Asian American Voices in Response to MADAME BUTTERFLY

Asian American Voices in Response to Madame Butterfly

Madame Butterfly may be a mainstay of the Italian operatic canon, but the opera involves a narrative and a tradition that are problematic and hurtful for many members of our community—particularly to members of our Asian American community. Seattle Opera is grateful to the following leaders and artists who offered thoughtful and candid responses to our questions about this work.

In an effort to increase awareness, elevate the voices of the marginalized, and shape the future of our own equity work, Seattle Opera recently hosted a panel discussion at SIFF—“Asian Arts Leaders Respond to Madame Butterfly”—which involved artists, community leaders, and activists. And please join us at Cornish Playhouse Studio Theatre on July 28, for “Reversing the Madame Butterfly Effect: Asian American Women Reinvent Themselves Onstage.” The event is curated by celebrated actor and arts leader Kathy Hsieh and presented in partnership with SIS Productions.

Matthew Ozawa

Matthew Ozawa is a Japanese American stage director and founder / artistic director of Mozawa, a Chicago-based incubator of artistic collaboration. Born in Los Angeles, he has been involved in the performing arts from a very young age—singing in the children’s choir that performed with San Diego Opera to playing clarinet in Singapore’s National Youth Orchestra to studying dance with Meredith Monk before making the career shift to theater and stage direction. His first professional gig involved sweeping and mopping the orchestra pit at Santa Fe Opera before swiftly moving his way up the ranks of stage management and direction. He has now directed productions at Lyric Opera of Chicago, Santa Fe Opera, Houston Grand Opera, and Carnegie Hall among many other places. He is passionate about interdisciplinary cultural boundary crossing art. He directed Madame Butterfly at Arizona Opera.

 
How have your ideas about Madame Butterfly evolved?

Yes, my ideas about producing Butterfly have indeed evolved. For most of my career Butterfly was not an opera that I felt comfortable watching. The music is exquisite, but as a Japanese American, I have never felt connected to the productions I witnessed and how they presented Japanese culture. For years I sat there detached, offended, and fairly uncomfortable. I wondered why the piece that so many adored was the same piece that I never felt represented my Japanese / Caucasian identity. Was it the fact that a Westerner created the opera? Or that the operatic tradition forced the piece to be displayed in the same offensive way for decades? That the director / production teams viewed and interpreted the Japanese culture through their Western lens? Or was it that Caucasian singers were in yellowface pretending to be Japanese?

Now having battled my issues with Butterfly and actually directed it, I can say that, for me, it isn’t the material that is offensive. It is how it is interpreted and presented onstage by most opera companies. The tradition of yellowface is completely unacceptable in 2017. So if these pieces are going to be produced, there needs to be a dialogue with the communities and artists these operas are supposed to represent. We want to witness stories that aren’t offensive or aren’t appropriating our heritage. I love opera! I want to see it thrive. And I know it is possible to not offend audience members of color, but it takes great care and an openness to see the art form evolve.

 
How has it felt to you to work on this opera?

When I was younger and feared I’d lose my job or not get hired again, I always kept quiet about my true feelings working on Butterfly as an assistant director. But I can say now that seeing singers mock non-Asian people onstage and offstage by joking around about their slanted eye makeup or pretending to be Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s really hurt. In addition, seeing people attempt to create a “realistic” Japanese production made me mad….. because the representation of a Japanese aesthetic was never actually accurate. One can’t learn the true colors of a “culture” by observing a tea ceremony or learning how to hold a fan. And even when a production design was completely abstract, it never went far enough. It still had singers in yellowface pretending to be Japanese.

For over a decade I’ve been one of the few Asian Americans in the field. I was always powerless to say anything and I have many friends who still are. But times are changing and it is important to be mindful of the difficulties of producing opera while still helping companies see that if we want to diversify our audiences, we need to be aware of the challenges some of our traditional repertory faces.

 
How did you feel when you were asked to direct it yourself?

When I directed my own Butterfly in Arizona, I was empowered to speak out and interpret the opera with my own artistic voice. It was liberating. However at the same time I saw how communities were reacting toward productions around the country, i.e., Mikado, Turandot, Butterfly, etc. I felt conflicted and anxious, because Arizona gave me a traditional production (set and costumes) to work with. Using someone else’s designs always inherently is problematic because it is another director’s interpretation of the work that becomes the base for your own artistry. So what was key for me was focusing on unpacking the text and music of Butterfly to understand whether it was the “opera” that was problematic or the interpretation of the opera.

To many the issue is with the piece itself. But through directing it, I’ve come to realize that I don’t have a problem with the actual opera. It is incredible in that it actually doesn’t paint the Japanese or Americans in a good light. Everyone is accountable for Butterfly’s suicide, and in many ways the piece is a sharp look at cultural misunderstandings.

What became apparent early on was that my main problem was with the operatic interpretive tradition. I honestly had to erase everyone’s notions of how the piece went in order to see it through my own lens. So often people are angry if a piece in the operatic canon is not done the way it has been for centuries. But I knew I had to open the piece up for myself. I wanted to see if there were new truths for me and whether I could ACTUALLY see my own Japanese / Caucasian identity in this opera!

What struck me is how much I ended up deeply connecting to all of these characters. In truth, they embodied me growing up! I really understood Butterfly’s defiance of her culture mixed with her deep childish yearning to actually be Caucasian. I also deeply understood the West’s ‘White Man’s Burden’ views but also the fascination with another culture. And ultimately, I bore witness to Butterfly not belonging to EITHER culture by the end of the show. So many people understand the feeling of being rejected and not fitting in. So many people understand the feeling of struggling with their identity. So many people understand the feeling of being viewed by others as inferior…the outsider. THIS is what we need to bring out of this opera! The kimonos, the yellow face, the visual display—that all ultimately takes away from the profound relatability of this story.

I would direct this piece again in a heartbeat. And next time it is going to be a new production with a new vision for how this piece can be interpreted.

 
In what other ways did you rethink the story?

For instance, let’s look at how Kate Pinkerton is always portrayed. The tradition is that she is a benevolent Caucasian angel. She’s “truly” apologetic and then she takes Butterfly’s baby for a loving proper upbringing.

Wait a second.... Wait. Wait. Hold up!

She says she’s sorry…but it doesn’t mean she’s sorry (and seriously, that is the only "nice" thing she says in her very minimal amount of text). In theater, people never take things at face value.

She’s been on a ship for a very long time, she’s used to being surrounded by white people, there’s inherent racism at that time, and Pinkerton probably hasn’t told her anything. Then he makes her wait outside Butterfly’s house. Why? Because he has a secret.

What wife is going to be “thrilled” that her husband had an affair with another woman (and a woman of color at that) and that he has a baby that is of mixed race?!?!?! You think Kate ACTUALLY is going to treat this mixed race kid as her own in America?

Then let’s look at how Butterfly is traditionally portrayed in Act 2. Usually she is still seen kneeling, wearing a kimono, etc. But why? I made Butterfly more western in Act II. She’s wanting to be western. She has turned her whole world round, she is ostracized from her family…she can’t go back to being fully Japanese… and she can’t be western… She’s not American. But she WANTS to be, and she thinks Pinkerton is going to take her back to America.

We filled her house with western furniture (since Japan had opened itself up to the West in the Meiji era), dressed her in a white Victorian-kimono dress (which mirrored Kate’s; they looked identical except for skin color), and had her sitting in chairs.

Again, the piece is about the tension between East and West. This is my story. Again, it’s a piece that speaks to me now. I’m not Butterfly—it’s not the same thing—but I have a western side and an eastern side. I’m half Japanese and half Anglo Caucasian American, fourth generation. Many times I’ve wanted to be white. I wanted to be accepted. As a kid, I was not allowed to perform in the opera Werther. I was rejected because I was not white. That hit me hard. From that point on, I knew I’d never be a performer in opera. I wasn’t part of the culture of all these shows. And YET I chose to make this art form my love and my career. So now that I am able to speak up I want to see change in the industry.

 
Are there enough opportunities for Asian singers in the opera industry?

