Why Will Our Madame Butterfly  be Different?

A Statement from Clare Burovac, General and Artistic Director, New Orleans Opera 

As a society, it is important to constantly assess, evaluate, and examine our social values – their presentation, their perception, and also their internalization. Opera is no different. Too often, we present or attend classical operas that have been part of the standard repertoire for centuries with no reconsideration or re-examination of their stories and themes. A performance of Carmen in 2022, for example, is presented in essentially the same manner as it was at its US premiere in 1884 – this was 36 years before women won the right to vote and just 19 years after the end of slavery in the US. Our collective conscience has evolved and changed since that time, and shouldn’t our opera as well? It is important, as we seek to share the joy of opera inclusively, that we also have the courage to look at the canon with fresh eyes, with a contemporary perspective, and with an understanding that many of the stories we have been telling the same way for so many years may have actually caused harm and division. Madame Butterfly is one of those very titles that has caused harm, and opera companies today struggle with presenting it – and other select, classical works that no longer reflect our modern-day values.

For our production of Madame Butterfly to serve as an avenue of healing, we felt it was important to give agency and artistic leadership to the very communities this opera affects the most. New Orleans Opera has engaged a creative team who will tell it from both a female perspective as well as from the viewpoint of those of Asian heritage living in a white, European culture. We are fortunate to have Aria Umezawa directing the production and Judith Yan conducting the LPO. Their leadership will permit a fresh interpretation of this story – one that retains all of the grandeur of the original opera while presenting a more thoughtful storytelling practice, rejecting the racial stereotypes inherent in the work. The ending will be startling to those familiar with the classic presentation – one where Butterfly is able to finally determine her own destiny rather than be manipulated again and again by those who have controlled her choices.

In addition to the creative team, the cast of Madame Butterfly is also generously collaborating with us on programming surrounding the opera. The artists will contribute to our Community Conversations series through a public discussion with researchers of Asian-American culture in New Orleans, and historians on orientalism and cultural appropriation in opera and the arts. Members of the cast will also collaborate with local Asian-American artists for a recital on March 5, 2023.

Please join us for the performances of Madame Butterfly at the Mahalia Jackson Theater on March 24 & 26, 2023 as well as the related programming. We hope, by sharing this ongoing journey to finding deeper meaning in these works, that we can also discover together how they can still serve as powerful agents of change in our communities today.