Recreating a classic: OperaUpClose reimagine Puccini’s Madam Butterfly from a female, East Asian perspective
In 2020, Olivier Award winners OperaUpClose will embark on a UK tour with their new English translation of Puccini’s Madam Butterfly, beginning at Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre on Thursday 6 February.
Known for their inventive, unconventional approach to opera, OperaUpClose aim to challenge perceptions around the artform and open it up to young, contemporary audiences, often by giving established classics a modern twist.
In 2018, their take on Mozart’s The Magic Flute followed two lovers after a messy night out clubbing. This year, they transpose the tale of Madam Butterfly to 1980s Japan, where traditional culture collides with the dizzying pace of a new digital age.
But it’s not just the setting that’s different: for director Poppy Burton-Morgan, it was vital that the piece addressed the original opera’s often problematic treatment of women and the Japanese people.
“Passive women and Asian stereotypes don’t really cut it in 2020. So we’ve tried to excavate the musical core of the piece while reimagining the story through a contemporary lens,” she explains.
It’s not the first time Madam Butterfly has been updated: Boublil & Schönberg’s 1989 musical Miss Saigon is the most famous adaptation. But what’s so fresh and exciting about this version is that East Asian women have been part of its development from the outset, as part of a diverse cast and creative team.
Known to Midlands audiences for her work on the RSC’s Snow in Midsummer and The Taming of the Shrew, composer Ruth Chan has reorchestrated the score, while set and costume design is by Cindy Lin, movement is by Shala Iwaskow, and Fumi Gomez is assistant director. Casting for the show includes Karlene Moreno-Hayworth, Mariam Tamari, Jane Monari and Ee Ping Yee.
That aside, one might still ask what drew a self-consciously contemporary company to an opera whose politics often feel outdated. But beyond Puccini’s undeniable musical mastery, there are elements of the story, thinks Burton-Morgan, that remain sadly relevant even now – the trick is simply to shift the balance of power in the telling of it.
“The truth is we still inhabit a world where men exert power over women, both financial and physical, in a way that compromises their freedom and their sense of self. We still inhabit a world where western men travel to Asia for sex tourism. Rarely do those stories end happily for the women. So provided we honour and investigate those realities with compassion, sensitivity and without falling prey to fetishising those women ourselves, then sadly the story of Madam Butterfly will continue to resonate with audiences for many years to come.”