Opera in Conversation: 'Artistic Choices & Obligations' Takeaways

Oct 30, 2019

Jun Kaneko’s renowned production of Madama Butterfly returns to the Orpheum Theater for two performances only, November 1 and 3! Tickets start at $19: operaomaha.org/butterfly

Thank you to all who attended our final Opera in Conversation for Madama Butterfly on October 29. We discussed how directors and designers can work to address the problematic elements in many of our favorite operas. Thank you also to Leslie Swackhamer, Madama Butterfly director, Yuki Izumihara, set designer for Opera Omaha’s upcoming production of The Capulets and the Montagues, and Katherine MacHolmes of Inclusive Communities for a thoughtful discussion of these topics. Here are some important takeaways from the conversation:

While the evening covered a number of topics relating to cultural representation in opera, the discussion largely centered three concepts: abstraction and universality, good people making poor decisions, and collaboration and feedback.

Abstraction and the universality of the narrative was frequent theme of the evening. In the case of Kaneko’s Madama Butterfly, the set and costumes are both abstracted such that they communicate only what is actually necessary for the narrative. There is no house per se; there is only the communication of openness, privacy, and separation. There are no precise indicators of time or setting; there is only the interaction of different characters and cultures and the resulting miscommunications. Through the abstraction of setting and time period, the audience is forced to focus primarily on the interpersonal interactions on stage. These interactions and their consequences are most important, as opposed to the way these interactions relate to or are influenced by the setting.

By abstracting a story from time, location or culture in this way, the creative team can highlight the universality and continual relevance of this narrative. In Madama Butterfly, a foreign military man comes to a new place, engages in relations with a local, and then leaves disregarding the destruction he leaves in his wake. This narrative archetype is not tied to US-Japan relations in 1904; it could take place in British India in the 19th century, or Iraq in 2005. It resonates equally with those who see the legacy of colonialism in their country, or those who have experienced foreign wars from any side. Similarly, in Izumihara’s upcoming set design for Opera Omaha’s The Capulets and the Montagues, abstraction allows themes of polarization and displacement to shine though. These themes are ones we can all fathom, be it political polarization in the United States or the displacement of refugees in the Middle East.

The morality of characters was also discussed extensively. Swackhamer was keen to suggest that we prevent ourselves from sorting the characters of Madama Butterfly into boxes of good and bad prior to experiencing the production. Instead, she purported that these characters were perhaps all ultimately morally guided people, albeit deeply flawed ones. For example, Pinkerton commits an abhorrent act by betraying Cio-Cio-San and marrying Kate. However, he also shows much remorse for his behavior in the third act, such that he flees after asking Suzuki to give him Butterfly’s son. An outright villain, argued Swackhamer, would not display such remorse. We do not navigate the world thinking of ourselves as villains, and neither does Pinkerton. He embodies some of the worst attitudes of his time, but he is also a product of his upbringing and military training. He also does not profit from Butterfly’s death as you might expect a villain to – as Swackhamer put it, he and his new wife Kate will certainly not be sharing a bed in the future! Likewise, Sharpless could be seen as cowardly as he has the chance to change the course of events multiple times but fails to act. However, he does not have malicious intent, he is just arguably rather spineless.

By refusing to simply flatten the narrative into good versus bad, the creative team preserves nuance that necessarily extends to cultural representation. By avoiding dividing characters into opposing camps and instead maintaining appreciation of the individual, the characters are also freed from constricting cultural representations. The American characters, while responsible for most of the unfortunate events that take place, are also capable of seeing the results of their actions and are hardly perfect villains. Likewise, Butterfly is not pigeon-holed into a problematic exoticized archetype of a naïve Japanese woman. Instead, she has power and agency, and is instead restricted by the social, cultural, and political norms of her time.

Both Swackhamer and Izumihara also spoke extensively about the need for open feedback and collaboration in the process of staging an opera or play. Cultural appropriation is roughly defined as the taking of aspects of a different culture without considering the context or people behind those aspects. For example, if one is to wear a kimono, as many characters do in Madama Butterfly, one can be culturally appropriative if one overlooks the craftsmanship and traditions surrounding that object. Kimonos are traditionally worn for formal occasions in Japan and are laboriously handcrafted, hence wearing a kimono while disregarding these traditions amounts to cultural appropriation. In designing the costumes for the production, Kaneko and Swackhamer ensured that they understood the cultural significance of the kimono and were cognizant of that when designing the production.

Collaboration also takes another form when creating a production; that of giving the culture or people being represented in a work a seat at the table. Swackhamer raised the example of a project in which she is currently involved, the upcoming opera adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s 2007 novel A Thousand Splendid Suns. This story engages with themes of domestic violence in Afghanistan between the 1960’s and the US invasion in 2001. With a creative team comprised of mostly Americans, the decision was made to involve an Afghan cultural liaison in order to ensure accuracy in the portrayal of Afghanistan and the lives of women in the country. Izumihara also discussed Sanctuaries, an upcoming concert series of which she is a part that attends to gentrification and displacement in Portland, Oregon. Hailing from Japan and therefore having an outside perspective, Izumihara has been sure to involve the voices of the mostly African-American residents who were displaced in Portland. In the case of Madama Butterfly, Kaneko himself was crucial to ensuring an accurate and appreciative representation of Japan in his production. Most important to understand is that by giving a seat at the table to those whose culture or experience is being represented, directors, designers, and other creatives can make sure that their works speak from lived experiences, not their own possibly misunderstood version of events.

This blog post concludes the Madama Butterfly Opera in Conversation series. To learn more about the set and costume design and the history of Japan and exoticism as it relates to the opera, please follow the links below.

Jack Hardwick
Opera Omaha Weitz Fellow

Takeaways from October 15 Opera in Conversation: operaomaha.org/blog/opera-in-conversation-kaneko-set-design-takeaways
Takeaways from October 22 Opera in Conversation: operaomaha.org/blog/opera-in-conversation-politics-of-exoticism-takeaways

Search Blog

Search by year