Poppy Burton-Morgan reflects on some of the ways the opera canon can and should be made relevant for modern audiences
“But why can’t you change the ending so she’s not a victim at the hands of a brutish American guy?” asked an audience member, enraged that my new supposedly radical adaptation of Madam Butterfly was not radical enough for him. “You’re just continuing to perpetuate unhelpful stereotypes of submissive Asian women!” Right. OK.
Of course it’s possible to change the ending – anything is possible in art – but I believe that (despite the dodgy gender politics and racial stereotyping in the libretto) the score of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly contains some passages of music so extraordinary they offer us profound insight into the nature of love, sexual desire, betrayal and loss.
So we at OperaUpClose have decided to honour those insights by reclaiming and reframing (and slightly renaming) the narrative of Madam Butterfly through a 21st century feminist lens. The ‘geisha’ fetish is cut and instead of othering our protagonist we’ve placed her within the world of 1980s Japan, where the mix of old and new Japan, the influx of European and North American influences and Japanese tradition provide a crucible for a complex and contemporary Butterfly. Here is a woman who fetishises her fiance Pinkerton’s American dream as much as in his ‘yellow fever’ he fetishises and idealises her as his exotic and submissive Asian wife (for which is roundly abused and called out by another character, the consul Sharpless).
Butterfly sacrifices everything not for love of a shitty guy, but for love of her young son – fuelled by a deadly and psychologically real cocktail of postnatal depression and maternal guilt – taking her own life in the mistaken belief she is creating a better future for her son’s. It’s actually not hard to reframe these actions in a way that speaks to the morality of today – although it is subtle (perhaps too subtle for that particular audience member).
Ultimately though if you want to tell a story that speaks truthfully about young Japanese women then you need to find a team of women and people of Japanese and East Asian heritage to tell that story. It’s not rocket science! I am not of East Asian heritage, so I have done my research and crucially I have listened to my collaborators and tried to honour their truths.
One of the important things about this version of Madam Butterfly is not just what we’re doing with the story but who we’re doing it with. It shouldn’t be newsworthy that in 2020 a company is casting East Asian singers in East Asian roles (it should be newsworthy that many companies still aren’t!) but our production of Butterfly, featuring five (in a cast of eight) singers of East Asian heritage plus a female composer, designer, movement director and staff director, also of East Asian descent, is the one bucking the trend.
Having such a female-led creative team (I’m librettist and director, and also a woman) should also not be worthy of comment. But in the 2018/2019 season across all main stage productions by UK opera companies only 22% of directors, 10% of conductors, 9% of librettists and just 1% of composers were women. I am a mother who has experienced postnatal depression – bringing that experience to our production has been vital.
It’s then perhaps unsurprising that there are so many exciting and award-winning opera companies outside of the large organisations, run by and providing opportunities for brilliant women – including our Olivier award-winning company OperaUpClose founded and run by Robin Norton-Hale. And there’s Laura Bowler (Size Zero Opera), Genevieve Raghu (Into Opera), Toria Banks (HERA), Sophie Gilpin (SWAP’ra) and Ruth Mariner (Gestalt Arts) who has been instrumental in facilitating the Engender programme at the ROH.
We held our collective breath when Annilese Miskimmon was announced as the new artistic director of ENO last autumn. Given the lead times in opera casting it was a given that she inherited the problematic ‘yellow face’ casting of their Butterfly revival (coincidentally opening at the same time as ours) but it’s great to hear that she’s already consulting with East Asian artists for their forthcoming revival of Nixon in China.
Further plans to support the plethora of mid-career female opera creatives who have spent the last 10-15 years making extraordinary and award-winning work on the fringes of the sector would be very welcome. Perhaps then we’d finally get a place at the table with the ‘big boys’ and reclaim even more of the historically problematic opera canon for the 21st century.
Madam Butterfly tours from 6 February to Coventry, Newark, North Finchley, Bristol, Oxford, Stratford, Derby, Wakefield, Worthing, Winchester, Rickmansworth, Southampton, Scarborough and Exeter.
The feature image is a rehearsal photograph by Christopher Tribble showing Jane Monari as Suzuki (Madam Butterfly) and Mariam Tamari as Cio Cio san. Suzuki holds a puppet representing her child to her chest, while Cio Cio san rests her head on her shoulder. They both have their eyes cast down.