Representation and equal opportunity are so important. In this industry we’re not represented. Yes, not everyone can sing Butterfly. I get it. But there’s a difference between color-blind and color-conscious casting. Companies actually need to be more inclusive and make an effort in casting (as well as choice of production teams).

Now, I’m not saying everyone in the cast has to be Asian. And a piece doesn’t suddenly magically become “not offensive” just because Asians are cast. But companies have a social and artistic obligation to try to be color conscious… The reason the Arizona production felt inclusive was that my whole cast was a mix of races: our Suzukis were African American and white, our Butterflys were white and Latina, Pinkerton was Latino. Because it was such a mixed bag, and because no one was in yellowface, there was a representation of all humanity.

When a production is all white people telling the story, it’s a hard pill to swallow. Or when all the leads are white but there are token Asian dancers or supers….. it’s just offensive. Asians are out there—it’s a matter of searching and creating the opportunities for this art form to be a viable career path for artists of color.

 
Could you explain your process for the way forward for a piece like this?

It’s a multi-part process:

First, a company needs to cast and choose a directing / design team. This is the foundation and speaks volumes to the public about a company’s point of view. For pieces about non-Western cultures, having artists from those cultures represented in the artistic process and onstage is key. No, not everyone involved needs to be from that culture, but a deep understanding of the cultures one is investigating is critical. Again, that doesn’t happen from reading a book.

Then, the next phase: As the artists are creating, the company needs to dialogue with the community. Now I don’t mean just cultural sharing (i.e., bringing in experts to show a tea ceremony or fan dance), but actual hard-hitting dialogue. If progress is going to be made, there needs to be civic discourse.

And then finally, companies need to keep a close eye as the show hits the stage. If decisions are being made that are going to be offensive, the company needs to step in before the show is viewed by the public. Because in the end, it doesn’t do much good if the public you’ve had the dialogue with comes and sees the opera and ends up seeing a ton of cultural appropriation on the stage. In that case the public just feels duped.

My sincerest hope is that we all walk together in this dialogue. Opera is a beautiful, magical, and transformative art form. It should be seen by people from all walks of life! And that can only happen when we open our doors, our minds, and our hearts.

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Sarah Baker

Sarah Baker is president of the Seattle chapter of Japanese American Citizens League (JACL)—the United States’ oldest and largest Asian American civil rights organization. Seattle JACL’s work in the Asian Pacific Islander community spans from education about the Japanese American incarceration experience to standing up for other marginalized communities against bigotry and hatred. The group also supports relevant pieces of legislation that impact these communities. Sarah created FAMILY: An API LGBTQ Gathering. This conference provides resources, support, and community celebration for Asian and Pacific Islander youth who identify as LGBTQIA+ and for their families and allies.

 
How often do you feel yourself represented in classical art forms such as opera, theater, or ballet?

Almost never. In more recent decades there are specific artists that might represent my demographic, but not necessarily in the roles they play. In the past several years there have been some stage productions (specifically An American Dream and Allegiance) that truly are representative of my community and me as a person.

 
What in your eyes is problematic about Madame Butterfly (or is it)? What about it makes you uncomfortable (or does it)?

Truthfully, I haven’t seen Madame Butterfly. But I know the premise and I understand the overall story. I think what bothers me is that it’s just another depiction of Japanese (or Asian) women as exotic creatures rather than living, breathing human beings—that coupled with the fact that these roles are rarely filled by Asian women. I find the idea of a predominantly white-dominated art form attempting to portray Japanese culture in any way that isn’t derogatory to be laughable.

 
What does the term yellowface mean to you? Could you give an example of yellowface, where you may have seen it (in opera or otherwise), and how it made you feel? How does the history of yellowface play a part in those feelings?

Yellowface is synonymous to blackface in my opinion. It is a racist, mocking interpretation of a culture that is not white. The first example that comes to mind is Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. When I first saw that movie…I don’t think it even registered with me that his character (Mr. Yunioshi) was supposed to be Japanese or Japanese American. It’s just so off-base from reality. Thinking about yellowface a little more objectively, it bothers me because it comes from a systemic problem of not truly attempting to understand and seek knowledge of another culture. Rather, it takes a rudimentary understanding and blows specific traits out of proportion to create a complete farce. And people buy into it!

 
I know you haven’t seen Butterfly, but I’m curious if you think it’s possible to find something to like in these types of problematic works. Is it possible for the discomfort about the story to be a good thing, i.e., we are supposed to be uncomfortable with a story like this where an American man purchases an underage bride, something that sadly still happens today?

It’s fine to be made uncomfortable by art. We also need to consider what the intention of the artist was upon creation. Were they intending to make us uncomfortable? In what ways? In the case of Madame Butterfly, maybe some of the themes were meant to make us feel uneasy. But I am fairly positive that many of them were not. We have to figure out as the viewer how we want to interpret these art forms and what we are going to do with those interpretations. I appreciate that Seattle Opera is taking a holistic approach to Madame Butterfly and offering up educational resources on why this historic opera has problematic themes, what it means to art, and what lessons we can take away.

 
What should be the way forward for opera companies in today’s day and age? How can the classical art world become more inclusive of multicultural and POC experiences and needs?

We can’t just ignore parts of our past—whether that is segregation, war, or in this case, art. Many classic forms of art are inherently sexist or racist. But just because their creators were sexist or racist does not mean that we have to be. This is such a great opportunity to break apart systems of oppression by studying them and looking at them under a new light. As mentioned previously, Seattle Opera is doing its due diligence by using this particular piece of art as a learning tool. I think that is the best way forward.

 
What else should we know about cultural appropriation, yellowface, and whitewashing in art from your own experience?

I think the impact for me personally is on a deeper level than outright anger or disappointment. When you continually see roles that are meant for people who look like you filled by, well…people who don’t look like you, that’s hurtful on a very subconscious level. It’s like print ads in magazines of all of these air-brushed and digitally enhanced women. That’s not realistic of what most women look like. And the whitewashing of Asian roles is not realistic of what I look like. So what standards as an Asian American woman am I living up to exactly? Who am I supposed to look like? Because the media is saying that it isn’t me.

 
Sometimes people in the opera world say it’s no big deal for a non-European character to be sung by a white person—as the opera will frequently have black and brown singers in roles as European nobility. What’s your take?

It’s different because historically, white people have always been given privilege over people of color. Look at Hollywood and its history of whitewashing characters. People of color have been overlooked and underserved for too long. We have continually seen the excuse that a white actor or actress will draw in more crowds or net a higher profit for the production simply because there are no POC with that much notoriety. But how exactly are they supposed to gain notoriety if they can’t fill roles that are relevant to them?

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Desdemona Chiang

Desdemona Chiang is a stage director based in Seattle and the San Francisco Bay Area. A co-founder of Azeotrope in Seattle, she has also directed at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Seattle Repertory Theatre, Seattle Shakespeare Company, ACT, University of Washington, and Cornish College of the Arts, among others. Her awards and affiliations include: Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Theatre, SDC Sir John Gielgud Directing Fellowship, Drama League Directing Fellowship, TCG Young Leader of Color, Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab and Directors Lab West. She was a Gregory Award Recipient for Outstanding Direction.

 
How does your Asian Pacific Islander (API) identity impact your art?

My API identity is pretty central to my art. Not because I make art that is explicitly about the API experience (I don't), but because of the fact that I've always felt like an outsider in this country. To be Asian American is to be perpetually foreign—and so I have an intrinsic understanding of otherness, of not belonging.

 
How often do you feel yourself represented in classical art forms such as opera, theater, or ballet?

I don't see myself represented in art forms that revere the classical form, because I think when we say "classical," we really mean "European." I might see representations of how white America perceives people who look like me, but those representations don't usually speak to me, nor do they reflect how I see myself.

I do, however, see myself represented in works of art that deconstruct classical art forms, but I think that's usually more about rebellion than anything else.

 
What in your eyes is problematic about Madame Butterfly (or is it)? What about it makes you uncomfortable (or does it)?

I've never seen Madame Butterfly and am a bit embarrassed to say that I know very little about the plot. I only understand it as a work known to be fetishistic towards Asian culture, but I honestly can't say if that's what I believe because I've never engaged with it.

