(Javier C. Hernandez’s article appeared in The New York Times and Japan Times, 7/27. Photo: Cincinnati Opera’s new production of “Madame Butterfly,” directed by Matthew Ozawa, frames the action as a virtual-reality fantasy of Japan. | MADDIE MCGARVEY / THE NEW YORK TIMES.)
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,” says 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.