Madame Butterfly Takes off on a New Flight

Cincinnati Opera modernizes one of the artform’s iconic stories in a daring world premiere production.
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Illustration by Yuko Shimizu

Matthew Ozawa’s work as stage director for Cincinnati Opera’s 2019 production of Romeo and Juliet impressed Artistic Director Evans Mirageas so much he asked if Ozawa would be interested in directing Madame Butterfly. After pandemic-induced schedule shuffling and some soul-searching, however, the version of Butterfly in Music Hall on July 22, 27, and 29 veers from the original plan.

With Ozawa still at the helm, it’s now a world premiere of a new production designed by Japanese and Japanese American artists, launching here and then going on to co-producing opera companies in Pittsburgh, Utah, and Detroit. Its aim is to present the canonical Butterfly in an entertaining, creative new way, preserving Giacomo Puccini’s music while de-emphasizing its racial and gender stereotyping.

In 2019, Mirageas was thinking the time might be right to revive the opera in a straightforward manner, much like it’s been done for 112 Butterfly Cincinnati Opera performances since 1924. “We own a very beautiful, very traditional production design by Paul Shortt from the 1980s, and we actually did that production in 2014,” he says. Ozawa agreed to direct the traditional opera again.

The tragic story, with its beautiful music and singing, depicts an American naval officer (Pinkerton), who marries a 15-year-old Japanese girl (Cio-Cio-San, or Madame Butterfly) for convenience until he can return home and find a “proper” wife. When he does so and comes back to tell Butterfly, she kills herself. There’s been a growing concern that the story stereotypes its Japanese characters, as well as women in general, and that productions using white singers as Japanese characters can make Japanese Americans and others uncomfortable.

Then came 2020. Not just the pandemic, which cancelled Cincinnati Opera’s summer season, but also the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the resultant national racial reckoning. Nobody wanted to be part of the problem any more. “Because of discussions people were having in the opera industry about who owns or has the power to tell these stories, whose stories we’re telling, and diversifying the landscape and our audiences,” says Ozawa, “I realized I could no longer put my Japanese name on something I knew would be alienating to other Asians.”

Ozawa is fourth-generation Japanese American. His father was born in a U.S. World War II internment camp for Americans of Japanese descent; his mother is not of Japanese heritage. Both will attend the production’s opening night here, he says.

Once Cincinnati Opera’s director of production, Lyla Forlani, arrived from Los Angeles in 2021, she brought her own reservations about Madame Butterfly. “As a woman, there are these incredibly offensive moments in the storyline,” she says.

The opera’s European/American origins have also become an issue. Its libretto, or text, by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, is based on an 1898 short story by the American writer John Luther Long, who himself followed an 1887 French novel from Pierre Loti. Long’s story was adapted into a 1900 play by David Belasco that Puccini saw in London.

For all the concerns, Ozawa deeply admires Madame Butterfly. “I love the classics and the tradition,” he says. “I care about the artform, and I’m interested in its evolution.”

That meant Ozawa would direct the production, but he wanted a contemporary element to play off of—and create distance from—the opera’s early 20th century setting. So three Japanese women were chosen to create the production design: Kimie Nishikawa of the design collective dots as scenic designer, Maiko Matsushima as costume designer, and Yuki Nakase Link for lighting design. On stage, a commitment was made to mostly have Asian or Asian American actors portray all relevant characters. Karah Son, a native South Korean soprano, plays Cio-Cio-San.

The team diagnosed the traditional Butterfly as a white male fantasy about Japanese culture. That realization freed them to reinvent it as a modern fantasy. Pinkerton (English-born tenor Adam Smith) has a small, spare contemporary apartment where he’s fascinated with all things Japanese and VR (virtual reality) video gaming. And that interest leads him into the story of Madame Butterfly.

Based on early design renderings, this new production intends to present an environment that’s visually astonishing and deeply colorful, with hyper-real versions of Japanese garments. Pinkerton’s apartment, for instance, contains a “fantasy room”—a portal that allows Butterfly characters to enter and allows him to witness and respond to their world. The show will also have a huge bed descending from the ceiling for the “Love Duet.”

“It’s important for a Western audience be totally captivated by it,” Ozawa says of the new production. “And we wanted people who are Japanese or Asian to know this is not the real Japan. We wanted to balance both worlds and find a way in for all audiences to step into them.”

Son performs the lead role this year not only for Cincinnati and its producing partners, but also for a San Francisco Opera production. Meanwhile, the Japanese-French soprano Hiromi Omura recently appeared in a New Orleans production, and Taiwanese Karen Chia-Ling Ho is headed for a September engagement for Boston Lyric Opera.

However it’s received by audiences, Cincinnati’s new Madame Butterfly is a sign that things have changed in the opera world here and elsewhere. “I feel it’s really important, when we do engage with one of the icons of the core repertoire, to not just blindly put it back on stage, but to look at it,” says Mirageas. “And with Butterfly, it’s a response by an opera company that’s really made a commitment to live within its community, to be an exemplar and say, Yes, we recognize it has a problem. We really want to find a solution, and, by the way, we still love the piece.”

Join a panel discussion about Madame Butterfly at 7 p.m. July 18 at the Mercantile Library downtown. The event is free, but reservations are required.

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