 
What does the term yellowface mean to you?

Yellowface, to me, is the use of costumes or makeup to perform Asian culture. Breakfast at Tiffany's, The Mikado, Miss Saigon, etc. It's reductive and insulting, of course. As long as white supremacy is the governing system in this country, we'll continue to see yellowface performed in this country.

 
There was a mass protest against a Seattle production of The Mikado in 2014. What did you think?

I thought the presenting group had the right to produce the kind of work that they wanted to produce. And the API community had the right to protest the work. I wrote a piece on the problematic nature of The Mikado, if you want to give it a skim here.

 
What should be the way forward for performing-arts companies who perform European artistic traditions? How can these companies become more inclusive of multicultural and POC experiences and needs?

Put POCs (people of color) in charge. And I mean at the top. If you want to see different choices being made, put different people in charge of making those choices. When there are more decision-makers of color at Seattle Opera, we'll start seeing instant diversification.

 
What else should we know about cultural appropriation, yellowface, and whitewashing in art from your own experience as an artist and/or art viewer? Feel free to use examples about how you’ve been personally impacted by these things.

Going back to the article I wrote about cultural appropriation. I do believe artists have a right to be racist. And the people have a right to boycott and protest when that happens. Cultural appropriation, yellowface, and whitewashing are all choices that artists have the right to make. I can't literally stop anyone from making the work they want to make. But I do have the right to hold them accountable for it.

 
Sometimes people in the opera world say it’s no big deal for a non-European character to be sung by a white person—as the opera will frequently have black and brown singers in roles as European nobility. How do you respond to this argument?

I've heard the similar argument that blackface in opera is OK, because black opera singers don't want to be considered only for Otello. And that by having a white singer sing that role in blackface, it somehow makes the entire system more egalitarian. But seriously: when did you ever see an opera company cast a black singer as Don Giovanni and put him in whiteface? Never.

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Joseph Shoji Lachman

Joseph Shoji Lachman was born and raised in Seattle, and he recently finished his B.A. at Yale University in History of Science, Medicine, and Public Health. He is fourth/fifth generation half-Japanese and speaks Chinese and Japanese. His current writing focuses primarily on Asian and Asian American culture, and he is passionate about civil rights and human rights. Joseph serves as the donor relations specialist for the Council on American Islamic Relations in Seattle, Washington. He is also an orchestral musician.

 
How often do you feel yourself represented in classical art forms like opera or ballet?

As someone who strongly identifies with his Japanese American heritage, no, I do not feel myself represented, nor do I expect myself to feel represented in art forms such as opera or ballet, because patrons and artists are unlikely to share that perspective.

 
What in your eyes is problematic about Madame Butterfly (or is it)? What about it makes you uncomfortable (or does it)?

The problems come from an intersection of multiple aspects—age, ethnicity, and gender.

“Cio-Cio-San” is explicitly stated to be 15 years old, and a white male is marrying her for convenience, which raises the disturbing issue of child sex trafficking in Asia. Furthermore, this underage Asian female has sex with an older white male (and bears his child, known in the opera as “Trouble” or “Sorrow”). This relationship is extremely imbalanced in multiple senses, and statutory rape by our standards. It is even more disturbing that the story romanticizes the suicide of a young Japanese girl who was essentially fooled into entering a marriage and a sexual relationship with a much older American man.

In Act I, Pinkerton tells Sharpless that he is a Yankee wanderer, destined to capture flowers of every shore, which establishes his relationship with his child bride as a metaphor for American imperialism, essentially equating it with masculinity. The child bride’s relatives even describe him like a rich and handsome king, which brings up the problematic “white savior” narratives seen all too often where a white man visits a foreign land and eventually falls in love with a “native girl.”

The opera also depicts the girl as happily rejecting all of her own culture and wholeheartedly embracing American culture as somehow superior, including the divorce laws and religion for example.

 
What does the term yellowface mean to you? Could you give an example of yellowface, and how it made you feel? How does the history of yellowface play a part in those feelings?

The term yellowface is a variation of blackface and refers to intentionally using non-Asian actors in roles written explicitly for Asians, and using makeup or other techniques to try to make the actor “appear” more Asian, such as by making the eyes appear more slanted.

Yellowface has been implemented since Western media found its fascination with the “exotic” East. My mother remembers in the ’70s wondering why a show about Asian martial arts that even included some actors of Asian descent would star David Carradine, who pretended to be a Shaolin monk named Kwai Chang Caine. If many of the other characters could be played by Asian actors, why not the lead?

 
There was a mass protest against a Seattle production of The Mikado in 2014. What did you think?

While some concerns around The Mikado regarding cultural appropriation and yellowface do overlap with Madama Butterfly, the two are so incredibly different that the problems they bring up are quite distinct.

The Mikado is much more about using an Asian setting as window dressing for a thinly veiled critique of British society at the time. Names used in The Mikado such as Titipu, Nanki Poo, Yum Yum, and Pish Tush do not even show the slightest understanding of Japanese language, as most of these sounds are not even part of the Japanese syllabary. This production did not include any Asian Americans, and as far as I have seen, no real efforts were made to give Asian communities a voice in guiding the production of this performance.

Some critics of the critics pushed back by comparing protests against The Mikado to attempts to ban books. Mike Storie, the producer, said it would be similar to banning Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn for its portrayal of African Americans. However, this belies the shallowness of the argument. Mark Twain gives emotional depth and relatability to black characters, and it would have been intellectually dishonest if he were to omit instances of white characters referring to them by racial slurs. It is in the context of how the character is portrayed and how the audience can sympathize with them, not simply whether or not instances of racism exist in the narrative.

The Mikado does not show this kind of nuance with its portrayal of Asian culture, because it never really was about that. It wants to satirize British society, and a thoughtful portrayal of Japanese society would not have achieved this.

 
If you have seen Madame Butterfly, is there anything about it to like? Is it possible to hate the story and love the music? Is it possible for the discomfort about the story to be a good thing, i.e., we are supposed to be uncomfortable with a story like this where an American man purchases an underage bride, something that sadly still happens today? An example in literature might be Lolita. It is disturbing to read that book, but can there be an argument for art that disturbs us?

Or from your view is there something else we should be thinking about as we watch and listen to Madame Butterfly? Is there a way to present Madame Butterfly in order to make us think and question it?

As an orchestral musician who has played music from a variety of operas, I have had to confront this question frequently. During my time with the Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra and Garfield Orchestra, I was not as aware of the history behind many of these pieces of music, and developed an appreciation for the music divorced from the problematic aspects of content they accompanied. So yes, it is technically possible to develop an appreciation for the music, but it is irresponsible. It should be accompanied by a nuanced understanding of the time period it was written in and a more realistic understanding of the culture it may be attempting to appropriate.

If an opera group simply must perform a piece such as Madama Butterfly, program notes are one way to help contextualize the performance, and talk about the ways Asian culture and symbolism have been appropriated for western opera.

The idea of context comes up again with the comparison to Lolita. We should consider how the author portrays relationships in Lolita versus how the creator portrays relationships in Madama Butterfly. The question should be to what extent they are romanticized, as well as what aspect we are disturbed by. The inappropriate relationship in Lolita is not romanticized like in Madame Butterfly, and the consequences of the relationship should disturb audiences. However, in Madame Butterfly the main relationship as well as the suicide of a young Asian woman are highly romanticized, and it is that romanticization of an “exotic” woman’s psychological breakdown after being tricked that should disturb audiences. The portrayals of these two relationships demonstrate that the creators had very different expectations for how audiences should react.

 
What should be the way forward for performing-arts companies who perform European artistic traditions? How can these companies become more inclusive of multicultural and POC experiences and needs?

The main thing is the opera needs to listen to POC voices when making decisions. There should be an open dialogue with minority communities, but the opera should focus more on listening.

 
What else should we know about cultural appropriation, yellowface, and whitewashing in art from your own experience as an artist and/or art viewer? Feel free to use examples about how you’ve been personally impacted by these things.

