Wednesday, August 13, 2014

My Asian American Story

Gabrielle Nomura Gainor (far right) with members of her family at the 2015 opening of An American Dream. Next to Gabrielle from right: John Nomura (grandfather) who was born behind barbed wire while Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II; Elise Nomura (aunt); Stephanie Nomura-Henley (mother). Philip Newton photo

Most opera companies perform Madame Butterfly because of Puccini’s beautiful melodies. But not everyone can see themselves in this story. For Asian Americans like myself, Butterfly can be uncomfortable, a reminder of how often our stories are taken from us, then twisted, creating caricatures out of our ancestry.

By Gabrielle Kazuko Nomura Gainor 

An opera about a submissive Japanese maiden may seem harmless when world-class music is involved, but the stereotype persists beyond the stage. While some viewers can enjoy an evening of music and theater, then go home, Asian Americans don’t have the option of leaving Butterfly behind. So long as our ancestry remains etched on our faces, we will be burdened by the exotic lotus blossom, the martial arts master, and the sidekick. We carry the full weight of these stereotypes wherever  we go.

To be Asian in America means to grow up amidst mocking depictions of people like you. In the US, our timeless and treasured films include characters resembling buck-toothed propaganda (Mr. Yunioshi, Breakfast at Tiffany’s) and dopey, forever-foreigners (Lung Duk Dong, Sixteen Candles). Is it any wonder we Asian Americans get questions like “Where are you really from?” or “How do you speak English so well?” Here in the US, it’s normal to see a white Hollywood actress like Emma Stone cast as a Mixed Race, Chinese/Hawaiian woman. Or a movie remake of a Marvel comic that changes the race of a Tibetan character in order to hire Tilda Swinton. At least now we have Mulan and Moana—neither of whom were around when I was small and searching for a princess who looked like me. When you  can’t see your story, it can feel like you don’t matter.

Stage Director Desdemona Chiang. Photo courtesy of CityArts

Desdemona Chiang, a stage director who has worked at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Seattle Repertory Theatre, and ACT, says she doesn’t see herself reflected in classical art such as opera, ballet, or symphonic music. “I think when we say ‘classical,’ we really mean ‘European,’” she says. “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.”

While Asian representation remains a struggle, ironically, our numbers are increasing. Asian Americans have become the fastest-growing racial group in both the United States and here in Washington, followed by people who identify as two or more races. So when it comes to works featuring non-European characters, performing arts troupes simply can’t afford to stick with the status quo.

Both the audience and our world have changed considerably since Madame Butterfly’s 1904 premiere (we now have Broadway shows about the founding fathers told through hip-hop, for example). Westerners don’t need to daydream about far-away exotic lands of “The Orient”; people of Asian ancestry are an essential part of the fabric of American life, especially here in the Pacific Northwest.

For years, my community has been speaking out regarding issues of yellowface, cultural appropriation, and minority representation. What’s changed is who’s listening. Since a production of The Mikado made national news in 2014, this broader conversation has permeated the Puget Sound theater community, including here at Seattle Opera. Now, as the company mounts Butterfly, changes are also taking place in the opera world. As seen through the Metropolitan Opera’s decision to drop blackface in a 2015 Otello production, the art form is just beginning to reevaluate practices like colorblind casting and how it represents non-European characters. For example, Seattle Opera’s Madame Butterfly will not attempt to change a given singer’s race through wigs or makeup.

Of course, art must ultimately do more than simply mitigate harm. In order to make real strides in racial equity, People of Color need to be involved at every level of the creative process, from selecting repertoire, to casting, to directing. Simply recreating Meiji-era Japan for Butterfly is not what will lead to the empowerment of marginalized people. Empowerment comes from having a diverse group of visionaries and decision-makers at the table—artists like Matthew Ozawa, for example, who recently directed Butterfly at Arizona Opera.

Stage Director Matthew Ozawa. Photo courtesy of L2 Artists

Butterfly had always made Ozawa uncomfortable in the past, so he needed to find a way to connect with it and ultimately direct a production that he didn’t find offensive at its core. Part of the answer for him was the racially diverse cast. The Arizona production felt inclusive because there was no yellowface, and “there was a representation of all humanity.” The Suzukis were Black and white, the Cio-Cio-Sans were white and Latina, and Pinkerton was Latino. He also knew he had to look at the opera with fresh eyes unhampered by opera’s traditions, which have largely been created through a Eurocentric lens. Ozawa’s own multicultural identity surely contributed to a more nuanced production, too. “As a kid, I was not allowed to perform in the opera Werther. I was rejected because I was not white,” he says. “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.”

I too have chosen to dedicate my life to art forms that originate from Europe. I am also part of the community that protests The Mikado and Madame Butterfly. Like Matthew Ozawa, I stay because it’s a worthwhile fight. Just as Black girls deserve to watch ballerinas with their skin tones dancing, and Asian boys deserve to see movies with a handsome hero who looks like them (not just another ninja), People of Color deserve to see themselves represented in this beautiful space: McCaw Hall. We need to see stories that hold up our complexity and potential on an equal arm’s length to white people and European traditions. Is opera willing to help make this happen?

Hae Ji Chang (Setsuko) in An American Dream at Seattle Opera in 2015. Philip Newton photo

I know the potential is there. I am thankful for Lawrence Brownlee, a self-proclaimed short Black man, who not only redefines what a prince looks like, but is unafraid to be visible as an opera star who speaks out on NPR against racism, racial profiling, and the “senseless deaths of young African Americans." I have sat in awe as transgender kids discovered aspects of themselves in opera during As One, the story of a transgender woman’s journey to finding her true self. I have even experienced an opera that illuminated what happened to Japanese Americans like my family, my bachan and jichan, imprisoned during World War II because they looked like the enemy. As the performers of An American Dream wove a tale of dignity and pain, the audience saw more and felt more deeply in a way that only art makes possible. They were connecting to this story. My story. There were no stereotypes or mocking caricatures in the room, just powerful storytelling and music.

Gabrielle Kazuko Nomura Gainor is a fifth-generation Japanese American and the Communications & Public Engagement Manager at Seattle Opera.  

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