Photo: Sofia Negron

Interview w/Ethan Heard, Opera Philadelphia

Director of Madame Butterfly 2024

Written by:
Lewis Whittington
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Giacomo Puccini premiered Madame  Butterfly in 1904 at La Scala in Milan, and to this day it remains one of the most performed operas in the world. But its celebrated history also carries with it offensive representations of Japanese and Asian cultures. In Opera Philadelphia’s new staging at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, director Ethan Heard and his creative team deconstruct racist baggage that haunts Butterfly.

Heard said that the opera resonates with him in different ways. “It is full of beauty, humanity, but also full of sorrow and trouble,” he said in an interview before a full rehearsal at the Academy a week before the opening. Over the decades the show has accumulated traditions which are  mired in problematic stereotypes of the submissive Asian woman, who is so self-sacrificing that she would give up her son and, kills herself…in an almost fetishistic way.”

In early 20th century Japan, a 15-year-old Japanese Geisha named Cio Cio San is who is ‘sold’ into a false marriage by Coro a ‘marriage broker’ to American Navy Lieutenant Pinkerton. They have a child, but he abandons her, and returns to the US, but three years later goes back to Japan only with his American wife to claim the child. When Cio Cio San finds out that he is not coming back to her, she commits suicide.

“There may be beauty to that sacrifice, but I think there’s also this question of, is this a white man’s fantasy about what an Asian woman would do.” Meanwhile, Pinkertons actions are analogous of western imperialism in the Asian-Pacific.

The opera is based on a play, which is based on a novella from the 1880s. The Italian libretto written by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa and Heard notes that “It was created by white European men, who probably didn’t really know that much about Japan.” But within that, Heard acknowledges “Pinkerton is operating as a symbol within a system where he is, you know, an imperialist, patriarchal force… he’s behaving like men around him. It’s this is not the first Japanese wife he sold to an American.”

In his version, Heard created a parallel narrative with the show’s production designer Yuki Izumihara, he explains, “That tells the story from Cio Cio San’s perspective. We start with a silent prologue in which we see Pinkerton purchases a Japanese doll  and he breathes life into it.” The doll image is transformed into a puppet, which represents an inner spirit of Cio Cio San throughout the drama. Then soprano Karen Chia-ling Ho who portrays Cio Cio San appears and “tries to live up to Pinkerton’s fantasy. She wants to embody that dream for him.” Heard said. .” For the most part the puppets are controlled by two performers who hides their presence. The other principals are tenor Anthony Ciaramitaro as Lt. B.F. Pinkerton, mezzo Kristen Choi as Suzuki, the Geisha’s fearless maid.

“Karen not only a gorgeous voice. She has a quiet dignity and flexibility and has been a wonderful collaborator. Especially her willingness to animate the puppetry while she is singing
“Yuki and I worked together to bring the idea to life, through identify key moments in the story to show Cio Cio San’s resistance to events,” adding “at the same time the audience sees a traditional production, but they should also see and feel and hear, other layers of meaning that are …. resonating simultaneously.”

In addition to being an in-demand opera stager, Heard is currently artistic director of Signature Theater in Arlington VA. And for nine years was artistic director (and co-founder) of Heartbeat Opera in New York. He is known for his rigorous collaborative process with other artists and thoughtful approach with issues of race, gender, and inclusion on the stage, and behind the scenes.

For Madame Butterfly Heard worked with consultants “who are experts on Japanese fashion and culture, and about social hierarchy of the period concerning gender and physicality- walking, bowing, kneeling, the use of fans. So that really infused our process with an authentic understanding. And our scenery is so stripped bare. We are trying to avoid superfluous decoration, to get to the essence of the story.” But Izumihara has created video design that is projected during the scene interludes, which illustrate the offensive racist aesthetics routinely used in past Butterfly stagings.

One of the most glaring issues that persists in productions of the opera is the continued casting of non-Asian singers portraying the Japanese characters.

“I’m really proud that Opera Philadelphia has cast Asian American singers all lead roles,” adding “and I feel like that’s a rare feat in the operatic industry. We have no non- Asian folks playing Asian characters on stage in costume. So, we’re really doing away with that tradition of yellow face.”

This is Heard’s first collaboration with Opera Philadelphia, but he had previously been in talks with the company’s visionary David Devan on a joint project with Heartbeat Opera, but it was not meant to be due to the pandemic.

It is a transitional time for Opera Philadelphia, still adjusting to post pandemic fiscal concerns. Earlier this year, Devan announced this season that he was stepping down after 13 years, and it has just been announced that acclaimed countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo has been named the company’s new General Director.

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