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Upon arriving at the Emerson Colonial Theatre to watch “Madama Butterfly,” audiences are greeted with an unexpected sight: an older version of the titular character (Keiko Orrall) frosting a birthday cake with an equally older version of her friend Suzuki (Donna Tsufura). At the end of the original opera, the 18-year-old Butterfly commits suicide after relinquishing her son to a white American family. As this version’s older Butterfly pauses in a moment of remembrance, she expresses the autonomy and emotional complexity at the heart of director Phil Chan’s reimagining of “Madama Butterfly.” Boston Lyric Opera’s adaptation of the famous opera seeks to overwrite its orientalist overtones by developing a more nuanced Asian perspective, which largely outshines the performance’s weaknesses.
“Madama Butterfly” opened the Boston Lyric Opera’s 2023-2024 season with an Asian-led transformation of Giacomo Puccini’s classic opera. Relocating the story from 1904 Japan to 1940s San Francisco, the show reimagines young Butterfly (Karen Chia-Ling Ho) as a Chinatown dancer who strikes up a romance with B.F. Pinkerton (Dominick Chenes), a U.S. naval officer who is soon called to duty and marries a white American woman while away. Butterfly must raise her and Pinkerton’s son, Dolore (Neko Umphenour), in a Japanese incarceration camp, all while maintaining an undefeatable hope in Pinkerton’s return.
Integrating America’s anti-Japanese sentiment during World War II into “Madama Butterfly” adds long-needed depth to Butterfly’s character. In the original story, the Japanese Butterfly’s naïve idolization of Pinkerton reinforces Western notions of America’s superiority. Here, the Japanese-American Butterfly expresses the patriotism that is necessary for her and her child’s survival. One of the key changes — Dolore’s illness and death — replaces the problematic event of an Asian woman committing suicide to ensure her son is raised by Americans. In Chan’s production, Butterfly intentionally adapts to an oppressive system and prioritizes her son’s well-being, relying on Pinkerton to save Dolore from the incarceration camp. Considering that Chan’s interpretation aligns perfectly with the opera, it’s surprising that it is so unique. Chan’s approach is both fitting and fresh, a testament to his creativity.
While Ho portrays the young Butterfly as romantic and naïve, she also carries a joyful self-assurance. As Ho and Chenes teasingly flit around each other in their Act I love duet, Butterfly’s presence feels equal, not submissive, to Pinkerton’s. Similarly, Sharpless (Troy Cook) projects a mutually respectful dynamic with Butterfly and Suzuki (Alice Chung). The four main performers’ voices reach emotional peaks when they join to express love and sorrow, but their movements and the orchestra’s instrumental music sometimes fail to match the passion of their vocals.
Physicality also sends a muddled message during the dance interlude between Acts II and III. A solo dancer (Cassie Wang), representing Butterfly, performs a contemporary dance opposite Butterfly’s elderly counterpart, black-and-white images of Japanese-Americans are projected onto the stage. The puzzling choreography adds an unnecessary contemporary layer to the 1940s aesthetic — further distracting from the show’s well-intended historical highlight. Furthermore, the dance’s concentrated expressivity calls attention to the fairly unremarkable blocking throughout the rest of the show.
Otherwise, the opera’s design amplifies its themes of remembrance and oppression. Costume designer Sara Ryung Clement illustrates tensions in America: as some characters don reds, whites, and blues to resist racism, others’ military uniforms represent another, deadlier side of nationalism. Dichotomies of American life are present in the sets, too; set designer Yu Shibagaki’s luxurious Chinatown nightclub and rigid incarceration camp contrast beautifully, while lighting designer Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew’s romantic moonbeam transforms into harsh daylight during Butterfly’s heartbreak. Though not very intricate, the designs help history feel real and personal. The paper flowers made by Butterfly and Suzuki — historically-inspired props — shine as a thoughtful symbol of resourcefulness during suffering, but also ephemeral, artificial hope.
Chan’s seamless vision for “Madama Butterfly” thrives from its commitment to Asian-American input, creativity, and direction. Its disappointments are not rooted in concept, but in some underwhelming performance elements. Overall the production is a success: Boston Lyric Opera’s modern “Madama Butterfly” memorializes the troubling history between America and the Japanese diaspora while maintaining the opera’s emotional artistry, and it portrays an Asian-American experience with clarity and sincerity. Butterfly’s wings may have been pinned, but she eventually flies away, in control of her own past.
Boston Lyric Opera’s production of “Madama Butterfly” runs through Sept. 24 at Emerson Colonial Theatre in Boston, Mass.
—Staff writer Isabelle A. Lu can be reached at email@example.com.
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