Here’s how a Utah production of the problematic ‘Madame Butterfly’ will be different

It will be part of Utah Opera’s 2024-2025 season, along with ‘Sweeney Todd,’ ‘Hansel and Gretel’ and ‘Pagliacci.’

Utah Opera plans a 2025 staging of Giacomo Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” — historically a controversial work because of its stereotyped depictions of Japanese women — with a twist: It has a production team of Japanese American artists behind it.

Five performances of “Madame Butterfly” are scheduled for May 2025 at the Capitol Theatre in Salt Lake City, to close out Utah Opera’s 2024-2025 season, which the company announced Tuesday afternoon.

Puccini’s tragic opera is set in Nagasaki, Japan, and revolves around a Japanese woman, Cio-Cio-San, called the Butterfly. She marries a U.S. Navy officer, B.F. Pinkerton, who abandons her shortly after their wedding. Pinkerton returns years later with a new wife, and learns Cio-Cio has had their child, a son. Eventually, in one of the operatic canon’s most famous final acts, Cio-Cio takes her own life.

“Madame Butterfly” been long criticized by Asian Americans for its portrayal of Japanese culture and women. For example, the main female character is a geisha, a professional entertainer who is trained in various forms of traditional Japanese arts. “Geisha” literally translates to “art person” in Japanese.

The opera has faced criticisms of racial stereotyping, cultural appropriation and misrepresentation of gender identity.

Utah Symphony | Utah Opera, the nonprofit that manages both arts groups. In a news release sharing the season’s announcement, they recognized the criticism the opera has faced.

Christopher McBeth, Utah Opera’s artistic director, spoke about the importance of acknowledging these complexities saying, “With ‘Madame Butterfly,’ as much as we love the music, the characters, and the story, we must also recognize the European and American perspectives of the time, which lacked a deep understanding of Japanese culture.”

“Over its 46-year history, Utah Opera has presented six productions of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. Its sublime music appeals to our dedicated opera-goers, but as I considered scheduling the work for its next inclusion in our calendar, the opera’s stereotyped depiction of Japanese culture and its women gave me pause,” he wrote.

McBeth said he was “intrigued to learn of Cincinnati’s new production of Madame Butterfly, conceived and directed by Matthew Ozawa and realized visually by Japanese and Japanese American designers.”

“After traveling to Cincinnati to meet with the creative team and attend a performance, I felt that this vision of the opera resolved many of the difficult issues,” McBeth wrote in the artistic statement of the production.

McBeth also wrote about how “Salt Lake City is home to a considerable Japanese-American community.” He noted the Salt Lake Buddhist Temple, the former Topaz Japanese-American internment camp.

“Utah Opera has begun exploring with these institutions and members of our local Japanese American community how this production of Madame Butterfly may further appreciation and respect for Japanese heritage in Utah.”

Utah Opera is co-producing the new production — described as “a fresh interpretation of this classic” — alongside Cincinnati Opera (where it premiered last July), Detroit Opera, (where it played in October) and Pittsburgh Opera (where it is scheduled to be performed in March 2025). The opera is being directed by Ozawa and a production team of Japanese American designers.

Hiromi Omura, a Japanese-French soprano, will play Cio-Cio-San. Utah native Eric Taylor will play the role of Pinkerton. Nmon Ford will play the role of the American Consul, Sharpless; and Suzuki will be portrayed by Nina Yoshida Nelsen. Derrick Inouye will be the conductor.

“I’ve always loved the story of Madame Butterfly,” Ozawa said in the news release, “but now, our new production reclaims the narrative through the lens of an entirely Japanese and Japanese-American team; and amplifies the voices of an entirely female Japanese design collective.”

(Maddie McGarvey | The New York Times) Matthew Ozawa directs a rehearsal of Cincinnati Opera's new production of "Madame Butterfly," at the Cincinnati Music Hall in Cincinnati, July 17, 2023. Utah Opera announced on Marcy 12, 2024, that it has scheduled to present this production as part of its 2024-2025 season, in May 2025.

The release also promises Utah Opera will collaborate with the local Japanese American community.

Jean Tokuda Irwin, a Utah arts educator who won a national award in 2022 for her DEI efforts, estimates she has seen the opera 20 or 30 times from different companies across the country, including The Metropolitan Opera.

The first time she saw it — at the age of 19 or 20 — has stuck with her.

“My fiancé took me to see it at the Kansas City Lyric Opera Theater,” she recalls, “He took me to that knowing my story.”

Her story, that in ways, reflects that of Cio-Cio and her son. Tokuda Irwin said she has spent “her lifetime trying to find her mother” and wasn’t successful. As a young child, Tokuda Irwin was left at an orphanage in Karuizawa, Japan — but the story starts before that.

“My mother and I were banished by the oldest brother from the family, because she had had a relationship with someone from the country that had defeated Japan,” Tokuda Irwin said. She was born after World War II, during the years of American occupation.

“America was just considered the guys that bombed us, that did Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and destroyed Japan. And, of course, we don’t want a child that reminds us of that kind of defeat and in this family,” Tokuda Irwin said.

“This whole issue of where I came from, who do I look and act like, does my stubbornness and curiosity come from my mother or a father? I know nothing about,” she said. “It’s like living in a house where most of the rooms are closed off to you and you don’t know what’s behind that door.”

Tokuda Irwin said she knows enough about her father to know he was a naval officer, and that, genetically, more than half of her is Japanese. When she first saw “Madame Butterfly,” she said she sobbed the entire time, out of empathy for all involved — veterans, children and women — all casualties of war and war times.

“We left nine years of children in Vietnam. Lots of Amerasian children were left behind. Many have been adopted over the years. Some soldiers have gone back to retrieve the mother and their child,” Tokuda Irwin said.

A few years ago, Tokuda Irwin said, she saw a version of “Madame Butterfly” in Utah, where Pinkerton and Cio-Cio’s child was played by an Amerasian child. “I had never seen that and it made me cry, because I’m a ‘Madame Butterfly’ child myself.”

Tokuda Irwin said she is curious to see the new version of the opera, especially because “we’re dealing with such heated issues today.”

“As a nation, we’re so divided about how to address things like this. Our own state is divided about how to address topics like this,” she said.

There are a lot of productions, she said, that could warrant re-examination. She cited “The Music Man” as an example.

“Any artistic production that deals with issues like this, that are very difficult and perhaps controversial, needs to be examined and presented with every possible action toward the sensitivity of the topic,” she added.

Each time she’s seen a production of “Madame Butterfly,” Tokuda Irwin said, she’s felt differently: Anger at Pinkerton, empathy for him, sorrow for his American wife, feeling seen by the story of their child, despair at Cio-Cio ending her own life.

“You never know who brings what association to that audience,” she said. “There are huge issues that aren’t even intended to be part of ‘Madame Butterfly.’ But for certain viewers, it brings up lots of things to think about.”

The three other performances lined up for the 2024-2025 season are: Stephen Sondheim’s dark musical “Sweeney Todd” in October, Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel” in January 2025, and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” in March 2025. Subscriptions for the 2024-25 season can be purchased on the Utah Opera website, by phone or the mobile app. Individual performance tickets will go on sale Aug. 1.

(Maddie McGarvey | The New York Times) Adam Smith dons a virtual reality headset as the overture begins in Cincinnati Opera's new production of "Madame Butterfly," at the Cincinnati Music Hall in Cincinnati, July 17, 2023. Utah Opera announced on Marcy 12, 2024, that it has scheduled to present this production as part of its 2024-2025 season, in May 2025.

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