Manitoba Opera production of Madama Butterfly sparks discussion around race
'We may not be able to hold Puccini to our contemporary standards, but we can hold each other accountable'
An upcoming Manitoba Opera production of Madama Butterfly has sparked debate over how the more than century-old tale of a doomed marriage between a Japanese teenager and an older American man fits with modern views about race.
The opera company's website describes Giacomo Puccini's famous work as "the intensely moving story of a devoted young Japanese woman who is loved and betrayed by an American naval officer."
"Set in Japan at the dawn of the 20th century, East meets West in this clash of values and traditions."
Jenny Heijun Wills, an associate professor in the University of Winnipeg's English department, has raised concerns about staging an opera she says reinforces harmful stereotypes of Asian women.
"We may not be able to hold Puccini to our contemporary standards, but we can hold each other accountable in our contemporary moment," she said.
The female protagonist, young geisha Cio-Cio San, believes her marriage to the naval officer will last forever, but he leaves her to return to the United States shortly after they are wed. She bears their son, but the child is taken away from her years later when the officer returns to Japan with his American wife. Cio-Cio San kills herself for reasons of honour.
"There are actual material consequences to this narrative of Asian women ... always being patient, always being submissive, being sexually available for mostly European white foreigners to overtake," said Wills, who is also director of the university's Critical Race Network.
Larry Desrochers, executive director of Manitoba Opera, said some concerns with the story are valid.
"The original story is really influenced with this kind of imperialistic attitude and obviously there's still vestiges of it in the opera today," he said.
But many of its themes are universal and timeless, he added.
"It tells the story of a young girl who's misled and mistreated by an older man that's still relevant today."
Desrochers said it was important to cast a Japanese woman as lead. Renowned soprano Hiromi Omura will be playing the part of Cio-Cio San for three shows next month. When the opera company did Madama Butterfly eight years ago, a Chinese singer had the role.
Omura, who lives in France, has performed in Madama Butterfly 100 times around the world since 2004. The singer, who remembers singing arias in her family's traditional Japanese garden as a child, said the story resonates with her.
"For me, it's a story of a woman who lived with all of her might, even in a very hard situation," she said. "Maybe somebody in the audience can be moved, can be touched by her way of life."
Starting a discussion
In the lead-up to the production, the opera has organized a talk about interracial relationships and a panel discussion on cultural appropriation.
Wills said she takes issue with the panel partly because Omura is the only Asian voice on it and, as a member of the cast, is unlikely to have a critical take.
The professor also said cultural appropriation isn't the main issue with Madama Butterfly, because the opera is not telling a Japanese story through a white lens and capitalizing from it. Rather, she said, it tells a western story that happens to be set in Japan.
Desrochers said the goal is to have a wide-ranging discussion with people in Winnipeg's broader arts community.
The Japanese Cultural Association of Manitoba was invited early on to partner with Manitoba Opera on Madama Butterfly, said president Art Miki.
The group is holding a sake and sushi night next week and will have information booths and crafts for sale during the shows. Proceeds go toward the association's fundraising efforts.
"It's a way of promoting our culture here with a wider audience," said Miki, who also said he takes no issue with the staging of Madama Butterfly because it reflects attitudes from a different time.
"I have to say, 'Well, that's the way it was,"' he said. "Otherwise, we're in the position of trying to censor everything that exists that may appear to be not acceptable today."