Here we go again: Beginning on Saturday, the Washington National Opera is staging Puccini’s beloved and oft-performed “Madame Butterfly,” the story of a Japanese woman betrayed by her American husband. The production, originally created in 2006, is designed by a Japanese artist, Jun Kaneko, last seen in Washington with his opulent “The Magic Flute.” But of the four sopranos appearing in the lead role on different nights, two are Korean (including the promising soprano Sae-Kyung Rim, in her U.S. debut), one is Latina and one Albanian — Ermonela Jaho, who will sing the part opening night. And on the company’s Facebook page, the debate has started about the inappropriateness of non-Asian singers portraying a Japanese heroine.
Two years ago, it was Verdi’s “Otello” at the Metropolitan Opera — the company’s decision not to put dark makeup on the Caucasian tenor singing the main role opened up a discussion about blackface and cultural appropriation in opera. Such discussions are happening with more frequency, in part because the culture is slowly waking up to the subtle ways that systemic racism plays out. At the same time the “Otello” debate was happening, the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players canceled an upcoming production of “The Mikado” over concerns about how the mainly white cast was going to present the work’s broad Japanese stereotypes. (This is a long-standing problem with “The Mikado,” which spoofs British society through a faux-Japanese lens.)
We need to be having these discussions if we truly want to keep opera relevant and viable. The point is not to stop performing “The Mikado,” but to find acceptable ways of doing it.
One problem is that some opera aficionados see in such allegations only an attack on their beloved art form. Political correctness run amok, people say, pointing out that “Madame Butterfly” was written in 1903, at a time when Japanese sopranos did not appear in Western opera houses. “Butterfly,” it could be argued, is less Japanese than an Italian-American hybrid, a creature of opera.
Yoko Watanabe, one of the first Japanese sopranos to play the role frequently in the West, who died in 2004, summed up the part in a 1991 interview that the Los Angeles Times quoted in her obituary. “It is true that my figure is Japanese, so when the public sees me as Cio-Cio San, it is more convincing,” she said. “But when it comes time to sing, it is not a Japanese singer, it is Italian verismo opera. The accent has to be clear, the gestures are big; it’s so far from Japanese that it’s completely different.”
Certainly, many Caucasian sopranos over the years have approached the role of Butterfly with love, seriousness and dedication. Indeed, they may have redeemed the role from the original conception of “Butterfly’s” originator, the American writer David Belasco, whose Cio-Cio San is a figure of such broad stereotype, speaking in pidgin English, that she is literally difficult to read, on more than one level.
But this doesn’t alter the basic fact that opera still has a lot of trouble with diversity. Female composers and conductors remain in a minority; African American singers still face challenges getting hired in works other than “Porgy and Bess” and “Show Boat.” And opera’s pace of change is arguably slower than that of the larger entertainment world — #oscarssowhite notwithstanding — because opera can always fall back on the very real argument that casting is all about voice type, not race.
Indeed, opera singers of color are among the most likely to argue against racially correct casting. For singers who have had to fight their whole careers for colorblind casting, to enable a black bass-baritone to sing Macbeth or an Asian American tenor to sing Candide, it might feel like taking two steps backward to say that only a Japanese singer should take on Butterfly — implicitly closing a door, perhaps, on other roles for that same Japanese soprano. (This doesn’t even start the debate of whether it’s better to have a Korean soprano in the role than a Caucasian one. Is that equally incorrect; does it imply that all Asians look alike?)
These days, the opera field itself is effectively sabotaging the argument that voice type comes first. Opera is increasingly trying to present itself as just another form of drama, a musical equivalent of spoken theater or film, with its cinematic broadcasts and emphasis on younger, more attractive performers. That argument is problematic: Opera isn’t, in fact, equivalent to a TV show and doesn’t hold up well in the comparison; its strengths lie elsewhere. But if you’re going to make that argument, then you have to accept that you’re going to be held to the same entertainment-world standards, which means being blasted for racial insensitivity when casting white performers in Asian or black or Latino roles. Witness the recent kerfluffle when Scarlett Johansson was cast in the lead role of “The Ghost in the Shell,” a film based on a popular manga and animé series.
Colorblind casting is essential to the future of opera: I want to be able to hear Mary Elizabeth Williams as Tosca or Russell Thomas as Don Carlo (which he will sing with the Washington National Opera in March). And, therefore, I defend the choice to cast non-Asian singers in the title role of Madame Butterfly — such as when the soprano Latonia Moore, who happens to be African American, recently sang the role at the San Diego Opera. But it’s imperative that opera start being more sensitive to these issues, first by working harder to make its casting diverse across the board (an area in which the Washington National Opera does better than most other opera companies in this country). Another solution, perhaps, is to have more open, public discussions about the issues involved — a discussion involving singers of color rather than just white administrators. The point, after all, is to emphasize the ability of the art form to communicate, meaningfully, to a wide range of people — not by clinging to old habits and traditions, but by showing today’s world just how much it has to offer.
Madame Butterfly runs through May 21 at the Washington National Opera. Tickets are $25 to $300. Go to kennedy-center.org or call 202-467-4600. The May 19 performance will be sung by current and past members of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program.