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Reimagining ‘Madame Butterfly,’ With Asian Creators at the Helm

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

For months, the team, made up largely of Asian and Asian American artists, had worked to reimagine the classic opera, upending its stereotypes about women and Japanese culture. They had updated the look of the opera with costumes and sets partly inspired by anime, scrubbed the libretto of historical inaccuracies and recast much of the work as a video-game fantasy. They gathered at the Cincinnati Music Hall one evening last week to fine-tune their creation before its opening last Saturday.

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

“Madame Butterfly,” which premiered in 1904 (and is set around that time), tells the story of a lovelorn 15-year-old geisha in Nagasaki who is abandoned by an American Navy lieutenant after he gets her pregnant. The opera has long been criticized for its portrait of Asian women as exotic and submissive, and the use of exaggerated makeup and stereotypical costumes in some productions has drawn fire.

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

San Francisco Opera recently staged a version, directed by Amon Miyamoto, that explored the suffering and discrimination experienced by a biracial character. Boston Lyric Opera is setting part of its coming production in a Chinatown nightclub in San Francisco in the 1940s, and part in an incarceration camp.

New Orleans Opera rewrote the traditional ending in a recent production to give the title character a sense of agency. Instead of committing suicide, she throws aside a dagger handed to her, picks up her son and storms offstage.

In Cincinnati, the opera begins in the apartment of a lonely white man in his 20s who worships Japanese video games. The overture begins when he puts on a virtual-reality headset to enter a fantasy about Japan, assuming the character of the American lieutenant, B.F. Pinkerton.

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

At times, the fantasy breaks down and the characters freeze, such as when Pinkerton says something offensive or the chorus makes stereotypical gestures. “We see these moments that hearken to what the tradition usually would look like and then we erase it,” Ozawa said.

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

The reconsideration extends beyond the United States: The Royal Opera House recently updated its “Madame Butterfly” production, getting rid of white makeup and other elements, like wigs and samurai-style coiffures.

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

Phil Chan, who is directing the production in Boston and has helped lead the push to confront stereotypes in opera and ballet, said he hoped to make familiar stories more authentic and relevant. The creative team in Boston includes Nina Yoshida Nelsen, a founder of the Asian Opera Alliance, which was formed in 2021 to help bring more racial diversity to the field.

“Some people might be afraid that we’re somehow messing with a masterpiece,” said Chan, whose father is Chinese and 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 are working to help each other, exchanging ideas and offering encouragement.

Aria Umezawa, who directed the New Orleans production, was distressed after coming across photos of white chorus members in exaggerated makeup and costumes in an old Canadian production of “Madame Butterfly.” She sought out Ozawa.

“It’s just been always really helpful to talk to my colleagues,” Umezawa said, “to hear their concerns, to understand the nuance and the shades of gray that exist between different elements of our community. It’s just nice not to be alone.”

While the experience of remaking “Madame Butterfly” has been liberating for many artists, the reaction from the public has been mixed.

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

“Not having her die stole the pathos of the story,” an operagoer wrote in response to a survey by the company. “I don’t need an empowered Butterfly. What lesson do I learn from Butterfly riding off into the sunset?”

Umezawa said she felt constrained at times by Puccini’s vision. “Ultimately, no matter what I do,” she said, “it’s still Puccini’s music, and it’s still his best guess with Japanese culture.”

Next year, when she directs a production of “Butterfly” in Philadelphia, she said she hoped to experiment some more, perhaps by incorporating taiko drums into the orchestra.

The focus on “Madame Butterfly” has helped shine light on the dearth of Asian artists in opera. While Asian singers make up a large share of conservatory vocal programs, they remain significantly underrepresented in principal roles at major opera companies, and among stage directors and in other leadership posts.

The production in Cincinnati, which closes on Saturday, almost didn’t happen. In 2020, Ozawa backed out of a plan to direct a traditional version of “Madame Butterfly” at the opera house, worried that it would not be true to his artistic mission.

But Evans Mirageas, the company’s artistic director, persisted, agreeing to support Ozawa’s vision for a reimagined work. The idea gained the backing of several co-producers, including Detroit Opera, Pittsburgh Opera and Utah Opera, which will stage the Cincinnati production in the coming years.

Mirageas said it had become increasingly difficult to ignore the problems of “Madame Butterfly” because of the surge in violence and harassment targeting Asians in recent years. “It’s a production that’s found its moment in time,” he said.

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

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

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

The production’s conductor, Keitaro Harada, used a Japanese phrase to capture the dynamic: “aun no kokyu,” describing a sense of harmony.

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

Ozawa said he felt an obligation to “Madama Butterfly” because he is of Japanese descent, even if working on it could be uncomfortable. Earlier in his career, he recalled that white colleagues would sometimes squint their eyes, bow to him or greet him by saying “konichiwa” while working on the production.

He said he was nervous that he would let down the Japanese community if his production was not a success. But on opening night, his fears subsided when cheers erupted after the final curtain fell at Cincinnati Music Hall.

“We have an immense duty to this piece, to Butterfly and to the Asian community,” he said. “There might be some discomfort in our story, but change can only come if there’s discomfort.”

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