Cultural controversy swirls around Seattle Opera’s ‘Madame Butterfly’

Amid criticism about cultural appropriation and representation, Seattle Opera takes different tack with Puccini’s popular work.

The buzz around Seattle Opera’s production of Giacomo Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly,” which opens at McCaw Hall on Saturday night (Aug. 5) for a double-cast run, is not only about the opera’s beautiful music or the fastidious attention to historic visual details and elaborate, authentic costumes.

It also arises from a culture-shifting conversation in which Seattle’s Asian-American community has decried the racist stereotypes and cultural appropriation at the core of the opera. Rather than shying away from the controversy, Seattle Opera has made an effort to foster dialogue around the issues.

The company has not confined its response to discussion alone. Well before Australian director Kate Cherry arrived in town, Seattle Opera General Director Aidan Lang insisted on reinstating two sections of controversial dialogue that Puccini excised from the opera after its disappointing premiere necessitated major revisions. The restorations underscore the power imbalance between Japanese and American cultures at the heart of the doomed love affair between a young Japanese woman (Cio-Cio San, aka Madame Butterfly) and an American Navy lieutenant (B.F. Pinkerton).

OPERA PREVIEW

‘Madame Butterfly’

by Giacomo Puccini. Aug. 5-19, Seattle Opera, McCaw Hall, Seattle; tickets from $65 (206-389-7676 or seattleopera.org).

One change involves some hard-hitting lines from Kate Pinkerton, the American whom Pinkerton takes as his bride while Cio-Cio San naively awaits his return. Most of the opera’s huge fan base has never heard Kate persuade Butterfly to surrender the child she had with Pinkerton to an American couple. The company will also include a scene in which Pinkerton uses a racial slur to refer to Japanese servants. (The language has been modified to avoid a major uproar.)

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In addition, Seattle Opera will refrain from attempting to make the opening-night Butterfly, renowned Armenian soprano Lianna Haroutounian, look Asian, a practice referred to as “yellowface” by critics. This is a nonissue with the second-cast Butterfly, Japanese soprano Yasko Sato, who makes her U.S. debut after performing Cio-Cio San in Japan and Italy.

Sato has published a book in Japan, “Madama Butterfly: Evolution of a Woman,” that analyzes…

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