Opera Philadelphia

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Director’s Note: Madame Butterfly

By Ted Huffman

We’re used to seeing Madame Butterfly unfold through the eyes of the American sailor, Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton – entering, as if tourists, into a world of Japanese architecture, culture, and Orientalist spectacle. When designer Michael Levine and I devised this production, we asked ourselves how we might reverse that premise and invite the audience instead to experience, visually, Pinkerton’s arrival – and later, departure – through the eyes of Butterfly.

We found inspiration in archival photographs from the American Embassy in Nagasaki at the turn of the century: photos that depict American diplomats and soldiers living among heavy furniture brought over on warships and placed into traditional Japanese buildings. The contrasting design styles – the clean lines of the Japanese house next to the ornate American furniture – create for us a tension that cannot be resolved within this space, just as Pinkerton’s reckless actions towards Butterfly cannot ever be resolved. 

The first act of our production therefore becomes a kind of aesthetic colonization. Later, when Pinkerton abandons Butterfly, she’s forced to live among his furniture, objects which will always be alien to Butterfly and to her loving servant, Suzuki.

Similarly, with Annemarie Woods’ costumes, we wanted to reflect the unique collision of Japanese and Western cultures during this period, so we have kept the designs more or less historical. In particular, we wanted to depict the slow creep of Western style into Japanese fashion; for this we drew from historical photos of Japanese women in American-style dresses made from traditional kimono fabrics and upper-class Japanese men wearing western suits.

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I was also interested in showing Butterfly as a chamber play, in stripping away the spectacle that has developed around the opera through performance practice. The text, especially in Acts Two and Three, reminds us that Madame Butterfly was an intimate, eight-character drama when Puccini discovered it on a trip to London. 

My hope is that these approaches, combined, allow us to get closer to the extraordinary character of Butterfly herself, to resist seeing her as a foreign object, and to understand her tragic position between these two flawed societies.

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