For ages, the arts have been supported by wealthy patrons, members of the ruling class. Productions cost money, and for any musical, opera, or other type of production to claw its way to the mainstream, in theory, it must have some appeal to the class with the means to promote it and disseminate it. Historically, white males have dominated this ruling class, and so it is inevitable that they will tend towards art to which they feel they can relate. Thus, the most widely known art will overwhelmingly reflect the interests of this demographic, which is why we see so many narratives centered around the white male perspective, even if they take place in an “exotic” setting.

Furthermore, protagonists are often intentionally bland, so that viewers can project themselves onto said protagonist. This shows that the most “neutral” protagonist is white and often male, something even reinforced by the terminology, since “white” sounds neutral, while “person of color” lumps all others into another category. Each group within this category can be seen as carrying its own baggage (stereotypes) that viewers will subconsciously attach to the characters.

 
What did you think of Ghost in the Shell?

While I generally do not like live-action adaptations of Japanese anime and manga, I was looking forward to the idea that an Asian female would get a chance to play a strong, independent lead in an action film, and not even have to be bogged down with a shoehorned-in love story, but I was thoroughly disappointed to see this role go to Scarlett Johansson, with the source material even being rewritten to justify her casting. I briefly spoke with Atsuko Okatsuka, an actress and stand-up comedian of Japanese descent, who pointed out that she and many other Asian Americans are forced to accept roles that only suit them superficially because of race, such as the bubbly Japanese schoolgirl, the Asian nerd, or the Asian prostitute.

 
Sometimes people in the opera world say it’s no big deal for a non-European character to be sung by a white person—as the opera will frequently have black and brown singers in roles as European nobility. How do you respond to this argument?

These two situations are drastically different because of the historical power dynamic between the groups. Historically, non-white performers have been held back and restrained to very specific roles, while whites have historically been considered a neutral that can perform any role. Because of the imbalanced power relationship, it is empowering for non-white performers to gain more access to race-neutral and traditionally white roles, while it is conversely oppressive to give white performers roles that could have gone to non-whites.

 
Other thoughts about this topic in general?

Madama Butterfly has become a staple of opera repertoire, but its enduring legacy is also reflective of the enduring nature of stereotypes. The opera has seen multiple adaptations, one notoriously famous one being Miss Saigon, a story written by white authors for a white audience. In Miss Saigon, the “Butterfly’s” age has been raised to 17, hardly an improvement, and still creating the same fundamentally problematic power dynamic between the sexualized Asian female and white male savior. In this case, she is hypersexualized by being turned into a prostitute, seemingly the only role available to Asian women in media about the Vietnam War.

To get an idea of how little input non-whites had on the writing of this musical, the original “Vietnamese” lyrics in the songs were literally just incomprehensible gibberish, until backlash forced the writers to actually seek help in incorporating real Vietnamese lyrics.

I reached out to Diep Tran, an editor at American Theatre magazine, who helped me understand this from the perspective of someone who has a nuanced understanding of both theater and Vietnamese culture. Looking at the story as a more modern adaptation of the opera, it still clings to the same issues that plague Madame Butterfly, including the underage minority female and her romanticized suicide.

Sadly, Miss Saigon as an evolution of Madama Butterfly is in ways a much more offensive and out-of-touch version of the story, because in addition to the problems with the original, it distorts and erroneously romanticizes aspects of a real historical event—the Vietnam War. It does not reflect any of the nuance or complexity of the North and South Vietnamese perspectives, or that of modern Vietnamese Americans, but embodies the idealized white American memory of the war. Without people of color in positions to fund and disseminate art, mainstream media will inevitably be almost entirely incapable of reflecting the perspectives of minority communities.

One defense I have seen of Miss Saigon is that it provides job opportunities for Asian Americans in musicals, but what good is that if they are all stereotypes?

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Nina Yoshida Nelsen

Nina Yoshida Nelsen is a Japanese American mezzo-soprano. She has had a successful international and national career, but she is close to our hearts here in Seattle because she created the role of Hiroko Kobayashi in Seattle Opera’s world premiere of An American Dream in 2015. Nelsen will be reprising the role with Seattle Opera in September 2017.

 
What have been your experiences performing in Madame Butterfly?

I have performed Suzuki in Madame Butterfly more than 75 times. My son Rhys performed the role of Trouble with me at Utah Opera and was the understudy at Atlanta Opera. I have performed it in English, in Italian, with a microphone, in the open air….all over the place—you name it! She has been a really special lady for me. Every chance I have to perform her, I fall in love with her all over again. My most special experience was performing with my son. There really is nothing like it.

 
Why do you choose to perform Suzuki? What do you like about it? What has it meant for your career?

In some ways, you might say I was born to play Suzuki. I’m half Japanese American and I am a mezzo-soprano. The role really fits perfectly in my voice. What I love most about it is the fact that as Suzuki, I discover everything in “real time” just as the audience does. In some ways, I feel like my reactions to everything as a character would be the same or similar if I were sitting in the audience, just more intense, because Madame Butterfly is my best friend and confidant.

 
As a Japanese American, how (if at all) does your identity impact your thoughts on this opera?

It’s really interesting for me…. I am half Japanese American. I was born in Santa Barbara, California. I was one of the only Asians at my school. Because I am fourth generation Japanese, I never learned much about the Japanese culture. By the time I came around, most of my family’s “Japanese” traditions had disappeared. Especially after WWII. Therefore, growing up, I didn’t “identify” as Asian. Rather, I identified as “Californian.” It wasn’t until I started getting cast in Asian roles that I started to identify more as an Asian.

 
Bigger picture question. How (if at all) has your identity impacted your overall career?

If you look at my resume, most of my operatic work has been “typecast” into Asian roles. I’m not sure that my identity has impacted my overall career, but I can say with 100% confidence that the way I look has impacted my career. I always find it interesting that I’m also half “white.” But I’m hardly ever typecast into traditionally “white” roles.

 
How does singing a role like Suzuki compare to singing a role like Mama/Hiroko Kobayashi in An American Dream?

Both roles are extremely taxing emotionally, but not very taxing vocally. They are both “supporting” roles, and both very important characters in the opera. For me, Mama touches almost too close to my heart. The emotions are very raw and very personal. Without it actually being based on my family’s story, it IS my family’s story. It is my grandmother, my grandfather. People I knew and loved. It is what they lived and breathed. The first time we ran through An American Dream, I sobbed quietly the first few minutes of the opera. I sing it for myself, my family, and with hopes of helping heal the hundreds of thousands of Japanese Americans’ lives who have been changed because of Executive Order 9066.

The role of Suzuki is also very emotional—but it’s much less personal. Madame Butterfly is a story that has happened many times in history, but it’s not a “true” story. It’s fiction. Although, when you’re living in the story, singing it, it feels real, it’s different, less real than An American Dream for me.

 
We often hear that there are problems with stereotypes in the work and in other Orientalist works. Have you ever come up against that as a performer in this work or in any of the other works that fit in this category? How have you handled it/made sense of it?

This is such a difficult subject for me. Operas like Madame Butterfly were not written with the thought that an Asian singer would sing it. But there are constantly debates in the opera world as to whether or not an Asian singer SHOULD sing it. I feel like opera is “art.” Just because an Asian singer could sing it, doesn’t mean they should be typecast into it. This is so difficult to say, because so much of my work has been because I am Asian. With that being said, I think if a specific role is written for an Asian singer, then, yes, an Asian singer SHOULD sing it.

Recently, Calgary Opera was in the news because they were thinking of hiring a “white” singer to sing Bloody Mary in South Pacific. I guess my feeling is that if there is an Asian singer who can do a GREAT job singing and acting a role that was originally written for an Asian, then, yes…give it to an Asian singer….But there’s no need to make our art less because we MUST cast an Asian singer.

Art is art—beauty comes in all shades, all colors….

 
What does the term “yellowface” mean to you? Could you give an example of “yellowface,” where you may have seen it (in opera or otherwise), and how it made you feel? How does the history of “yellowface” play a part in those feelings?

