During an interview backstage at the Calderwood Pavilion, where Boston Lyric Opera was rehearsing Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” Phil Chan, the dancer, choreographer, and advocate who’s directing the new production, noticed a reporter fidgeting with his pen.
“See that pen you’re clicking?” Chan said, taking it from my hand. “That’s a pen. But it’s also a magic wand.” He tapped it, magician-style, on an imaginary hat. “It’s also a spaceship.” He used the pen to trace the flight path of an imaginary spacecraft. “Or it could be a lightsaber.” He brandished it in an imaginary duel, sound effect and all.
His point, of course, went beyond imaginary things one can do with a writing implement. Chan was illustrating what he called his “creative North Star — the question I ask in whatever I do: What else could it be?”
That question has been pivotal for BLO when it comes to “Madama Butterfly.” After the pandemic felled a production planned for fall 2020, the company had intended to reschedule it for the following year. But in the wake of an outburst of violence against people of Asian descent — in particular, the murder of six Asian women in Atlanta in March 2021 — it became apparent that “we weren’t in a position to create and put on stage a story that we felt would be respectful, responsible, and thoughtful — and a story that was for our community,” said Bradley Vernatter, BLO’s general director and CEO, in an interview.
Far from being alone, BLO’s reluctance was part of a broader reconsideration of “Butterfly” that has unfolded over the past few years. Reasons for discomfort abound: the often kitschy costumes; the practice (known as yellowface) of non-Asians wearing white makeup to portray Asian characters; and, perhaps most urgently, the way the plot reduces its characters to caricatures, often offensive ones at that. (A swashbuckling American soldier named Pinkerton marries, impregnates, and callously deserts a 15-year-old Japanese geisha, who then commits suicide.)
“East Asian women are seen as hyper-sexual and hyper-submissive,” said Chan, whose organization Final Bow for Yellowface has fought against Asian stereotypes in ballet and other performing arts. “Where does that come from? ‘Madama Butterfly’ has been a big part of perpetuating that idea.”
Yet for all strikes against the opera, Vernatter said, there was never an intention of simply not doing it. “Rather than cancel it and just say, we’re going to avoid it, it felt imperative to lean deeper into that tension.”
That imperative led to the creation, in fall 2021, of the Butterfly Process, a series of conversations about the opera that covered its reception through history, the racial and gender stereotypes it marshaled, questions of Orientalism and cultural appropriation, and its long, ambivalent legacy. Vernatter reached out to Chan to develop and host the series; Chan assembled singers, directors, historians, and Boston arts community members to delve into the thorny issues. The impact, Vernatter said, was “nothing less than “a complete change in thinking in our organization.”
Chan said that he curated the Butterfly Process to be a resource that would help shape future productions of “Butterfly,” not just BLO’s. When it ended, he thought his role was over. But Vernatter asked him, almost casually, how Chan would stage “Butterfly,” even though he’d never directed an opera before. What else could this problematic piece be?
The wave of anti-Asian hatred still fresh in his consciousness — Chan, who is Chinese-American, reported that both he and his father were spat on multiple times during the COVID-19 backlash — he thought about America’s experience with Japanese detention camps during World War II. Also on his mind was a documentary he’d seen about nightclubs in San Francisco’s Chinatown during World War II, a kind of glitzy underground during another time of Asian-American demonization.
He decided to set the opera there, with the opulence of the clubs and the barrenness of the camps two sides of a uniquely Asian-American story. Pinkerton (tenor Dominick Chenes) is a young naval officer about to ship out to war when, by chance, he encounters Butterfly (soprano Karen Chia-ling Ho), a Japanese-American jazz singer trying to pass as Chinese to avoid imprisonment. While their story unfolds differently than in traditional productions of the opera, Chan noted that the opera’s text remains all but identical to what Puccini set.
Operagoers, of course, can be resistant to change. And yet, Chan maintained, reinterpreting canonical works is not only nothing new, it’s necessary to get to the essence of what an opera like “Madama Butterfly” captures.
“What we’re saying is, if we’re reimagining things anyway, can we maybe make it a little less racist? If we want to honor Puccini’s intentions, we can’t let 100-plus years of human cultural baggage get in the way of appreciating what he’s trying to tell us.”
And this kind of reimagining — asking, again, what else an artwork can be — is necessary not only to discover what’s essential in classic artworks, but to preserve their relevance for the future.
“What is a classic? A classic has a push and pull in both directions,” Chan said. “And that’s where the tension lies: It not only speaks to the past but also has a resonance for the future. That’s why we reimagine shows. It’s got to be strong enough that we can see our children still loving this work.”
Presented by Boston Lyric Opera. At Emerson Colonial Theatre, Sept. 14-24. Tickets: $25-$280. www.blo.org