Opera is an art form that draws upon five hundred years of tradition—yet it must respond to contemporary concerns in order to resonate with today’s audiences.
In this complicated situation is precisely where Seattle Opera finds itself, as it prepares to stage a production of Giacomo Puccini’s Madame Butterfly next month. Written in 1903 by an Italian composer, together with Italian librettists Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, the opera Madame Butterfly is itself a loose adaptation of a short story and a one-act play by the same title. None of these, however, were written by creators hailing from the Japanese heritage depicted in the literary works.
Seattle Opera last staged Madame Butterfly in 2012; however, since then, community concerns about the opera have been voiced—and heard—more loudly, and the Opera’s staff claims to be listening. “Like all of the operas that come to McCaw Hall, General Director Aidan Lang selected Butterfly several years ago, as planning multiple years in advance is standard industry practice,” said Seattle Opera media relations manager Gabrielle Nomura Gainor. “With that said, our understanding of racial equity and work to become more equitable as a company has come a long way since then.”
This is a matter of debate in the local community, in which many API artists and scholars find themselves revisiting prior apprehensions. Kathy Hsieh, a local actor, writer, and director, first heard about this new production of Madame Butterfly last December from both local student actors and from Seattle Opera’s Director of Education & Community Engagement Barbara Lynne Jamison. “They had contacted me because of the racial equity work I do, and specifically because of the forum I had curated in 2014 as a response to a local production of The Mikado,” Hsieh said.
Others echoed this sense of repetition. When Roger Tang, a playwright, literary manager, and four-decade theatre producer, learned of Seattle Opera’s latest plans, his first thought was, he said, “Well, here we go again.”
Meanwhile, UW Associate Professor of Communication LeiLani Nishime heard of the new production as early as last summer. “At the time, I was both concerned that it would continue to perpetuate old tired stereotypes,” she said, “and I was just so weary of having to have the same conversations over and over.”
Despite these sentiments, Hsieh, Tang, and Nishime will join several other artists on July 9 at SIFF Uptown for a free panel discussion about cultural appropriation and representation. All three feel it’s important to involve the community in an ongoing dialogue with local arts organizations.
Hsieh reports a great deal of consideration regarding how to best create such dialogue. “The students who had reached out to me were debating whether to organize a protest, or put together a panel discussion, or simply meet with the Seattle Opera staff, and I advised that they should engage in the way that they felt was right for them,” she said, “but that if I were to organize something it would be to create an opportunity that gives visibility to Asian Americans and our perspectives, causes, and artists.”
Simultaneously, Hsieh was continuing her conversations with the Opera’s Jamison. “The Seattle Opera felt a strong need to organize opportunities for the Asian American community to share their viewpoints, and the Opera’s Education and Community Engagement team felt their role is to amplify the voices of the Asian American community,” she said. “They had already reached out to the Japanese American Citizens League and Densho to discuss possibilities. So July 9 was designed to address some of the current issues, not just in response to Madame Butterfly but in response to the representation, or lack of, for Asian Americans in general, from yellow face to white-washing to appropriation.”
Nishime believes that all of these issues of representation have great importance. “I am invested in improving the representation of Asian and Asian American in the media,” she said. “The influence of the media affects us in overt ways, but years of studies have also shown us the more subtle role it plays in limiting the life chances and options for people poorly represented in media or left out completely.”
For Nishime, the July 9 forum will shed light on under-discussed issues. “I wanted to participate in a public forum that could help bring to the surface the problems with these kinds of representations,” she said. “We can’t address the issues unless we first recognize them.”
Tang cites a number of specific issues with the artistic and media representation of the API community: “One is that Asian Americans are still not represented in stage, TV, and movies,” he said. “The figures don’t lie: we are not used in numbers that represent our share of the population nationally, let alone locally. For example, on stage, Asian Americans take up three to five percent of all roles in Seattle and NYC, but make up fifteen to twenty percent of the population.”
But that is just the foundation of his concerns. “Two, that Asian Americans rarely present their stories in stage/TV/movies; they rarely are protagonists,” he added. “Three, when they do play protagonists, they are often constrained to little boxes that characterize us as being foreign or something not normal. Four, those factors make whitewashing and yellow face even more insidious and damaging.”
These problems lead Tang to the necessity of adaptation. “I’m not interested in taking away things people enjoy,” he said. “Conversely, doing things ‘the way they’ve always done things’ is not a sufficient reason to do them. I hate cultural embalming.”
Tang does not find convincing the argument that opera and other performance disciplines are steeped in tradition. “Tradition is not enough,” he said “Tradition includes a lot of dumb and harmful things. There should be a whole, human way to present ways while still honoring the original spirit.”
He believes that both creators and spectators have a responsibility to the community. “We, as artists and as audience, shouldn’t be encouraging cultural embalming,” he said. “Art has to engage audience in the moment, and encasing works in amber and doing them the same way they always have done them for hundreds of years is a sure way to kill whatever was interesting in them.”
In addition to each of these concerns about gendered and racialized stereotypes and the lack of diverse representation of Asians and Asian Americans, Nishime would also like to address an often-ignored topic: “The roots of the Madame Butterfly images, and images like them, in U.S. imperialism in Asia.”
In addition to attending and participating in this panel, Hsieh encourages community members to make their concerns known. “Barbara Lynne Jamison wanted a way for the Seattle Opera to be very upfront about the controversy that Madame Butterfly might arouse,” Hsieh said. “Barbara, who had participated in our Seattle Office of Arts & Culture’s racial equity learning cohort had actually already had a meeting with her General Director about the production.”