Yellowface means making a non-Asian person look Asian. Putting on a yellow-based foundation, making eyes look slanted and less round, making the eyelids look more “flat.” I have mainly seen it in Madame Butterfly. Like I said above, I think in art, it’s okay. As far as it’s not people making fun of Asians, art is art. Beauty is beauty.

 
Is there anything about Madame Butterfly to like? Is it possible to hate the story and love the music? Is it possible for the discomfort about the story to be a good thing, i.e., we are supposed to be uncomfortable with a story like this where an American man purchases an underage bride, something that sadly still happens today?

The music is some of my absolute favorite music in the operatic repertoire. In my opinion it’s absolute genius. I’m not uncomfortable with this story—primarily because this used to happen. This is part of our world’s history. 150 years ago, a 15-year-old bride wasn’t uncommon. It seems a bit strange now, but it’s not that strange if you put yourself in the time the opera was set.

I always think discomfort can be a good thing. Being uncomfortable creates dialogue. It creates conversation about things that we agree and disagree on. It creates growth. It creates art. It creates beauty. In the times that have been the most uncomfortable times in our world, artists have created some pretty incredible pieces of work. If we are comfortable all the time, are we growing?

 
From your view is there something else we should be thinking about as we watch and listen to Madame Butterfly? Is there a way to present Madame Butterfly in order to make us think and question it?

I’ve always wanted to do Madame Butterfly set in WWII. It would actually be set in the “future” from when it was written in 1907. I often think that Puccini really “foretold” the future in certain ways. I’d love to see how things played out if it were in the 1940s. I think in some ways, it would be “closer” to home, to our culture and our ways of thinking. It would create a different dialogue and a different way of being “uncomfortable.” I’d LOVE to be a part of this!

 
How can we as an opera company honor our musical legacy and tradition, while, at the same time, honoring our diverse community members?

I think that educating our communities is our most important job. Educating our communities that we are NEVER making fun of other cultures. Rather, we are making art about them. It’s so important to do things like what Seattle Opera is doing—opening up communication, asking the difficult questions, and talking about the difficult answers. THIS is what is important. Not just in opera, but in society in general. Bravo Seattle Opera!

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Bill Tashima

Bill Tashima is a Sansei, a third generation Japanese American, originally from Cleveland, Ohio, transplanted to Seattle in 1981. He has been an active member of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) since the early 1960s. Since then, he has served on the boards of both Seattle and Cleveland JACL chapters, as well as on the boards of the Chinese Information & Service Center, JCCCW, and Keiro Northwest. He is also a life member of the Nisei Veterans Committee Foundation. Bill loves family, food, and friends. He currently lives in Fall City with his spouse, Chris Bentley, their son, Colby Bentley, a Junior at Central Washington University, and the family's devoted companion, Claire, a mixed breed pooch.

Bill says:
I appreciate Seattle Opera’s initiative in facilitating a wider discussion of cultural sensitivity in the arts and media. Unfortunately, with the issue of cultural sensitivity, people who see the issue from different points of view may use terms to criticize or support past works, such as “yellowface,” “cultural appropriation,” “historical norms,” and others without having a mutually accepted definition of such terms.

My thoughts below are mine alone. I am not representing any side, any organization, any ethnic group, or other group. Many of my thoughts have been passed to me by parents who instilled within me a love of the arts and pride in my heritage.

It may appear that I am at odds with others who have more strident views. This is not true. I am not at odds. In fact, I am asking for deeper dialogue so I can fully understand all issues and so that my thoughts will become my beliefs.

 
Does Madame Butterfly make you uncomfortable in any way? Why or why not?

I am not uncomfortable with Madame Butterfly. My parents took me to a movie version of Madame Butterfly and Aida when I was about eight. Both operas were stories of romance—moving and tragic—and, in traditional opera fashion, grand in presentation. Many of the underlying themes to which many object were lost on me. If anything, I thought Pinkerton was a jerk.

Cio-Cio-San was a noble figure. I know my mother had explained the role of the geisha, and I never assumed any lurid associations with geisha.

 
What does the term yellowface mean to you? Could you give an example of yellowface, where you may have seen it (in opera or otherwise), and how it made you feel?

To me, yellowface is a literal comparison to the term blackface in old minstrel shows where Caucasian actors used makeup to darken their skin. To me, yellowface also represents situations in which Asians are depicted as stereotypes, usually the WWII movies with faces with yellow makeup, extreme slanty eyes, exaggerated buck teeth, simian like postures, and “inscrutable” demeanors. To me, yellowface is a cheap way to elicit emotions, either hate or humor. Two examples of yellowface for me are Marlon Brando’s role as Sakini in The Teahouse of the August Moon and the role of Ito in Auntie Mame.

To me, yellowface is not non-Asians playing Asians or the use of makeup in a role. In the arts, the viewer should have a “willing suspension of disbelief.” A good actor uses his skills to draw you into the character he portrays. Did it matter in radio what race an actor was in any staged play?

I have no problem with Ben Kingsley playing Gandhi or Tilda Swinton playing the Ancient One, for example.

I don’t think we should associate racial purity in the roles an actor plays. Several examples: When my parents took me to see A Majority of One, my mom was impressed with Alec Guiness’s portrayal of Asano and remarked that he captured a Japanese persona. At the same time, my mom was critical of Miiko Taka’s role in Sayonara, saying Taka was too Japanese American to really play a Japanese geisha. I recall that there were protests a few years ago when the three main roles in Memoirs of a Geisha were cast to three Chinese actors. If the actor is good, the audience will accept the performance.

As far as makeup is concerned, to me, this is part of the role, especially with today’s development with makeup. If we use makeup to make an actor look older in a part, is this ageism?

I wholeheartedly support the move to make more roles, more meaningful roles, and more opportunities for Asian American actors. There are so many cutting-edge movies and plays that deal with so many issues, it is unacceptable to deny Asian Americans the opportunity to showcase their talents in these undertakings. Roles need to be mainstream and not ethnic-based.

For me, I don’t think roles should be constrained by ethnicity. After all, are we saying that George Takei could never play Hamlet?

 
There was a protest against a Seattle production of The Mikado in 2014. Were you involved in that?

I was not involved in the protest. I was a member of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), which supported the protest, and thus as a member of JACL I supported their actions. I think the action was important because it put the community and the arts community on notice that there are issues that need to be addressed. I think this is important because many in the arts community generally represent a progressive part of Puget Sound. I felt that one of the main actors in this play, Dave Ross, has always been receptive to communities of color. Again, this was a call for dialogue.

I abstained during the vote to support the protest action because I am a Gilbert and Sullivan fan. Their plays are dated, the costumes exaggerated, and The Mikado does not represent true Japanese society. But, that is Gilbert and Sullivan.

My thoughts here are nuanced. I worry about judging historical products by today's standards, AND I would hate for APIs to be judged as the "censors" of culture. I worry about our own subjectivity in our sensitivities. We are sensitive to the potential harm that attitudes in The Mikado present, yet how many of us would stand in line to see The Book of Mormon?

 
In your opinion, what is there to like about Madame Butterfly?

The music is beautiful. I think “Un bel dì” is one of the most beautiful arias period. There were parts that seemed true to me, especially the wedding scene, which was interrupted because of Cio-Cio-San’s marriage to an outsider.

 
Is there a way to present Madame Butterfly in order to make us think and question it?

I think we should remember that operas, movies, and plays are most often fiction and not documentaries. Madame Butterfly may not represent true Japanese culture, but do we assume that Carmen represents Spanish society or that Aida represents early Egyptian society? There is a danger of negative stereotypes, but I don’t believe that we should label and paint each work with such a wide brush.

 
How should opera, theater, or dance companies today approach works such as Madame Butterfly—popular works loved by many, but that are also potentially problematic to marginalized communities?

Again, I applaud Seattle Opera for beginning the dialogue. I do not believe this issue is a zero-sum game with one side right and one side wrong. I do believe it is an issue in which we need to come together and discuss and understand, or at least, listen to what the other person is saying.

To me, without deeper discussion on our part, we will not be able to make a credible case to the larger population. This is why I look forward to a discussion on this issue. By the way, I know that in the Japanese American community, I am in the minority on this issue. I am not making any attempt to persuade folks to my thinking. I am giving my thoughts in the hope that I can be enlightened.

