Opera Director Returns To Atlanta Roots With A Very Different ‘Madama Butterfly’
“Times have changed, and what was relevant 10 years ago is different now,” he said. “Every time we do it will be a little different because we are not the same. … It’s not the same world.
The story, however, is always the same. “Butterfly” opens in Nagasaki as 15-year-old Japanese girl Cio-Cio San (soprano Yasko Sato), the titular Butterfly, prepares to marry U.S. soldier Lieutenant Pinkerton (tenor Ginaluca Terranova). Not everyone is happy with the arrangement, and her uncle (baritone Suchan Kim) and other wedding guests condemn her decision and rejection of the faith in favor of Pinkerton’s Christianity. Pinkerton soon returns to America to start a second life, leaving his Japanese wife behind to wonder if he will ever return. When Pinkerton returns to Nagasaki with his American wife (mezzo-soprano Gretchen Krupp), Cio-Cio San’s dreams of a happy life are shattered and in the end she commits suicide with the dagger her father once used to commit suicide. .
The cast also includes tenor Julius Ahn, basses Jaenam Lee and Allen Michael Jones, bass-baritone Andrew Gilstrap, and baritones Leroy Davis and Craig Colclough. Timothy Myers directs.
For the new staging, Opera Atlanta focused on performance by welcoming Japanese and Asian American performers into the cast, in addition to bringing in cultural consultants to ensure that an opera considered insensitive respects its characters. Kevin Suzuki will provide advice on traditional Japanese movement, and others will help ensure the authenticity of Allen Charles Klein’s costumes. The reason for the cultural attention is clearly stated on the Atlanta Opera website: “It is an opera written in the first decade of the 1900s by a European, which reaches our modern ears and understanding of a different way.”
This attention extends beyond the stage. The opera produces a five-part podcast titled “Metamorphosis” which addresses cultural sensitivities around “Butterfly”, creating a dialogue around viewing opera in a new light. Hosted by Japanese-American mezzo-soprano Nina Yoshida Nelsen, who plays Cio-Cio San Suzuki’s maid in the production, the first episode features “Final Bow for Yellowface” writer Phil Chan in a discussion of the Asian representation in arts and culture.
The Atlanta Opera isn’t alone in this re-examination of “Butterfly.” Boston Lyric Opera’s “The Butterfly Process” is a series of talks aimed at reframing the company’s upcoming operatic staging, which was scheduled for fall 2020 but canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In June, the Royal Opera House staged “Butterfly” after a year dedicated to all aspects of opera. This organization brought in an expert on the Japanese movement as well as academics to consult on everything from costumes to sets.
Opera Atlanta’s focus on the Japanese community in Atlanta began with this first production in 2014. The organization reached out to the Japan-America Society of Georgia to develop a pre-opera partnership that would help promote the production and get band members interested in attending. This year, the company got more involved in creating educational conversations leading up to the event.
“It’s a more inclusive collaboration this time around,” said the organization’s executive director, Yoshi Domoto. “We really dive deep into the story of ‘Madama Butterfly’.”
Domoto’s organization is best known for cultivating Japanese business in the state. He noted that Japan is the top foreign investor in Georgia (there are more than 600 Japanese companies here), but his organization aims to become more involved in discussing broader aspects of Asian culture. He thinks the partnership with the Atlanta Opera will open up other avenues of conversation about how the Asian American community is portrayed.
“Hopefully this will just be a conversation starter and that we can do a lot more in the future,” he said.
Refusing to stage “Madama Butterfly” was always an option, but it wasn’t the right tactic for Zvulun. He sees opera as a work of art that needs to be experienced, but knows that opera also needs to be seen in context. It must be interpreted taking into account all that has happened over the past decade in terms of adequate representation. This story also includes Atlanta’s experience with Asian hate crimes, and Zvulun is acutely aware that it’s presenting what has always been a problematic opera in a city still mourning the loss of six Asian women killed in the shooting. of the spa in March 2021.
“I see opera as an opportunity to shine a light on the murder of Asian women,” he said. “We consider rather than canceling ‘Madame Butterfly,’ presenting it and talking about these issues is a great opportunity to not only celebrate the masterpiece, but also discuss the danger of tropes and a Eurocentric perspective. “
Avoiding difficult subject matter, or in this case an opera that has historically presented the Japanese as mere caricatures, ultimately stunts artistic growth. It is important for Zvulun to address difficult issues with appropriate guidance and support from affected communities.
“Instead of being afraid to talk about the problems that can emerge from the presentation of a ‘Madame Butterfly’ or ‘Don Giovanni,'” he said, “we see it as an opportunity to address problems that concern us and that have changed through the lens of time.”
Atlanta Opera: “Madame Butterfly”
8:5 p.m., Nov. 11; 7:30 p.m. November 8; 3 p.m. Nov. 13 $45-$181. Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center, 2800 Cobb Galleria Parkway, Atlanta. 404-881-8885, atlantaopera.org.