Hsieh reports that these conversations with Opera staff were informative. “I learned a lot in my discussion with the opera, none of which are justifications, but all of which are issues they’ve been dealing with internally,” she said. “I won’t speak on behalf of the Seattle Opera, but actually encourage people to reach out to them directly. There’s many on staff who probably feel exactly as many of us in the Asian American community do about the production.”
Gainor reports that Seattle Opera staff are becoming more conscious of the inequities upon which their art form is rooted. “Opera is centuries-old and comes from a point of view that prioritizes a European worldview above other cultures,” she said. “Not surprisingly, we don’t have a great track record with communities of color, including Americans of Asian and Pacific Islander descent who have been hurt by the cultural appropriation and historic yellowface practices in Madame Butterfly, Turandot, The Pearl Fishers, and The Mikado.”
Recognizing that one conversation is not enough, the Opera’s July 9 community discussion on these topics will be followed by a second event on July 28 entitled Reversing the Madame Butterfly Effect: Asian American Women Reinvent Themselves Onstage. This second event will consist of three short plays by Asian American women playwrights, following by a community discussion.
Hsieh hopes that this second evening will provide examples of more realistic portrayals of Asian American women. “The biggest issue I have with Madame Butterfly is not even dependent on its casting, but because of its depiction of Asian women,” she said. “This opera almost single-handedly spawned the stereotypes that people the world-over still associate with Asian women, that we are submissive to men, willing to sacrifice our own lives for our men and children, victims of fate, objects of desire, that our life’s purpose is to serve white men. Movies, plays, novels, popular culture have all built upon this myth of who we are.”
At the root of all this discussion in the strategy that Hsieh most clearly advocates. “I always encourage, if you see something you don’t think is right or appropriate or is problematic or racist, speak up, stand up, show up,” she said. “Don’t just complain about it with those you know.”
She emphasizes that such feelings rarely occur in a vacuum. “I think there are more people out there than we think that are willing to work in solidarity with us, even sometimes the same people we think might be the problem,” she said. “And on the other side, if someone does call you or your organization out for being racist or part of the problem, listen, learn.”
Hsieh advises all to welcome feedback with a spirit of openness. “It doesn’t matter what your original intention might be,” she said. “If people in the community are being hurt and traumatized by what you’re doing, then you are playing a role in upholding racism if you’re not willing to find out why and what you can do to change.”
Tang agrees. “I think producers in general should realize that when we talk about work that could be racist, it’s often because it’s a failure in craftsmanship, not a failure of ideology,” he said. “Not having input from the real world results in sterile art. Not getting input and feedback from minority communities means you’re cutting yourself off from a resource that’s open to you, and your art is more likely to fail.”
Hsieh emphasizes that success requires the whole community. “It’s going to take all of us working together to dismantle inequity, so we all have to be willing to do our part,” she said. “And maybe more than anything else, we each need to expand our ability to work through compassion.”
Gainor suggests that Seattle Opera will be listening closely. “Key leaders within the Seattle Opera staff, Board, and company Equity Team will attend the two panel discussions,” she reported. “Then, following these July events, and following the Madame Butterfly performances which will offer more opportunities for feedback, these company leaders will convene again.”
The Opera will also seek outside assistance. “Working with an independent consultant from The City of Seattle who specializes in racial equity, the group will debrief and talk about they have heard in the past two months,” Gainor said. “Based on this feedback, the group will develop a plan for how the company can move forward in a way that will advance racial equity.”
Hsieh also hopes that the community discussion will move beyond these important issues to considerations of future action. “I want to encourage our community and others to think about what other strategies need to come into play in order for true racial and gender equity to happen in this country, or at least in Seattle,” she said. “Yes, it’s still important to call out these incidents, but to be honest, each individual needs to decide for ourselves what actions are going to have the most meaning and fulfillment for each of us in order for us to each sustain ourselves in the hard work of organizing for social justice. And for me, I came to the realization that my own efforts might be better spent in the creation of new work to supplant these historic works that only offer racist and stereotypical depictions of what white people have defined us as.”
In that vein, Tang is encouraged by other initiatives forthcoming from Seattle Opera. “I’m encouraged to see the Opera produce An American Dream, a more grounded and realistic views of Asians,” he said. “I think the API community should give positive reinforcement to positive steps taken by the opera. Being open to and being partners with the API community should be a goal of producers.”
Nishime agrees on this priority. “While I think it important to address these kinds of images produced outside of our community and, it seems, meant for an audience outside of our community, we can’t simply wait around for these institutions to change,” she said. “Instead, we should be patronizing work that does speak to us and supporting artists and organizations that do think about us as an audiences. We should also appreciate the fact that the city of Seattle does fund organizations that serve diverse communities and insist that it continue to do so.”
Gainor expresses Seattle Opera’s commitment to become one of those organizations. “Seattle Opera has work to do to earn the trust of communities of color,” she said. “Because our art form is historically inequitable, it will also take time to further reinforce the pipeline of artists, directors, and artistic leaders in opera who reflect the multicultural world we live in today. While progress is not as fast as we’d like, we are committed to making opera a place where Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, and all people of color feel like this art form belongs to them, too.”
On behalf of Seattle Opera, Gainor also expressed gratitude. “We’re thankful to members of the API community who have helped to educate us and hold us accountable,” she said. “Ultimately, this will only help us grow.”
Community Discussion: Asian Arts Leaders Respond to Madame Butterfly will be held on July 9, 2pm, at SIFF Uptown, 511 Queen Anne Avenue North, Seattle. For more information, visit here.