Updated Feb 1, 2024 - Culture

HGO's interpretation of "Madame Butterfly"

Photo of 2 women and a boy on stage, spreading flowers down a path.

The relationship between Cio-Cio-San and her maid Suzuki was beautifully depicted. Photo: Michael Bishop, courtesy of HGO

Giacomo Puccini's "Madame Butterfly" — on view at the Houston Grand Opera — is revered for being sonically beautiful, but there's often controversy surrounding the story and, in particular, how it portrays Japanese culture.

Driving the opera: Cio-Cio-San, known as Butterfly, marries an American naval officer named Pinkerton in Japan. Pinkerton abandons her for three years while Cio-Cio-San raises their son. When Pinkerton returns with another wife, wanting his child, Cio-Cio-San faces heartbreak and tragedy.

The intrigue: Despite the absence of Japanese actors and Japanese Americans in its cast, HGO has taken some steps to demonstrate cultural awareness and sensitivity.

  • Soprano Ailyn Pérez, who plays Cio-Cio-San, tells Axios that the first day the cast got together, cultural consultant Kunio Hara was present to walk through the sensitivities and implications of the opera.
  • Nao Kusuzaki, the show's movement director, gave insight on Japanese gestures.
  • Both Hara and Kusuzaki are Japanese American.

What they're saying: "Having them present for the first day, I can't tell you what a major shift that is for the industry," Pérez says, adding that the opera world needs to be more mindful, respectful and inclusive, especially after hate crimes against the Asian community during the pandemic.

My thought bubble: I was hesitant about "Madame Butterfly" — largely because of the story's underlying prejudice.

  • Of note: The industry is having a dialogue about whether problematic classics should be retired. But as for HGO's production, I enjoyed the show.
  • I appreciated that Cio-Cio-San wasn't made out to be a silly, pathetic woman; the characters didn't seem like they were made into Japanese caricatures; the cast was diverse; the set design was beautiful; and, of course, I was glad the cast did not wear yellowface makeup (the bare minimum).
  • Yes, but: There's no doubt that there's still a lot of work to be done.

Flashback: In 2022, when I went to see HGO's version of "Turandot," another Puccini opera set in East Asia, some of the actors appeared to use makeup that made them deliberately appear Asian, but HGO says that was not its intent and it was using a stylized face makeup in its staging.

If you go: "Madame Butterfly" runs through Feb. 11. Tickets start at $25.

What's next: "The Big Swim," a one-act-opera commissioned by HGO in partnership with Asia Society Texas as part of its Lunar New Year festivities, will be at the Asia Society Texas Center Feb. 16-18.

Editor's note: This piece was updated to add comment from HGO on how it used makeup in "Turandot."

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