Madama Butterfly's Stage Director Message

Actualités lyriques


April 28, 2023

Text  : Stephanie Havey


Madama Butterfly is one of the operatic repertoire’s greatest treasures.  The challenge of creating an approach for directing this opera lies in the fact that its story is told from a Western perspective: an outsider looking at Japanese culture without fully understanding it. The origins of the story likely date back to 19th-century sources: the private diary of a naval officer, Pierre Loti, author of the novel Madame Chrysanthème, is largely recognized as its original version. Another source is the account by Caucasian Christian missionaries in Nagasaki in charge of the Methodist Episcopal Mission, who claimed to know the original Cho San, “Miss Butterfly,” as a woman who worked at a local tea house and married a naval officer, had a child, and was then abandoned by her husband.  In the latter narrative, however, she fled with her child and did not commit suicide. 

Thus, the original influences on the opera’s story emanate from a Western outsiders’ perspective. I wanted to acknowledge this perspective and its limitations in our approach to the storytelling.  The narrative follows the meeting of two cultures and the ways in which they compare, contrast, and conflict.  This complexity is most beautifully represented in the child of Butterfly and Pinkerton, “Dolore” in the opera. 

In considering the identity of the child, I began to see the opera in connection with the circumstances surrounding his birth. These begin with his parents meeting and ends with the child being taken to America by Kate Pinkerton and her husband, to raise him as their own. I was reminded of several friends and colleagues of mine that were born in Asian countries and later adopted by Caucasian American parents. I conducted interviews to learn more about their adoption stories and how they came to understand their identity as Asian Americans. In every interview, I noted a common experience of feeling pulled between two contrasting cultures: each adopted individual had to find their own way of laying claim on their history and their current reality.  This became the framework for our telling of Madama Butterfly: her child discovering their story and finding the beauty in their complex past. 

tatane sōshi emaki, by Tosa Mitsunobu. Ink, paint and gold on paper. National Museum of Japanese History. 

The visual storytelling in our production revolves around a traditional narrative-style scroll called a ko-e. This type of small paper scroll was used in Japan beginning in the 14th century and continued until modern times as a means of transmitting short stories to be read in a single sitting.  Many of the stories were based on a tale of personal transformation and featured an unexpected ending.  They were didactic in nature and intended mainly for young people.  The illustrations used in ko-e have a symbolic nature and provide essential details not included in the text.  They often centre around a home with various scenes utilizing the movement of the shoji doors in different positions to show the passing of time or the perspective of different characters.  In many ko-e stories, the protagonist achieves some kind of realization about themselves by the end.  We imagined Madama Butterfly, therefore, as the ko-e passed on to Dolore to discover his past.  As he reads the scroll with his mother, the painted images are projected across the stage, bringing his history to life.  Dolore steps into the past as he tries to decipher a culture he doesn’t understand.  Reaching through the page, he is moved by his mother’s devotion, and he learns to embrace a part of his history that once felt so distant.