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Imana Gunawan

Imana Gunawan, a Texas-born Indonesian, is a Seattle-based multimedia journalist and dance artist. Imana currently works as news domain expert for Dataminr and producer for Humanosphere, and was previously at Breaking News (NBC News Digital). She is a member of Au Collective, with which she regularly performs and collaborates. Since graduating cum laude from University of Washington's journalism and dance programs in 2015, she has been commissioned/produced by American Dance Guild in NYC, Velocity's Next Fest NW, Full Tilt, UW Dance Major's Concert, The Studios., Vashon Center for the Arts, Washington Ensemble Theater, and BOOST Dance Festival, among others. She has performed on- and off-stage in Washington and Jakarta since 2011, at theaters (The Paramount and Balai Kartini), festivals (Sasquatch), and public parks (Seattle Art Museum's Olympic Sculpture Park). Imana has contributed written, audio, and/or photographic work to NBC News, The Jordan Times, NPR's Next Generation Radio, Seattle Weekly, International Examiner, SeattleDances, The Seattle Lesbian, and more. In her spare time, Imana takes photos, writes essays and poetry, cultivates her personal style, sings, and talks/reads/thinks about the intersection of pop culture and the lives of people of color.

 
Why is it crucial for people of color and other marginalized communities to be able to see themselves represented in art?

Because we are complex human beings deserving of a full representation of our humanity in all spaces.

 
How often do you feel yourself represented in classical art (opera, ballet, etc.)?

Not often. And even when that happens, it’s often on a superficial level that reduces our humanity into a token character.

 
What does the term yellowface mean to you? Could you give an example of yellowface, where you may have seen it (in opera or otherwise), and how it made you feel? How does the history of yellowface play a part in those feelings?

It’s basically making a caricature out of Asians and this idea that our identity is just a character that anyone—but especially white people—can put on for the sake of entertainment or otherwise.

Some big examples are obviously from Hollywood, with recent examples being Dr. Strange, Ghost in the Shell, etc. Orientalism was also big in modern dance throughout the 20th century, where white choreographers would appropriate Asian cultures for their “exotic” tastes or straight-up put on our culture as a costume or something for entertainment value. It makes me feel tired because white people constantly take things that POCs (people of color) make based out of their stories of survival, but white people generally take these art forms/traditions/culture/identities out of that context and then commercialize it and use it as a tool to gain capital. Then that capital is not given to the originators of that culture, who are still producing that culture because that is part of the ways they survive systems that were not built for them.

 
From your view is there something else we should be thinking about as we watch and listen to Madame Butterfly? Is there a way to present Madame Butterfly in order to make us think and question it?

I think that in art, whenever we’re considering putting the perspectives of the marginalized in the center, it often comes from a place of wanting to look at the extremes. It’s almost about a really good thing or a really bad thing experienced/achieved by marginalized individuals. And that then creates this dichotomy where you’re The “Good” Other or The “Bad” Other, but you’re still The Other. Marginalized people, especially POCs, are then stuck between being The Angry Brown Person or the Model Minority—and these tropes are pitted against each other. It makes it normal for people to say “Oh, you’re not like THOSE black people” or “Why can’t you do this? I thought all Asians are smart.” It sets up a system that you can then almost never overcome.

This focusing on the extremes is problematic because that erases the nuances and the complexities of people of color. The perceptions then rely on stereotypes. And in a world where it’s hard enough to get POC representation in anything, a bad/stereotypical representation is then just adding insult to injury. I’ve never seen Madame Butterfly, so there may be contextual things that I’m missing here. I’m just going off of what I’ve read about it. And even reading about it is like, it’s hard enough to get a Japanese person on stage especially in the opera scene or have Japanese Americans especially be represented in the opera. And to top it off, when they do get represented, then it’s based on the age-old trope of the geisha as seen by an Italian creator. Like, why does that have to be the case? And this can be applied to any form of art, too. I am all for POCs on stage, and I am all for people knowing about the enduring and traumatic legacy of American imperialism in Japan, and how that legacy is still felt to this day. I am all for people sitting and questioning these things in our society. But why does all of this analysis have to come from a Eurocentric perspective (and from an Italian composer with presumably little to no-stakes in the issue of American imperialism in Japan)? Why does it have to be catered to white audiences?

Centering on the story of a geisha when talking about Japanese culture is an example of focusing on an extreme—a stereotype. Why do we need to rely on the stereotype to talk about Japanese culture? Why do we need to bring up the geisha or the samurai or the super-smart techie when we talk about Japanese culture and diaspora? There are lots of Japanese people worldwide, and their stories aren’t stuck to these tropes.

If we’re devoting time and resources to presenting an extreme point of view like Madame Butterfly, are we also devoting similar resources to stories about Japanese culture and issues that are more nuanced? How can we make space for that? How do we shift our resources so that when we do present perspectives of the marginalized, it is made by them and for them?

 
What should be the way forward for opera/theater companies in today’s day and age? How can the classical art world become more inclusive of multicultural and POC experiences and needs—and is it possible for Seattle Opera to continue to do opera while, at the same time, honoring diverse and multicultural community members?

I think the really popular buzzwords right now are things like “diversity” and “inclusivity” and “multicultural” and “equity.” Executives (especially the white people in power in many spaces) like to throw around these words without actually getting to the bottom of what they mean. I appreciate the recent focus on the idea of “equity.” Equity just means that you’re being fair in the way you’re allocating your resources. That means those with historically the least amount of resources (which often are low-income QTPOC—queer, trans, people of color—communities, for various systemic reasons) get more resources this time around so the playing field is level. I think the way forward for these mainstream (read: white) classical institutions is not to just think about being “inclusive” but to think about being equitable. When you talk about equity, you’re talking about resources, you’re thinking about numbers. If you claim you’re for equity, then you need to show your budget and show that you’re allocating time and resources to the communities with the least amount of resources.

Resources can mean anything too: hiring power, attention, time, space, money, all the things that an institution has. If you want to honor multicultural community members, then listen to them. Hire them. Pay them. If you want to present diverse point of views on stage, take the money that you were originally going to give a white artist who wants to “present” POC views and give it to a POC artist who can present their own views on their own terms. One really effective way to fix historic inequities is by redistributing and reallocating resources. I think we’re past the point that we can just focus on these things on a surface level. We’ve been past that point for a long time now.

 
What else should we know about cultural appropriation, yellowface, and whitewashing in art from your own experience as an artist and/or art viewer? Feel free to use examples about how you’ve been personally impacted by these things.

It’s all connected. Nothing in art exists in a vacuum. When we constantly focus on these stereotypes and extreme tropes, it strips POCs of complexity. It strips them of their full humanity. Art and entertainment and culture have the power to subconsciously influence the way we think about certain things. That’s why they’re so powerful. So when POCs are culturally understood to be less than human and instead just characters and stereotypes, enacting harmful policies against them becomes really easy. It becomes normal. Stopping and frisking black and brown people becomes acceptable because in our minds, black and brown people are always villains because in our movies that’s the way they’re always presented. Carpet-bombing Middle Eastern countries becomes a no-biggie because in the art and movies and entertainment, people from Middle Eastern countries are always ready to enact acts of terrorism. Exploiting women from Asian countries becomes normal because our culture tells us that these women are docile and open to exploitation.

Another thing these powerful white people in the arts and culture world need to understand is that cultural insensitivity is not going to sell. As much as I hate making a case for POC liberation from an economic standpoint (because we’ve always historically been bargaining chips as opposed to bargainers), it’s almost like a necessary evil for these institutions. It’s now not enough to just say you have to do this because we are humans who deserve these things. But I’ll make the economic case anyway. The demographic in this country is changing and these POCs have increasing buying power. If institutions don’t want to be culturally and economically relevant five years from now, then you just have to accept the fact that they made that choice. That was a business decision.

 
Sometimes the question is asked, “Why is it OK for a person of color to play a European nobleman, but it’s not OK for a white opera singer to perform as a non-European character?” How do you perceive these two scenarios?

