Opera and cultural sensitivity

I’m doing a production of Madama Butterfly and the set and costume design are what I’ve dubbed “impressionistic” Japanese. We hint at the idea of Japan and try to do some things with accuracy, but we’re not attempting to recreate Japanese culture. For example, I’ve learned that the kimono is to be crossed left over right as the other way is reserved exclusively for the dead. This detail popped out at me when I looked at our poster. Foreshadowing, perhaps?

Madame Butterfly

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Our costume designer, Rose-Ellen Nichols, did an amazing job whipping up a variety of colors and we look gorgeous, but we’re not authentic and that’s okay. Puccini wrote Madama Butterfly at a time when isolationist Japan was still an exotic mystery. In the time of 1910s people were romanticizing the heck out of Japan and anything Japan-style was extremely fashionable. It was also a garbled mess. He wasn’t expected to be accurate as he didn’t have the internet or jet travel. Nor did he have the sensitivity to other cultures that we (hopefully) have today.

I play one of the villagers who denounce and sneer at Cio-cio-san at her wedding. It’s fun. Unlike our soprano’s grueling eighty-six minutes of non-stop singing, we just pop in at the beginning and make her feel bad. She must suffer. Then, we retire to the green room to play card games until it’s time for the famous humming chorus.

art print scene from Madame Butterfly

One other bit of interest we learned about wearing a kimono is that the back of the neck was considered one of the most attractive parts of a woman in this time period (1890s is when the opera is set), which is why you see the back of the kimono scooped down to reveal the neck. Here I sport a more modest decolletage.

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Modern artists do not have ignorance as an excuse. If someone were writing an opera about Japan today we’d expect accuracy. In fact, it’s unlikely that anyone other than Japanese people would be cast in the roles. It’s a bit touchy when you’re trying to bring old music to life as you must underplay some of the ignorant ideas that were commonplace at the time. I’ve written before about how some very fine artists were also racist and how it shows in their opera.

Madame Butterfly traditional poster

The only way around all of this is to tread lightly and to give only the impression of Japan. No geisha make up or any attempt at covering our racial configuration. It’s about the music. And after all, if we expect the audience to believe that Butterfly is a fifteen-year old Japanese girl it doesn’t seem like such a leap to ignore all the other glaring artistic liberties.

Our diva, Gina McLellan Morel, is a flawless Butterfly, even though she plainly isn’t a fifteen-year old Japanese girl.

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