Puccini reimagined: Poppy Burton-Morgan on adapting Madam Butterfly for the 21st century

This year, Olivier Award winners OperaUpClose take on Puccini’s masterpiece Madam Butterfly in a new English translation, opening at the Belgrade Theatre Coventry on Thursday 6 February.

But this is no conventional staging of the story: while Puccini’s sublime music still holds up pretty well today, it’s hard to say the same for certain elements of the narrative they’re set to.

“Stunning melodies, terrible politics,” as director Poppy Burton-Morgan puts it. “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. In many ways there is a subtlety to our radicalism – the plot is fairly consistent with the original, but the motivations are different. We explicitly name Pinkerton’s fetishisation of Asian women, and the array of female characters portrayed offers a more diverse and complex picture of Japanese womanhood than the original.”

It’s not just Pinkerton whose psychology the production dives into in perhaps more depth than we’re accustomed to: it also paints a much richer and more complex portrait of Butterfly herself.

“Crucially in our production Butterfly is a young woman whose mental health unravels in front of our eyes, and for reasons far beyond losing the love of her erstwhile husband,” Burton-Morgan explains. “So while our Butterfly reaches the same tragic conclusion, it’s underpinned by a twenty-first century physiological logic, which makes the story resonate far more strongly with now.”

But changes aside, those who know and love the opera can rest assured that they’ll find just as much to enjoy as those experiencing it for the first time.

“We hope our production speaks equally to opera lovers who know the piece intimately, as well as audiences new to opera who can meet it with fresh eyes, as an extraordinary exploration into one young woman’s mind and heart, and how that heart and mind are destroyed by the carelessness of one man. For opera lovers there’s a thrill to recognising Puccini’s melodies exquisitely reimagined through a palette of traditional Japanese instrumentation. For the newbies – it’s visceral and gut-wrenching musical storytelling – just don’t forget to bring a hankie!”

OperaUpClose’s Madam Butterfly premieres at the Belgrade Theatre on Thursday 6 February. Tickets are available to book now at www.belgrade.co.uk.

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