Beyond The Page

“Beyond the Page” features supplementary materials that enhance the content of American Quarterly. The guest editors, forum conveners, contributing authors, and/or review editors provide audiovisual materials, links to online sources, recommended readings, and other information that help to deepen the reader’s understanding of the print version of the journal. The feature is designed to spark further conversation, inspire new ways of engaging texts and issues, and suggest possible approaches to teaching. Please engage what is “Beyond the Page” together with what is inside the pages of American Quarterly. 

March 2024 Beyond the Page

Unpinning Madama Butterfly: Beyond the Page

By Kunio Hara and Mari Yoshihara

Our co-authored essay, Unpinning Butterfly, is a review of Boston Lyric Opera’s 2023 production of Giacomo Puccini’s classic opera, Madama Butterfly. Led by director Phil Chan and artistic adviser and dramaturg Nina Yoshida Nelsen, an almost entirely Asian and Asian American artistic team produced and performed a decolonial version of Butterfly that pushes the audience to engage this work in entirely new ways. Our essay discusses the BLO production’s bold reimagining and rendition of Madama Butterfly and contextualizes it in the hybrid origins and fraught history of Puccini’s opera, its impact on Asian American communities, and the recent attempts within the opera industry to grapple with this work.

Caught between Madama Butterfly’s Orientalism and distorted cultural representations and the professional opportunities the work brings to Asian singers, many Asian artists have long sought various strategies to interpret the work in their own ways and control the performance the best they can. Yet it was the global mobilization of the Black Lives Matter movement that pushed American opera industry to take a major step forward in reckoning with long-standing norms and practices on- and offstage rooted in structural racism. Critical engagement with and new interpretations of Madama Butterfly have been part of such efforts, especially after the acute rise of anti-Asian hate crimes during the global COVID-19 pandemic. Interdisciplinary creator-performer Teiya Kasahara’s The Butterfly Project, for instance, highlights the original intention of the opera’s appropriated melodies and brings them into the 21st century with live and recorded sounds, electronics, and classical singing in both Italian and Japanese. Pacific Opera Project’s bilingual production by Josh Shaw and Eiki Isomura premiered in 2019 in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo and returns to stage in the summer or 2024.  Japanese American director Matthew Ozawa’s production of Madama Butterfly (originally in Cincinnati in 2020 and then in Detroit in 2023) told the story as a virtual reality video game that captures the mind of the modern-day Pinkerton as he becomes increasingly disillusioned with the domestic reality of his life with Kate.