hand). I only exaggerate slightly.
Let’s face it, hardly anyone goes to opera for the story, for the unfortunate fact that it is usually the weakest element in any production. Opera is a layer cake of fine arts, combining live orchestra, achingly beautiful vocals, acting, sometimes dancing, and exquisite, often elaborate sets. In all but a very few operas (Rigoletto is one) the story is a flimsy excuse connecting the other elements. Operatic narratives have always been as historically and culturally accurate as Shakespeare, but opera has failed, for a variety of reasons, to reinvent and reinterpret itself in the way that Shakespearean theater has done.
That’s one reason I was so excited to see Seattle Opera convene this panel. If modern opera companies can find a way to deal with classical opera’s regressive storylines and bigoted themes, an endangered art form could not only be made accessible to a much wider audience, but a richer experience would be created for both old and new fans.
The panel consisted of an impressive who’s who of Asian-American artists and activists, but in its inclusiveness was large enough to be a bit unwieldy. The median age of opera attendees is 48. As such, Seattle Opera had to be prepared for an audience new to the topic of cultural appropriation. The handout gave definitions for words like ‘whitewashing’ and ‘yellow-face.’ Valuable to those who don’t already know, but evidence that a truly meaty discussion wasn’t going to be possible.
They covered the basics.
- ‘Color blind’ casting, while progressive 20 years ago, is insufficient to erase erasure;
- Tone deaf portrayals of ‘exotic others’ are more appropriative than appreciative;
- Doubling-down on traditional presentations in the name of artistic integrity when stories are genuinely traumatic to people (especially those who are supposedly being ‘honored’ or ‘represented’) is hurtful and cruel.
One panelist questioned the value of producing or attending an opera like Butterfly. As much as I understand their point, I genuinely love the layer cake that is opera, and I would mourn the loss of Puccini’s melodies. So would the opera professionals who can’t afford anyway to ignore the cash cow that is one of the world’s most famous operas. That’s why for me, the best part of the discussion was when a Japanese-American opera director talked about the subtle changes he made in his presentation of Madame Butterfly to make the story more palatable – eliminating the traditional white-savior interpretation of Pinkerton’s American wife and changing Butterfly’s “ritual suicide” to an impulsive act of desperation more in keeping with other classic opera heroines.
I was especially interested to learn that this sort of reading might have been the author’s intent. In the original, Pinkerton was clearly written as a cad. Audiences, trained to expect a hero from their lead tenors, demanded a more sympathetic character. Then as now, fans forgot that opera is often a vehicle for political critique. Madame Butterfly debuted in 1904, when Perry prying open Japanese ports was recent history. The fact that Madame Butterfly is known as a love story rather than a metaphor for imperialism may say as much about 20th century audience attitudes as about the opera itself. And um, maybe marketing.
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1904. It’s easy to forget that most popular operas aren’t all that old. Every now and then opera companies trot out the really old operas as historical artifacts. The music or stories don’t resonate with audiences anymore, but it gives singers a chance to master old techniques and audiences can understand the history of the art they enjoy.
I will certainly watch Seattle Opera’s production of Madame Butterfly differently because I attended this panel. I will try to make it to the other Butterfly-related events which exemplify one panelist’s definition of cultural appreciation as making space for people to tell their own stories. On July 28, Reversing the Madame Butterfly Effect (free) presents three short plays by Asian American women who contrast stereotypes with their own reality. These will be followed by a discussion on reclaiming Asian female representation in art and entertainment. In September, Seattle Opera will present An American Dream, a story depicting the incarceration of a Japanese American family in the ’40s, to provide perspective for Madame Butterfly audiences.
During the run of Madame Butterfly, the McCaw Hall lobby will be used for a large-scale exhibit about the lasting and ongoing impacts of American imperialism on people of Japanese and Asian ancestry.
I have to admit “Asian Arts Leaders Respond to Madame Butterfly” was more uncomfortable than educational or fun. But I am extremely grateful that my local opera company is willing to publicly question the canon, to listen to marginalized communities and ask their advice on how to be more inclusive, and to promote the cultural evolution that may someday relegate one of our most beloved operas to historical artifact.