SEATTLE – With stylized sets inspired by Japanese theater and lush, colorful kimono worn by singers, Seattle Opera’s grand production of Madame Butterfly coming this August may seem like business-as-usual. But there’s a dramatic difference that sets this Butterfly apart: the broader conversation taking place on cultural appropriation, yellowface, and Asian American representation. While certainly not new to many Asian and Pacific Islanders, these conversations have permeated the Puget Sound theater scene for the past several years following a production of The Mikado that made national news.
PHOTO: Yasko Sato (Cio-Cio-San) and Renée Rapier (Suzuki). Jacob Lucas photo
In many ways, this dialogue is a direct challenge to how opera has been done in the past—especially an opera like Madame Butterfly, where Asian characters are frequently portrayed by white performers. (Seattle Opera’s production will not attempt to change a given singer’s race through wig or makeup). As seen by The Metropolitan Opera’s 2015 decision to drop the use of blackface in its Otello and other events, the opera world is just beginning to reevaluate its tradition of color- blind casting and starting to have more conversations about how the art form is changing. Considering General Director Aidan Lang’s vision of serving the diverse people of Washington State, Seattle Opera will not shy away from critical voices in the community.
“We have work to do in order to become a company that truly stands for racial equity,” Lang said. “Ultimately, we aim to preserve the awe-inspiring universal qualities of our art, while changing Eurocentric inequities. We know from our community-engagement works such as As One, a transgender story, and An American Dream, depicting the incarceration of Japanese Americans, that opera has the power to serve diverse groups. It’s our responsibility to help make it happen.”
In an attempt to listen and learn surrounding Butterfly (August 5-19), Seattle Opera has organized three community-engagement events, including performances of the opera An American Dream, and two panels featuring exclusively Asian American artists and leaders. In addition, during the performance run of Butterfly, large-scale lobby exhibits will provide greater context for what the audience member is about to see. The viewer will learn about Puccini’s intentional criticism of American imperialism, and rampant anti-Japanese attitudes in the early 20th century when he was composing. Such attitudes would continue to have devastating consequences for people of Japanese ancestry, including the mass incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans, which is where An American Dream picks up.
In a heartbreaking tale of cultural imperialism, Butterfly depicts a trusting Japanese maiden who is abandoned by a reckless American naval officer. Four internationally acclaimed artists make company debuts in this exciting production. They include: Armenian soprano Lianna Haroutounian and Japanese soprano Yasko Sato (also her U.S. debut) as Cio-Cio-San, with Russian tenor Alexey Dolgov and American tenor Dominick Chenes as Pinkerton. (Alexia Voulgaridou, who was originally scheduled to sing Cio-Cio-San, is now expecting her first child and has withdrawn). Returning artists for Butterfly include Weston Hurt (Sharpless), Renée Rapier (Suzuki), Sarah Mattox (Kate Pinkerton), Rodell Rosel (Goro), Ryan Bede (Prince Yamadori), and Daniel Sumegi (The Bonze). Carlo Montanaro returns to conduct, and director Kate Cherry makes her Seattle Opera debut with a production hailed as “sublime, visually fantastic, must-see” (stuff.co.nz).
An American Dream composed by Jack Perla with libretto by Jessica Murphy Moo returns in fall 2017 as part of the company’s community-engagement work to introduce opera to new audiences. Presenting partners include Densho and
Seattle’s Japanese American Citizens League chapter, who, through post- show discussions, will help take attendees deeper into the civil-rights implications of this story and its themes of wartime hysteria, racism, and xenophobia. Inspired by true stories from Puget Sound’s history, Dream depicts two intersecting narratives during World War II: a Japanese American family facing incarceration, and a German Jewish immigrant preoccupied by those she left behind. Details regarding the performance will be announced on seattleopera.org in the coming weeks.
The other activities surrounding Butterfly include two panels. The first, “Asian Arts Leaders Respond to Madame Butterfly” on July 9 at SIFF Cinema Uptown 2, is moderated by Frank Abe, co-founder of Seattle’s Asian American Journalists Association. Angel Alviar-Langley, a queer Filipina American street-styles dancer, will perform and also serve on the panel, which will include Kathy Hsieh, a celebrated actor and arts leader; LeiLani Nishime, an Associate Professor of Communication whose research focuses on Asian American representation among other topics; Matthew Ozawa, opera stage director; The Shanghai Pearl, internationally-beloved burlesque artist; Roger Tang, the “Godfather of Asian American theatre” (A. Magazine); and Karl Reyes, a frequent performer in Seattle Opera mainstage productions, as well as a longtime member of the Seattle Opera Chorus.
Later in the month, “Reversing the Madame Butterfly Effect: Asian American Women Reinvent Themselves Onstage” will take place on July 28 at Cornish Playhouse Studio Theatre. The evening will include three short plays by Asian American women playwrights as well as conversations on reclaiming Asian female representation in art and entertainment. The event is curated by Kathy Hsieh and presented in partnership with SIS Productions.
Of course, these plans are simply a start toward greater equity and inclusion, and creating a more welcoming environment for everyone to be able to experience opera.
“I can’t speak for all people of Japanese or API ancestry—some of whom love opera and love Madame Butterfly,” said Sarah Baker, President of Seattle’s Japanese American Citizens League. “But I can say that Butterfly is frequently a hurtful and problematic work to many in our community. Seattle JACL hopes you will let your voice be heard at Seattle Opera’s panel discussions. Let’s help create a better future for the arts. Ultimately, Asian Americans and all people of color need to see our own narratives onstage, brought to life by performers, storytellers, and directors who include people from our own communities.”
Madame Butterfly opens Saturday August 5, and runs through Saturday, August 19. Tickets are available online at seattleopera.org, by calling 206-389-7676, or in- person at the box office located at 1020 John Street (two blocks west of Fairview). Box office hours are Monday-Friday between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. Prices start at $25. Groups save at least 20 percent: 206.676.5588 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Music by Giacomo Puccini
- Libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica In Italian with English captions Marion Oliver McCaw Hall
- Performances: August 5, 6, 9, 12, 13, 16, 18, 19, 2017
- Approximate Running Time: 2 hours and 55 minutes with one intermission
- Evening performances begin at 7:30 p.m., matinees at 2:00 p.m. Premiere: Feb. 17, 1904, at Teatro alla Scala
- Previous Seattle Opera Performances: 1966, 1970, 1977, 1995, 1982, 1989, 2002, 2012
Cio-Cio-San: Liana Haroutounian* (Aug. 5, 9, 13m, & 18) Yasko Sato* (Aug. 6m, 12, 16, & 19)
Pinkerton: Alexey Dolgov* (Aug. 5, 9, 13m, & 18) Dominick Chenes* (Aug. 6m, 12, 16, & 19)
Sharpless: Weston Hurt (All dates)
Suzuki: Renée Rapier (All dates)
Kate Pinkerton: Sarah Mattox (All dates)
Goro: Rodell Rosel (All dates)
Prince Yamadori: Ryan Bede (All dates)
The Bonze: Daniel Sumegi (All dates)
Imperial Commissioner: Jonathan Silvia (All dates)
Registrar: Kwangsuk Ku (All dates)
Director: Kate Cherry*
Conductor: Carlo Montanaro
Production Design: Christina Smith*
Lighting Design: Matt Scott*
* Company Debut