New Madame Butterfly production takes flight at Detroit Opera.
By Graham Mitchell and Elizabeth Mitchell
DETROIT, MI–Detroit Opera kicked off their 2023-2024 season with an innovative, thought-provoking production of Giacomo Puccini’s masterpiece, Madame Butterfly.
The opera will also be performed October 13 and October a5. Tickets can be purchased here.
For over 100 years, the telling of an American Naval officer and his dalliance with a young Japanese girl (marrying and deserting her) has been told through the lens of the white, male perspective. Looking to tell this story from a new and more representational perspective, Artistic Director Yuval Sharon brought together an entirely Japanese and Japanese-American creative team led by Stage Director, Matthew Ozawa and Conductor Kensho Watanabe.
Sharon says, “Productions like this one…always remind us that this opera is not a documentary. The fantasy of Japan and Puccini’s perspective is evoked in contemporary terms as Pinkerton visits a Japan that is, literally, virtual reality. The story of Pinkerton, an American playboy tourist is incapable of imagining consequences to his actions, is not romanticized in this production: instead, the limitations of his empathy prove to be disastrous as he faces life beyond his VR headset. We in the audience are asked to consider our own implications as spectators, who have likely seen productions of Butterfly presented with a less-than-empathetic reliance on stereotype.”
With this in mind, Ozawa takes us to a new, virtual reality world of Madame Butterfly – one that Pinkerton himself creates and controls. The opera begins in a picture-box apartment complete with stereotypical Japanese décor and a gaming chair center stage. As Pinkerton, wonderfully sung by Eric Taylor, puts on the VR headset and grabs the controls we are transported into the world of fantasized Japan. Goro (Julius Ahn) emerges as “Game Master” from a red, rising sun opening in the wall, inviting Pinkerton to join the game. From the moment the curtain rises, the audience knows this will not be a traditional production.
The visual experience is incredible with amazing sets designed by dots – a multi-disciplinary design collective with artists Santiago Orjuela-Laverde, Andrew Moerdyk, and Kimie Nishikawa. The apartment never leaves the stage, but opens to reveal Pinkerton’s Japanese fantasy, complete with ornamental gardens, Mt. Fuji, paper lanterns, and a traditional Japanese house. Every set and moment of the production is masterfully lit by lighting designer Yuki Nakase Link, including LED strip lighting reminiscent of the movie Tron. Beautiful pink lanterns enhance the romance between Pinkerton and Butterfly at the end of Act One. Stunning costumes by Maiko Matsushima combine traditional Japanese dress with video game/anime influences. This aesthetic continues with colorful, imaginative wigs and makeup by Joanne Middleton-Weaver.
Not to be outdone, the musical direction of this production is sensational. Conductor Kensho Watanabe masterfully leads the orchestra and cast, delivering every shining moment in Puccini’s score. Karah Son sings the role of Butterfly with grace, passion, and elegance. With soaring high notes and expressive musicality, Son’s “Un bel di” in Act Two is a triumph. Additionally, the Flower Duet between Butterfly and Suzuki (Kristen Choi) is a musical highlight with their voices blending beautifully during this sweet moment of sisterhood. The chorus, under the direction of Suzanne Mallory Acton, is flawless; their Humming Chorus in the second act stands out with delicate, shimmering artistry.
Ozawa’s concept is particularly successful in Act One. It makes sense that Pinkerton is so easily dismissive of Butterfly’s future and feelings, as she is merely a product of his VR fantasy. The characters are introduced as they would be in a video game, even standing motionless when they are “paused.” The VR friend character of Sharpless (Nmon Ford) warns Pinkerton that Butterfly is in love with him and not to be callous with her feelings. Pinkerton, though, ignores his words and, instead, mindlessly enjoys the world of his creation. Ford brings depth to Sharpless as he moves from commanding to sympathetic tones.
Unfortunately, the direction of Act Two was not as clear or dramatically strong as the preceding act. One of the most important aspects of the second act in a traditional production is the focus on Butterfly’s humanity. We see her struggle against the world, keeping faith in her love, her hope, and her dreams. We also discover that she is a mother trying to make a better world for her child. This real-world focus on her plight was disrupted by the VR concept. We were often distracted by the director’s addition of Pinkerton wandering around the stage as an ‘invisible’ observer manipulating the game and taking focus away from Butterfly’s journey. Reading Ozawa’s notes, this was intentional to, “…amplify that her story has been seen through the lens of a white man, Pinkerton.” However, this made Butterly more of a two-dimensional character without the human complexity that makes us love her. The ending of this production was quite perplexing and did not deliver the heart-wrenching ‘gut-punch’ that we usually feel.
We highly recommend seeing Madame Butterfly at Detroit Opera, as this production is an exciting and unusual take on a classic story. What we love about theater is that it provokes new ways of thinking and we have been thinking about Ozawa’s vision since opening night. You will love the music and the artistic design as you step into Pinkerton’s VR fantasy.