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Welsh National Opera's Madam Butterfly - Birmingham Hippodrome

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by dpm (subscribe)
dpm is a Birmingham-based freelancer with experience of arts and lifestyle features.
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New production of opera inspired by #metoo movement
Puccini's opera Madam Butterfly is usually set on a stage filled with geishas, kimonos and a background of cherry blossom but Welsh National Opera's new production takes the dramatic step of moving the story out of Japan. Influenced by current themes of the #MeToo movement, discussions over the role of colonialism and debates over cultural appropriation, the show, which comes to Birmingham Hippodrome on October 19-20, is very much a Madam Butterfly for today.

WNO Mme Butterfly at Birmingham Hippodrome
A new Mme Butterfly


Created by an all-female production team of director Lindy Hume, set and costume designer Isabella Bywater and lighting designer Elanor Higgins, the production is aiming to encourage audiences to see the story with new eyes.

Isabella explains: "It's not the typical Butterfly. Lindy and I felt strongly that it would not be right to attempt to make people look Japanese and we didn't want to pursue the stereotypical exoticising of Butterfly. We agreed immediately to avoid kimonos or have anything culturally appropriative so haven't set it specifically in Japan."

Premiered in 1904, Puccini's opera tells the story of American naval officer Pinkerton who, while stationed in Japan, makes a temporary marriage arrangement with a local geisha girl Cio-Cio-San, also called Madam Butterfly. When Pinkerton leaves, he thinks that is the end of the affair but Cio-Cio-San believes their marriage is genuine and their love real – so much so that she waits faithfully for three years for his return, only to have her hopes bitterly dashed.

Isabella went back to the original story, Madame Chrysanthème, a memoir by French naval officer Pierre Loti which was published in 1887, and discovered that at its heart, the story is one of exploitation of a local woman by a wealthier Westerner based in her town. "When Pierre Loti was stationed in Nagasaki in the 19th century he 'bought' a pretty girl with whom to have a pseudo marriage, and he talked about her often as a doll and a toy – statements like 'to think this little toy is mine'." says Isabella. "It was very much a shopping expedition. Loti was looking for romantic company while away from home, and he was able to buy it."

It is this sense of power imbalance and exploitation which the team are reflecting in the new Madam Butterfly conducted by WNO Conductor Laureate Carlo Rizzi. "We are focussing on the notion of selling a beautiful underclass girl and a romantic marriage experience package to a man who is stationed abroad," says Isabella.

WNO Mme Butterfly at Birmingham Hippodrome
Pinkerton is a modern businessman


The team have also brought the story forward from Puccini's setting at the turn of the 20th century into current times. "We have set our production loosely in the near future," says Isabella. "When Madam Butterfly was originally written it was set in the near past but in another country. We are doing something similar in a contemporary dystopian setting. We know these things continue to happen all across the world. Puccini audiences would have recognised the story of Butterfly as something that happened in their time. We want our audiences to feel the truth of it as something that still happens rather than merely thinking of it as historical drama."

Alongside reading Loti, Isabella also found inspiration in a very modern concept – the television series Married at First Sight. The show, which was launched in Australia and now has a UK version, sees single people being matched by a panel of relationship specialists and meeting for the first time at their weddings. "These programmes have similarities to our Madam Butterfly. The grooms and brides are shown as equals, unlike Butterfly, but it remains an uncomfortable notion of shopping for a marriage with no meeting until at the aisle. In the TV show psychologists match the couples, whereas Pinkerton would perhaps have been offered a choice, after being asked what kind of girl he liked."

Isabella is aware the production will be a radical change for audiences familiar with the traditional Butterfly and hopes it will encourage people to see the story in a new light."There will be many who have seen Butterfly before and initially some may go, 'Oh no, they've done a modern version' but we hope as the show progresses they think 'I'd never realised he was behaving in that way' or 'I did not notice that before'."

But she hopes audiences will then realise the new relevance of the story. "Our aim is to engage the audience differently so they will get something new from the opera and come away slightly shaken. We hope they will also hear the music in a fresh way and it will be even more emotional and painful. And they will see Cio-Cio-San as a person and not as a souvenir doll. If it all appears lovely the meaning can get lost."

*WNO perform Madam Butterfly on October 19-20 and Barber of Seville on October 21-22 at Birmingham Hippodrome. For more information and tickets see www.birminghamhippodrome.com
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Why? A Mme Butterfly for the 21st century
When: 19-20 October 2021
Phone: 0844 338 5000
Where: Birmingham Hippodrome
Cost: From £22.50
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