By Matthew Ozawa
Director of Madame Butterfly
As we allow ourselves to become immersed in the fantasy of Japan portrayed in Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, it’s illuminating to consider through whose lens we are viewing this opera. What experiences, perspectives, histories, and biases do we bring with us as we engage with Butterfly’s story?
When I investigate my own lens, I see that mine represents the East-West conflict that is core to Madame Butterfly. I am biracial — the son of a Caucasian mother and a Japanese father. I am an American whose family was interned during World War II. I grew up in Asia but spent holidays in California. I have spent most of my professional life devoted to the Western art form of opera, though I am often one of the only artists of color in the spaces where I work. I have loved Western classical music as much as I have loved Eastern art forms. Like Butterfly, I have yearned for acceptance but never felt truly at home in any single culture or place.
Butterfly has spent most of her existence seen through the lens of Western white men. Her story was first told by French novelist Pierre Loti, and it then passed successively to American writer John Luther Long, American playwright David Belasco, and Italian composer Giacomo Puccini. Likewise, so many of the Butterfly productions we have enjoyed throughout history have presented her story primarily through a white male lens. This fantasy of Japan has been created not by those whose culture is meant to be represented in the opera—namely, Japanese people and, in particular, Japanese women—but by those who, in many cases, have had no direct connection to Japan. Has this tradition had an impact on those whose story Madame Butterfly has actually meant to represent? I believe it has.
This new production of Madame Butterfly reclaims the opera’s narrative through the lens of an entirely Japanese and Japanese American creative team and amplifies the voices of an entirely female Japanese design collective. Together, we have grappled with the challenges of presenting this work for diverse American audiences. Just as Butterfly is trapped with little agency in the opera, we as Asian Americans have been trapped by many of the traditional depictions of Butterfly’s story. We seek now to release this opera’s wings for all to experience anew. To do this, we own that the fantasy of Butterfly that we have come to love is a Western fantasy. Instead of pretending that Butterfly is representative of our Japanese American identity, our production aims to amplify that her story has been seen through the lens of a white man, Pinkerton.
For me, Madame Butterfly is an opera I have spent 20 years studying and directing. I have deep love for this work, but it has simultaneously made me, as an Asian American, feel ostracized, and I have felt a duty to reclaim its narrative. With this new production, we aim to acknowledge that there are many ways to view this opera. Our hope is that this journey enables our empathy to be open to the impact we have on each other, and the need for a more compassionate understanding of perspectives outside our own. May the voyage into this production’s fantasy capture your senses, sweep you up in the music’s emotional power, and awaken your own lens.
Matthew Ozawa is a stage director, artistic director, and educator who has directed more than 70 opera productions around the world. He is also Chief Artistic Administration Officer for Lyric Opera of Chicago.
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