In a world where it’s hard enough to get POC representation in anything, a bad/stereotypical representation (or worse, a white person trying to “represent” you) is then just adding insult to injury. If white people wanted to sing characters, there are literally thousands of characters made for them. Why do they gotta take POC characters too? That’s my question.

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Sophy Wong

Sophy Wong is the Costume Assistant at Seattle Opera. She is also a multi-disciplinary designer and maker working in costuming, fashion, jewelry design, video, and wearable technology.

 
Tell me briefly about your API identity.

I am half Chinese, and half Caucasian. I was born and raised in Hawaii, which has a unique racial dynamic in America, in that the majority of the population is Asian. In Hawaii there is a colloquial (sometimes derogatory) term for white people, and there is an indigenous minority population, Native Hawaiians.

I am a third-generation Chinese American. I don’t speak Chinese, and neither does my dad. I grew up with a mixed set of traditions that are more based on my geographic origin than on my family’s racial history, i.e., I know more Japanese words and customs than Chinese. At one time I was told I could not be trusted because I am “half haole.”

 
How often do you feel yourself represented in classical art forms including opera, theater, or ballet?

I see a lot of successful Caucasian performers. I see fewer successful Asian performers, and very rarely do I see mixed-race performers—or maybe mixed-race performers don’t identify themselves as such. Sometimes people who are part Asian are classified as just “Asian,” so it’s hard to know. But I definitely feel that the issue of mixed-race people is not talked about much, and in that way, I feel underrepresented.

While I’ve been at Seattle Opera (for three years now), I feel like I’ve seen increasing diversity on our stage, and it makes me very happy and proud. We recently had an Asian Figaro, and there were several Asian performers in The Magic Flute, so I feel increasingly represented in our works.

 
What in your eyes is problematic about Madame Butterfly (or is it)? What about it makes you uncomfortable (or does it)?

I haven’t felt uncomfortable about Madame Butterfly in the past. I have always loved its music, and I’ve always been moved by the story. I’m not entirely sure how I feel now. I am glad that often when it is performed, we talk about race and representation. I first saw it performed in Hawaii when I was about 12. I was thrilled to see an opera set in Japan and was excited to see beautiful kimono on stage. I’m not Japanese, but I felt reflected because an Asian culture was being depicted with (what I felt was) care and admiration. I felt reflected in the character of the mixed-race child, and I am thankful for the difficult conversations I had with my parents about intolerance for interracial couples and mixed-race people, like me. Madame Butterfly was probably the first time I learned about how brutal and personal imperialism and racism can be. I do not know the ethnicity of the performers in that production.

Since then, I’ve become aware that this opera makes some people uncomfortable, and I understand why. I know that inaccuracies in how the Japanese characters are presented can perpetuate hurtful stereotypes. But I feel that Puccini’s intent was not to insult or mock, or promote racism. I am heartened to learn that he did research for this piece and interviewed the wife of the Japanese ambassador several times, incorporating her feedback into the work (more here and here).

I think the work is a product and a victim of its own era, a time full of orientalism and exoticism. I know that some people are offended by Madame Butterfly. But I think that many times the fault lies with the way it is produced. The message of the piece, in my opinion, makes it worthy of attempts to perform it respectfully. It has such huge reach and is a big draw for operagoers. It is an opportunity to deliver a message denouncing racism directly to privileged, wealthy, influential people.

 
What does the term “yellowface” mean to you? Could you give an example of yellowface, where you may have seen it (in opera or otherwise), and how it made you feel? How does the history of yellowface play a part in those feelings?

Yellowface to me is an attempt to make a non-Asian person physically look Asian. I don’t think this always includes costumes, but I think intent matters. Mickey Rooney’s character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s is offensive as it is written, even if it had not been played by a white person in makeup that mocks the physical appearance of Japanese people. The makeup is just one part of a completely horrid portrayal of an Asian person.

I am very upset when POC stories are whitewashed in Hollywood, for example Bruce Lee’s Kung Fu TV series, and the recent Ghost in the Shell film. Yellowface always hurts, but for me it hurts even more when the origin of the content is actually from a POC voice.

 
There was a protest against a Seattle production of The Mikado in 2014. What did you think?

I understand why The Mikado is upsetting to some people, but it doesn’t upset me. I understand the work as more of a commentary on British society and also a product of Orientalism. I view the inaccuracies in how Japan is portrayed as showing the ignorance of imperialist nations. I grew up watching a British production of The Mikado, starring Eric Idle. There are no kimono, no yellowface makeup, and everything happens in the setting of a 1920s British hotel. While still somewhat problematic, it does the best job I’ve seen of presenting the work with an awareness of its cultural ignorance. When I see the work performed in kimono and a more realistic Japanese setting, that’s when it feels uncomfortable to me.

 
Other thoughts about this topic in general?

As realism and acting become more desirable in opera, casting practices will undoubtedly need to change. What seemed fair and inclusive before is not good enough now, and we will always be reviewing our processes to see how we can lead change. Part of that is being confident enough to keep trying and knowing that we will always have more work to do on this front.

More than just focusing on Butterfly, I want to see more Asian performers in all kinds of operatic roles, not just the characters who are Asian. I would love to see an Asian Tosca, an Asian Mimì, etc.!

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Angel Alviar-Langley

Angel Alviar-Langley (“Moonyeka”) is a queer Filipina American street-styles dancer who utilizes art creation and community organizing to realize a more inclusive and intersectional world for the communities she comes from. Her current projects include “WHAT’S POPPIN’ LADIEZ?!” an ethnographic research project and community event series focused on the female popping experience. Moonyeka is also a choreographer and dancer of Au Collective, a dance collective that puts women, queer folks, and POC at the forefront. As a street dancer, Moonyeka participates in local and national dance battle competitions and exhibitions with her crew. She also facilitates “BASTOS” (which means “rude" or "disrespectful" in Tagalog). BASTOS is a multimedia/interdisciplinary fab-collab that explores Filipinx diaspora, family, longing, and reclamation with traditional dance, attire, music, and more. Moonyeka teaches for Arts Corps + Spectrum Dance Theater, runs an open dance session (VIBE) for immigrant youth at Yesler Terrace, coaches REMIX: a young brown-girl competition team directed by B-Rocka Henry. Moonyeka is a 2017 DanceCrush honoree of SeattleDances, the 2017 Tina La Padula Fellowship recipient, an Ubunye Project 2017 contributor, a Mary Gates Leadership awardee, and a George Newsome Humanitarian scholar.

 
What has your experience been with opera in general and with Madame Butterfly more specifically? Also—how often do you feel yourself represented in more classical art forms like opera or ballet?

To be honest. I haven’t been to many operas. I did perform once for Carmina Burana at Benaroya Hall, but other than that, opera has been HELLA inaccessible to me. I just didn’t grow up in a way where I/my fam could 1). afford to even go to a show; or 2). see ourselves reflected in the pieces/in the audience. I mean, opera centers on European aesthetics and values down to the languages it’s most often performed in. In Seattle Opera’s Madame Butterfly, they have reiterated stereotypes of Japanese women being subservient to white folks.

When the opera premiered in 1904, it promoted stereotypes that Japanese people are hateful to one another and that women will be subservient and obedient. It tells a story of westerners going into other countries and expecting the communities to be welcoming of their privilege.

And what does Madame Butterfly say to audiences in 2017? The same exact things.

Another thing I dislike about Butterfly is the NON-STOP tokenizing and eroticizing of Japanese women or portraying women as fragile, frail things that NEED American/euro men. There was so much provider/knight-in-shining armor complex I wanted to puke.

If we are going to continue showing this work, the opera and art communities need to fully show how white privilege, colonization, and exploitation of other cultures has traumatized and scarred marginalized people. If you fail to show this, you are ACTIVELY ignoring that trauma.

To say that you can perform Madame Butterfly in an inclusive and multicultural way is a total sham. I do not see how Japanese culture is being celebrated here. It is just mocked.

 
As both a street-styles dancer and a dancer who has studied ballet and modern dance, you have an interesting perspective into different art cultures and communities. Has this balance ever been challenging for any reason? For example, have you ever had to deal with negative or elitist attitudes?

