New production of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly closes Opera Philadelphia’s 2023-2024 Season

Reported on Thursday, March 28, 2024.

Pictured Above: Cio Cio San Doll.  Photo Credit: Ray Bailey.

Newsroom Post: PHILADELPHIA, PA

 

Philadelphia, PA – Opera Philadelphia’s 2023-2024 Season closes in spectacular fashion this spring with a new production of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly that illuminates and ultimately transcends harmful stereotypes, empowering the protagonist Cio Cio San with new choices for her future.

Madame Butterfly and its title character have fascinated audiences for more than a century. Though hailed for its achingly beautiful score and a story that explores universal themes of love and betrayal, it can also perpetuate problematic Asian stereotypes rooted in Orientalism and exoticism.

The new production designed by Yuki Izumihara and directed by Ethan Heard, both making their Opera Philadelphia debuts, seeks to explore ─ and explode ─ the opera’s core, damaging stereotype of ‘the submissive, self-sacrificing Asian woman.’ Drawing from the text of the opera, in which Cio Cio San is described as an “exotic,” “doll-like” “toy,” the production presents the young geisha as a doll that is purchased, played with, and ultimately abandoned by her husband, U.S. Navy Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton.

Pictured Above: Ethan Heard.  Photo Credit: Stanley Bahorek.

“Puccini trapped his Butterfly in a beautiful score. In turn, Madame Butterfly has become a trap, as AAPI artists are asked to lend it authenticity and life in new productions that promise much but change little,” said Izumihara, a scenic, projection, and production designer born in Shimonoseki City, Japan and based in Oakland, CA. “To liberate ourselves from Puccini’s beautiful trap, we propose accepting Cio Cio San as the puppet he created and rendering her as such onstage. Through this form, the production becomes a cautionary tale, examining how ongoing misrepresentation in content and character portrayal affects us all and takes over, unless and until we put our emphasis on the future ─ positivity and empowerment.”

“Pinkerton fetishizes the fifteen-year-old Cio Cio San as a delicate object – something to be purchased, enjoyed, and disposed of,” said Heard, the hapa, Chinese American, co-founder of Heartbeat Opera and Associate Artistic Director of Signature Theatre. “We will see her as a doll puppeteered by our soprano, who we are calling the Spirit of Cio Cio San. While the Spirit initially wants to fulfill Pinkerton’s fantasy, she eventually awakens to the damaging role she is being asked to play.” Scenic and projection design illustrate the need for this metamorphosis in representation, stripping away traditional opulence and ornamentation.

Pictured Above: Karen Chia-ling Ho. Photo Credit: Richard Blinkoff.

Winner of the prestigious Renee Fleming Award from the Eastman School of Music, Taiwanese soprano Karen Chia-ling Ho makes her Opera Philadelphia debut as the spirit of Cio Cio San. Before earning raves for performances at San Francisco Opera and Carnegie Hall, she began her musical career at the age of 6 singing in the Taipei Hua-Hsin Children’s Choir of Taiwan. The physical manifestation of Cio Cio San is brought to the stage by Philadelphia-based puppet artist Hua Hua Zhang, who was born in Beijing, China, earned an MFA in Puppet Art in the School of Fine Arts at the University of Connecticut, and is the founder and artistic director of Visual Expressions.

Madame Butterfly
Music by Giacomo Puccini; libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa
April 26, 28, May 3, 5, 2024
Academy of Music
Performed in Italian with English supertitles
Approximately 2 hours and 45 minutes including one 20-minute intermission.
Tickets on sale at operaphila.org

Opera Philadelphia invites audiences to dive deeper into the history of Madame Butterfly and this new production with a series of conversations with artists, scholars, and community members. “Butterfly Conversations” take place monthly through May at the Philadelphia Ethical Society, 1906 Rittenhouse Square.  Past events are available online at youtube.com/operaphila.

Butterfly Conversations: Conversation with Creators and Artists
Saturday, April 20, 2024
6:00-7:00 p.m.

Modern productions and interpretations of Madame Butterfly often aim to challenge or subvert the Orientalist and exoticist elements. Directors strive to humanize characters, avoid reinforcing stereotypes, and delve into the complexities of cross-cultural relationships while still maintaining Puccini’s masterwork. In this roundtable conversation, hear from the artists and creative team about Opera Philadelphia’s new production of Madame Butterfly.  

Panel: Yuki Izumihara (Production Designer), Karen Chia-ling Ho (Cio Cio San), Kristen Choi (Suzuki), and Ethan Heard (Director).

Butterfly Conversations: Is re-imagining possible? A community conversation
Saturday, May 4, 2024
2:00—3:00 p.m.

As opera companies strive to maintain relevance in the modern world, many consider reimagining historical operas to better resonate with contemporary audiences. In this community conversation, we invite panelists and audience members to explore what is gained and what it costs to re-imagine works such as Madame Butterfly.

Facilitator: Daniel Park, Philadelphia Asian Performing Artists representative on Opera Philadelphia’s Community Advisory Council.

 

Panel: composer Melissa Dunphy, playwright A.Z. Espinoza, playwright James Ijames.

ABOUT OPERA PHILADELPHIA
Opera Philadelphia, the only American finalist for both the 2016 International Opera Award for Best Opera Company and the 2020 International Opera Award for Best Festival, is “the very model of a modern opera company” (Washington Post). Committed to developing opera for the 21st century, the company is recognized as “a hotbed of operatic innovation” (New York Times). For more information, visit operaphila.org.

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