Royal Opera stages Madama Butterfly with changes to respect Japanese culture | Royal Opera House

It’s a dramatic masterpiece and an important part of any opera house’s core repertoire – but Madama Butterfly was also a product of its time, riddled with stereotypes and racist depictions of Asian people.

So what does it mean to stage Giacomo Puccini’s 1904 classic in 2022? That’s the question the Royal Opera House wanted to answer when it launched a year-long consultation on how to better respect Japanese culture in its production.

“Rather than canceling the whole show, the Royal Opera House wanted to have a dialogue with her,” said Sonoko Kamimura, a Japanese movement expert who has worked on the revival, which opens to audiences on June 14.

Puccini’s story of Cio-Cio-San, a young Japanese woman who falls in love – with devastating results – with the American naval officer Pinkerton, has captivated audiences for more than a century and remains one of the most popular Italian operas. It has been performed 416 times by the Royal Opera, making it the ninth most-performed work in the company’s repertoire.

The recent ROH revival will be performed by two casts, including Lianna Haroutounian and Eri Nakamura in the role of Cio-Cio-San, and Kseniia Nikolaieva and Patricia Bardon in the role of Suzuki, while Dan Ettinger will conduct.

The consultation involved Covent Garden staff, academics, practitioners, artists and Asian representatives and resulted in changes to several aspects of the existing staging – including the use of movement and choreography.

“When I start work on a production, there’s always a lot to think about: how the costumes constrain the performer and how the work can best reflect the world it represents,” Kamimura said.

“For this production, we focused on refining posture and specifically adjusting placement – ​​like making sure Suzuki’s left hand is always on her right; or that Cio-Cio-San’s gestures reflect the character’s upbringing. By making subtle changes to how singers express their feelings through music, we can create something more authentic—less prone to stereotypes and more attuned to the historical context of the story.”

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The new show revives Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier’s 2002 production and was put together with the help of Kamimura and other movement experts including Etsuko Handa and June Iyeda, who worked with Revival director Dan Dooner.

According to Kamimura, the stereotypical “Japanese” movement often found in European and North American performances of Madama Butterfly often goes hand-in-hand with costume and makeup. “It’s about adjusting to the historical contact and avoiding ‘Japanese’ expressions, which are wrong and offensive,” she said.

The Royal Opera House said its productions, performers and creative teams play a role in defining the future of opera, including what stories are told, how they are interpreted and who gets to make them.

“More can – and must – be done to ensure the widest possible range of artists can benefit from the opportunities on our stages, but the company looks forward to building on the progress already made and collaborating with partners and industry experts.” to ensure barriers to entry are knocked down, and color-aware casting is firmly embedded at the heart of the organization.”

Oliver Mears, the director of the Royal Opera, who led the consultation, said he wanted to “question the representation of Japanese culture in the staging of this work and to involve Japanese practitioners and academics to help us work on a butterfly that will do both is true to the spirit of the original and authentic in its depiction of Japan”.

Other classic operas revised for a modern audience

Othello by Verdi – White singers cast as leads in Verdi’s version of the classic Shakespearean play would traditionally “black out” for the role. But the move has been rejected in recent years. Keith Warner, who staged Otello at the Royal Opera House, said: “It’s about the audience taking an imaginative leap… [blacking up] is such an insult to the black community in London and elsewhere.”

Turandot by Puccini – The opera about a barbaric Chinese princess in “old Beijing” is full of racist tropes. A Canadian Opera Company production changed the names of Ping, Pang and Pong, the three main characters, to Jim, Bob and Bill and swapped their Chinese costumes for black suits, but – wrote the daughter of one of the tenors – the characters “continued to act in Stereotypes of effeminate Asian men as they danced around the stage and giggled at each other.”

Carmen by Bizet – After being stabbed on stage for more than 140 years, the heroine of Bizet’s opera took revenge in a new Italian production by shooting her lover dead instead. The director of the Teatro del Maggio Musicale Foundation in Florence, Cristiano Chiarot, said in 2018: “How dare we applaud the murder of a woman at a time when our society is confronted with the murder of women?”

The Abduction from the Seraglio by Mozart – Mozart’s comedy about two European women who are kidnapped and sold to a Turkish Muslim plays with a number of Muslim stereotypes. When the Canadian Opera Company revised it, writer-director Wajdi Mouawad said it wasn’t hard to see that the opera could appear “as an exercise in caricature or casual racism.” The English Touring Opera also avoided “the unpleasant racial baggage”.

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