“Madama Butterfly” Lives! With Sorrow, But She Lives 

Butterfly (Karen Chia-Ling Ho) and her son Dolore (Neko Umphenor)

Presented by the Boston Lyric Opera
Directed by Phil Chan
Conducted by David Angus
Music by Giacomo Puccini
Libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa
Artistic Advising by Nina Yoshida Nelsen
Music Directed by David Angus
Set Design by Yu Shibagaki

September 14-24, 2023
Emerson Colonial Theatre
106 Boylston Street
Boston, MA 02116
Boston Lyric Opera on Facebook

Critique by Gillian Daniels

BOSTON, Mass. – To live with sorrow is a hard thing, but it’s so often the condition of living. Madama Butterfly’s prologue gives the titular heroine something uncommon in the opera’s many revivals: life beyond tragedy. Before the show begins, we watch two older, Asian women in 1983 Hawaii, played by Keiko Orrall and Donna Tsufura. They decorate a cake and, afterward, one takes out a colorful blanket and a child’s stuffed animal. It’s clear she’s remembering something, and the stage is the platform where we’ll watch her memories unfold. The resulting tragedy is both lovely and terrible, a successful reframing of the classic opera that would move the coldest heart to tears.

Madama Butterfly takes place in the United States, beginning with the melting pot of 1941 San Francisco. There, the Shangri-La Club employs Asian performers who leverage their so-called “exoticism” for paying customers, repackaging stereotypes and selling them to other Americans in order to make a living. A faux wedding takes place as part of the night’s festivities. A naive American GI, Pinkerton (Dominick Chenes), is encouraged by the club manager, Goro (played delightfully slimy by Rodell Rosel), to “marry” the charming, confident lead singer, Butterfly (Karen Chia-Ling Ho).

Yet even though it starts as fiction, the self-assured Butterfly soon moves beyond performance to the first flush of love. When it’s revealed Butterfly is a Japanese American woman passing herself off as Chinese American to avoid discrimination, her fellow performers abandon her, but Pinkerton, enamored of Butterfly or at least his perception of her, stays.

From this, their nascent romance blossoms. Her affection seems borne of that thin hope of an American happily-ever-after. That same hope keeps Butterfly solid and relatively upbeat when confined to a Japanese internment camp during the production’s second act. Her friend Suzuki (Alice Chung in a performance that puts a face on despair and resilience) watches on in fear, suspecting the future will fall short of Butterfly’s expectations.

Director Phil Chan has, with the help of a fantastic creative team, positioned Madama Butterfly as a political critique. The time period change is nearly flawless. The same story beats are there and the arias remain firmly in Italian, but set designer Yu Shibagaki and stage manager Kristen Barrett bring to life a mid-20th century U.S. along with a convincing depiction of subjugation and imprisonment. 

Chan, who has also worked in ballet, uses not just conductor David Angus’s music but also the art of silence. A completely quiet stage is already a nerve-wracking thing, but in an opera? It’s devastating.

This Madama Butterfly is wonderful and so difficult to watch. Racial tensions in art, if done well, can be a challenge for white audiences to stomach, and here, the show excels. It’s also hard not to relate to Butterfly’s desire to be seen and loved by someone she adores. Ho sets fire to the stage with her presence, bringing new life to “One fine day we shall see,” an aria so famous that it nearly parodies itself when played. Within the confines of an internment camp, Butterfly’s stubborn hold on happiness becomes a show of defiance. Yes, she may be sidestepping her reality of racist, political disenfranchisement, but it’s also an act of desperate self-preservation. 

This version of Madama Butterfly is a powerful piece of art. It will please longtime opera fans to no end. The pace of the opera and its famous ending may not win more fans to the form, but honestly, with a show like this, who needs them? This production knows who it’s audience is and pulls no punches.

This is a tragedy about the United States’s military industrial complex, a machine that mashes humans into pulp whether they’re located abroad or within American borders, and the way the state so often fails marginalized people. This climax is a culmination not just of personal pain but national injustice.

During the mimed performance before curtain, where the aging Butterfly remembers all she’s lost, the other audience members and I settled in our seats, barely noticing that the silent prologue was happening at all until the music began. Likewise, this production of Madama Butterfly wants us to recognize the horrors beneath the unsuspecting surface, the survival stories lurking right beneath this country’s skin. Our history is paved with sorrows, and yet, we continue.

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