Dec. 27, 2023

Traveling with Madame Butterfly


The first time I experienced Giacomo Puccini’s Madame Butterfly performed live on stage was in Warsaw, Poland at the Teatr Wielki when I was a teenager in the early 1990s. In November 1990, my family and I had moved from Japan to Warsaw when my father was assigned a post at the Japanese embassy in that city. The transition from living in Japan at the height of its bubble economy to a life in a former Soviet Bloc country during its enormous social, economic, and cultural transformation was eye-opening to say the least. However, the move also granted me affordable and plentiful access to a wide range of musical experiences, including an open-air concert of Chopin piano pieces in the park, events at the celebrated new music festival of Warsaw Autumn, concerts of orchestral music at the Warsaw Philharmonic, and even colorful and vibrant showcases of Polish regional folk dances. But above all, it was in Warsaw that I became enthralled with opera.  


Although I only have fragmentary memories of the night I saw Madame Butterfly, I do remember being startled at the odd spectacle of a mostly Polish cast donning costumes and make-up that vaguely looked Japanese and the curious, cartoonish gestures they made. I was told by someone in the know that the production was sung in Polish except for the part of Cio-Cio-San performed by an Italian soprano, who used her native tongue. I knew that the opera was a story that took place in Nagasaki, Japan, but what I saw did not resemble anything like the place I just left behind. Yet, within this disorienting experience, I did recognize a handful of Japanese tunes such as “Sakura,” about the beauty of cherry blossoms in spring; “Kimigayo,” the Japanese national anthem; and “Miyasan,” the cheerful sounding children’s song. Hearing tunes familiar to me and other Japanese people sung in Polish and Italian to a roomful of non-Japanese audience members struck me as a bizarre and captivating phenomenon that made me wonder how Puccini, an Italian composer who never visited Japan, got ahold of them.  


The experience stuck with me as I moved to the United States to pursue my studies in music and encountered bits and pieces of the opera in different contexts. While I was a music student in Cincinnati, I ended up writing an undergraduate thesis on the libretto of Madame Butterfly and its source materials and later a master’s thesis on Puccini’s use of Japanese melodies in the opera. In the process, I came to understand that, in addition to the tunes I recognized, Puccini had also incorporated Japanese tunes that I was unfamiliar with, such as pieces of Japanese traditional music “Echigojishi” and “Oedo Nihonbashi,” as well as now-forgotten popular songs from the turn of the twentieth century such as “Suiryōbushi” and “Kappore hōnen.” Tracing the routes through which these songs traveled from Japan to Italy taught me the history of musical exchanges that took place between Japan and the West through Japanese performing artists who toured in Europe, as well as American and European musicians who were invited by the Japanese government to introduce Western music and music education. In other words, the score of Madame Butterfly contains the traces of not only how Europeans understood and imagined Japanese music to be but also how Japanese musicians sought to acquire knowledge about Western music on their own volition during the late nineteenth century. Through Puccini’s “Japanese tragedy,” then, I had made my way to this history of how two groups of people living on the opposing ends of the world exchanged their musical traditions. 


But this kind of cultural exchange was not always accomplished on equitable terms. The turn of the twentieth century, when the opera premiered, saw Western colonial power exert their influences around the globe while they witnessed Japan’s effort to rapidly modernize and transform itself into a regional colonial power. Considering this background, it was inevitable that Puccini’s opera should contain widely circulating European prejudices and anxieties toward the distant and ancient but rapidly developing nation of Japan. Indeed, the opera contains various elements in its libretto, score, and stage directions that present Japanese people and their culture in unflattering and offensive ways that are reflective of this time in history. Audience members in Japan have always been attuned to these elements since the first excerpted performance of the opera took place in that country in 1914. Japanese performers, writers, and critics have been grappling with Puccini’s Madame Butterfly ever since, seeking to balance their drive to understand and master this piece of European opera with their desire to represent their own culture on their own terms. In the United States too, many Asian American artists and activists have long questioned the value of continuing to promote the opera considering its negative repercussions.  


Emerging from the series of traumatic events the world has experienced in the recent years, including the COVID-19 pandemic and the rise of physical violence and verbal abuse against people of Asian descent, more and more individuals as well as opera companies are raising their voices to seriously assess and engage with the opera’s colonial undertones. In May 2021, Boston Lyric Opera decided to halt its scheduled production of Madame Butterfly, already postponed due to the pandemic, and instead began an extensive series of online and in-person discussions highlighting the voices of artists of Asian descent titled The Butterfly Process. Similar efforts were undertaken by Canada’s Amplified Opera and the Metropolitan Opera in 2022. The year 2023 alone saw multiple new productions of the opera in the U.S. by directors of Asian descent including Aria Umezawa (New Orleans Opera), Amon Miyamoto (San Francisco Opera), Matthew Ozawa (Cincinnati Opera), and Phil Chan and Nina Yoshida Nelsen (Boston Lyric Opera). Through innovative framing devices and thoughtful interventions to the text of the opera, these directors invite us the audience to reflect on the concerns shared by many people of Asian descent. What is remarkable and significant in these revivals of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly is the central roles that Asian and Asian American individuals have taken not only in leading the conversation but also presenting their own visions.  


In my capacity as a cultural consultant for the Houston Grand Opera’s production of Madame Butterfly, I hope to assist the artists and the production team as well as the local community of opera lovers to explore and reflect on this rich legacy of the opera. More than 30 years after encountering Madame Butterfly for the first time, I hope to help us find a way of traveling with Butterfly in a way that acknowledges its checkered history but also imagines a path forward toward a new horizon.  

about the author
Kunio Hara
Kunio Hara, HGO's cultural consultant for Madame Butterfly this season, is an associate professor of music history at the University of South Carolina.