‘Butterfly’ Undergoes Sensitivity Correction, But It’s Still ‘Butterfly’

In the Boston Lyric Opera production of Madama Butterfly Cio Cio San soprano Karen Chia Ling Ho hides from her Japanese identity as an entertainer in a Chinese nightclub The Forbidden City Photos by Ken Yotsukura

BOSTON — Many organizations acknowledged a reckoning during the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter protests. To their credit, most arts groups examined their infrastructure and motives and began making changes to incorporate diversity initiatives and foster inclusion.

As did the Boston Lyric Opera. Forced to postpone a planned Madama Butterfly in the 2020 season, Boston Lyric did not simply delay the production. The company took the time to re-evaluate the plot’s stereotypes. Given the basic premise — an American serviceman fecklessly marries a Japanese 15-year-old, knowing he can divorce her easily once he’s found a “proper” American — Madama Butterfly could certainly undergo reassessment.

Thus was born the Butterfly Process, a Boston Lyric initiative involving numerous constituencies. The resulting revision to the company’s first staging of Puccini’s opera since 2014 opened at the Emerson Colonial Theatre Sept. 14 and runs through Sept. 24.

Cio Cio San Karen Chia Ling Ho and Pinkerton Dominick Chenes celebrate their wedding

The setting of this Butterfly is not turn-of-the-century Japan, but World War II America. Act I takes place in San Francisco, where Cio-Cio-San (stalwart soprano Karen Chia-Ling Ho) hides from her Japanese identity as an entertainer in a Chinese nightclub, The Forbidden City.

There she meets Pinkerton and marries him — all part of an evening’s entertainment. In the grim Act 2, she waits with their son and her companion Suzuki (mezzo-soprano Alice Chung, marvelously cast), relocated to a Japanese internment camp in the Arizona desert, hoping that Pinkerton (spinto tenor Dominick Chenes, typecast) will return.

This libretto empowers Cio-Cio-San in ways and so creates a more equitable balance between the two main characters. At one point, she sings “You laugh at me?” defiantly to Pinkerton, which the demure Butterfly of the original would never do. American ugliness is not spared, and Pinkerton and Sharpless (sturdy baritone Troy Cook) were facile subjects for mockery through sight gags and in the text.

Seeking political correctness in historic works can become a fool’s errand, but in this case the plot changes simply shifted stereotypes to the side. Most changes seemed cosmetic, meant to sync up the newer situations with Puccini’s endlessly infectious score. Butterfly still waits haplessly for Pinkerton but in a camp. She believes he’s returning not by seeing a ship in the harbor but by an American military plane overhead. Goro (energetic tenor Rodell Rosel), the shifty marriage broker, runs the nightclub and ends up in the camp himself.

Suzuki Alice Chung attends Cio Cio San Karen Chia Ling Ho who reveals to Sharpless Troy Cook that she had a son with Pinkerton

Sets and blocking in Act 1 — the hectic interior of The Forbidden City, which actually thrived in real-life San Francisco during the war years — were smartly accomplished, with the entertainment looking like a three-ring circus. The internment of Japanese-Americans gets treated with introspection and respect through photos and historical investigations (the Flower Scene duet merges lovingly with the paper-flower arts that flourished in the camps).

The singers blended exquisitely, uniformly in good voice, and made listening – not the political corrections – the highlight. Crisp blocking and action were obviously products of solid rehearsing. The orchestra sat at audience level, and conductor David Angus had excellent sightlines to the singers, which helped with the hectic stage action.

Cio Cio San Karen Chia Ling Ho embraces her son Dolore Neko Umphenour

Director Phil Chan was joined by dramaturg Nina Yoshida Nelsen, a choreographer (Michael Sakamoto), an intimacy director (Jackie Davis), and three additional historical dramaturges in realizing this Butterfly Process. The production came about after several years of public forums, roundtables, and other collaborative storytelling efforts.

The entire project seems excessively explained and feels like virtue signaling, given the relative insignificance of the changes. The balance of power is better in this Butterfly, but stereotypes are still there. And the primary reason to hear Madama Butterfly remains unchanged.

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Keith Powers
Keith Powers covers music and the arts for Leonore Overture, Classical Voice North America, Chamber Music America, and Opera News. Follow @PowersKeith; email to keithmichaelpowers@gmail.com.