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Thursday, July 11, 2024

Boston Lyric Opera’s "Madama Butterfly" puts Asian American culture in the spotlight

BOSTON – In their season opener, Boston Lyric Opera is looking at “Madama Butterfly” with modern eyes.

The production moves the time and setting of the tragic love story from the original 1904 Imperial Japan, to 1940s Chinatown in San Francisco.

“There’s just this rich history of performers. And I thought, well, if this original story’s about a geisha, in Japanese geisha means artist, it means performer,” Director Phil Chan explained.

“So what if we could find a congruence setting in one of these nightclubs, where Madama Butterfly isn’t a 15-year-old geisha, but instead, she’s an American jazz singer?”

Lighting designer Jeanette Yew helped bring the neon scene alive on the stage with bright blues, yellows and pinks.

She uses color, texture and direction to create an emotional response and the mood, especially as the action moves to a Japanese internment camp.

“There’s a popular saying in theater that “99% of the people are not aware of the lighting, but 100% of the people are affected by it,” Yew told WBZ.

In the past, “Madama Butterfly” has faced criticism that it is an inherently a racist work. Here, the production team sees their work as the opposite of cancel culture.

“It really is trying to preserve our history, while making it more accessible for everybody, which I think we can all agree, it’s the best way that we can reach each other and see each other with more empathy,” said Chan.

And he says first time opera goers shouldn’t be intimidated by the fact the story is all sung in Italian.

“The opera is so accessible. You don’t have to know anything about it. You can just walk right in and you will feel something. The music just does it for you. The words don’t really matter. And I think that’s the beauty of opera as well. It’s this text, but ultimately the music just tells you everything you need to feel.”

The Boston Lyric Opera’s production of “Madama Butterfly” opens on Thursday, September 14 and there are four performances through September 24 at the Emerson Colonial Theater in Boston.

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