As someone who came up from a street-styles community and is now trying to equally participate in the concert/modern-dance world, I have come up against elitist attitudes in both cultures.

In the concert dance world, I run up against people stealing from cultures and re- appropriating. I run up against people casting me to reach a weird, trendy POC quota. I have been asked to leave my identities at the door before a creative process. I have been referred to as the “exotic one” in a piece that put two white girls in the spotlight, while all the non-white people were in the back/not lit, etc. I have been told by modern-dance teachers how Trisha Brown “impacted the street dance community.” I have been told by other white contemporary dance teachers and artists how “ballet is the root of all dance styles.”

Also, to access this community, it takes SO MUCH MONEY. It’s inaccessible economically, and it’s inaccessible to the community where I come from. The [European dance traditions] do nothing to bring marginalized communities in without exploiting them. In the Seattle dance world, I see so much performativity of ally-ship. I see institutions name-dropping POC artists that maybe walk in the building once or twice. These intuitions say they support those POC artists when they haven’t at all. Newsflash: when we walk into a building, it doesn’t mean you support us, it means we support you. #ENDRANT

In the street-dance community, there is a lot of gender violence that goes down, which is why I run WHAT’S POPPIN’ LADIEZ?!—to organize an event that shows my community how to celebrate women properly.

 
What should be the way forward for performing-arts companies who perform European artistic traditions? How can these companies become more inclusive of multicultural and POC experiences and needs?

Something that I think the classical art scene is missing is simply prioritizing POC/QUEER stories and bodies. From what I notice, I do not see “new works” in opera. One way that I could see myself being more responsive or participatory in the opera world is if, for example, someone took the Madame Butterfly storyline and just set it in a different place. Or changed who was performing those roles (can whomever perform the male lead be a brown man, or even transgender man?).

Because the way the storyline stands now, to watch Madame Butterfly is to do so with the knowledge that I will be traumatized. Is there a way to shift the details? Re-compose? Re-set? How can we evolve the art already made while also honoring the original intention?

Also, opera and other organizations need to look at how they can try to be more inclusive. Are these organizations just doing it because it’s trendy? How are you engaging POC communities? Are you giving discounted tickets?

 
There was a mass protest against a Seattle production of The Mikado in 2014. What did you think?

Good for them. Call them out. However, in what ways can opera and the classical art community keep themselves accountable? Because it is not the job of POC people in that community to continuously have to check others. That’s emotional labor.

 
What does the term yellowface mean to you?

Yellowface examples in my life:

In terms of dating, business, and all sorts of relationships, I see people projecting the expectation of me being obedient, quiet, shy.

I hear people all the time having “yellow fever” and being interested in me because of that.

It’s a microaggression, but it happens all the time.

I walk in to Forever 21, and I see kimonos being sold.

I see fusion Asian restaurants everywhere.

Yellowface is everywhere. It isn’t just for stage. It’s appropriation. It’s a mockery of cultures while making money off that mockery.

Storytellers, tell your own stories. Speak your own truths. And if you want to be inclusive, be so, so, soooooo proactive in reaching out to those communities in order to celebrate them. Let them control the way they are represented. Give them agency in the decision-making process.

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Feiya Wang

Feiya Wang is a Technical Communications Specialist and a member of Seattle Opera’s BRAVO! Club. She describes herself in the following way: At my core, I’m someone who wants to be authentic and raw. Unapologetic for what makes me get up in the morning and what keeps me up at night. I like to put my energies into projects that help others, whether it be a friend’s career, side projects, or whatever else needs help. I’m involved in the LGBT community and have been to Burning Man twice. Once in 2014 and once in 2012. I enjoy traveling.

 
What in your eyes is problematic about the story of Madame Butterfly? (Or is it?)

I've never liked the idea of "war brides." It has an element of Stockholm syndrome that makes me uncomfortable. Besides that, the age difference is problematic.

 
What does the term yellowface mean to you? Could you give an example of yellowface, where you may have seen it, and how it made you feel? How does the history of yellowface play a part in those feelings?

Yellowface means any time someone who is not of Asian descent tries to pass themselves off as Asian. I saw the movie Breakfast at Tiffany's a few years ago and was really shocked at the gross, one-dimensional portrayal of a Japanese person.

Critics of the recent Ghost in the Shell movie have said the film did so poorly because of the controversy of the main characters being “white-washed." The entertainment industry has always had a diversity problem, and Asians are not widely cast.

 
If you have seen Madame Butterfly (and it is OK if you haven’t), is there anything about it to like? Is it possible to hate the story and love the music? Is it possible for the discomfort about the story to be a good thing, i.e., we are supposed to be uncomfortable with a story like this where an American man purchases an underage bride, something that sadly still happens today? An example in literature might be Lolita. It is disturbing to read that book, but can there be an argument for art that disturbs us?

I liked that there were Asians in the chorus. There's a lot of operas that have story lines and themes that are antithetical to today's beliefs. I think what can make Madame Butterfly interesting and tie it to today is when the producing organization does something different than just a traditional production.

 
From your view is there something else we should be thinking about as we watch and listen to Madame Butterfly? Is there a way to present Madame Butterfly in order to make us think and question it?

Why does a white American man think it was OK to treat a Japanese woman with less respect for her feelings and person than another white American woman? Why was she deemed "not enough" to be his "real" wife? What about Japanese culture allowed Cio-Cio-San to believe that killing herself was the only way out?

America had Japanese Detention Centers. Did the popular view of distrust and suspicion toward Japanese people or people of Japanese descent cause Pinkerton to be embarrassed or ashamed of his Japanese wife and not bring her back with him to America? What about this history of America has attributed to the anti-refugee sentiment towards Syrians today?

 
How should opera companies today approach works such as Madame Butterfly—popular works loved by many, but that are also potentially problematic to marginalized communities?

Companies should definitely try to involve as much of the marginalized community as possible in and around the work and also try to reframe the work somehow. Setting it in a different locale, time period, or with a different backstory can go a long way towards showing audiences that careful thought and research and sensitivity went into putting on a controversial or troubling piece.

 
How can Seattle Opera honor our musical legacy and tradition, while, at the same time, honoring our diverse and multicultural community members?

Giving the community an opportunity to share their stories or reactions. I saw Seattle Opera's production of As One last year and really appreciated the inclusion of the stories from the trans community before the opera.

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1 comment:

Broschat said...

Madame Butterfly was not written by Giacomo Puccini, nor was it written by David Belasco, whose play of that name Puccini saw in London. Puccini immediately saw its potential as opera material: tugged heart strings, a baby (son), and lots of tears. Perfect Italian material. The original story was by John Luther Long, which appeared in Century magazine in 1898. Some say it was based upon stories told to Long by his sister who lived much of her adult life as the wife of an American missionary in Asia.

Some say the story is preposterous, but its potential truth can be attested by many of the tens of thousands of American soldiers stationed in Asia during the twentieth century. One might argue that its fundamental point is that women had few if any choices for support outside their natal family in pre-modern times, a fact often referenced by Jane Austen for a culture closer to our own Anglo-American culture, if a hundred years earlier.

In Long's original story, Butterfly doesn't kill herself. After her initial hurt at his leaving, she realizes that Pinkerton had taught her how to survive on her own. She had been sold (rented out, actually) by her family to serve as a concubine for the temporarily stationed American naval captain. Rather than go back to that family and await her next customer, she takes off in the night with baby and Suzuki. Well, there are no tears in that scenario, so Belasco had her stay and die, when he did the one-act version of the story for his theater. Great drama.

Personally, I admire both Butterflies. From a modern perspective, her death is no more unrealistic than the death of Elvira Madigan, and both are dependent upon the times and cultures in which the ladies lived. That we cannot approve because of our current beliefs doesn't mean that we can't seek to understand those of others in a different time.

I had occasion some years ago to defend the operatic Butterfly, trying to show why I admire her even if her author did not intend things to work out as we now see them. My article is at:
http://www.michaelbroschat.com/literature/butterfly/butterfly.htm