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Evolving opera: BLO’s ‘The Butterfly Process’ examines stage stereotypes, equity

Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
Evolving opera: BLO’s ‘The Butterfly Process’ examines stage stereotypes, equity
BLO engaged artist and activist Phil Chan to facilitate "The Butterfly Process” project. Chan is the co-founder of Final Bow for Yellowface. PHOTO: ELI SCHMIDT

The Boston Lyric Opera made the decision to postpone its fall 2021 production of “Madama Butterfly,” and what has emerged in its place is a fruitful and challenging opportunity to examine stereotypes and bias in theater. “The Butterfly Process” is a comprehensive exploration, both internally and with audiences, into the ways historic productions like this one can be presented more inclusively.

“There are a host of operas in our art form and in our traditions that today require additional conversations and thought and require us to think differently about how we present these works and why we’re presenting these works,” says Bradley Vernatter, BLO’s acting Stanford Calderwood general & artistic director.

Dinyar Vania and Yunah Lee in the 2012 BLO production of “Madama Butterfly.” PHOTO: ERIC ANTONIOU

“Madama Butterfly” is an opera by Giacomo Puccini that follows the marriage of a U.S. Naval Officer to a Japanese woman named Cio-Cio-san. On the officer’s end, the marriage is one of convenience; after his deployment is over, he returns to the U.S. and marries an American woman. In the meantime, Cio-Cio-san gives birth to his son. When the officer returns to Japan with his new wife, the reunion is fraught with conflict.

BLO engaged artist and activist Phil Chan to facilitate the “Butterfly Process” project. Chan is the co-founder of Final Bow for Yellowface, an organization committed to eradicating Asian stereotypes in the performing arts. He underscores that this project is not about using cancel culture to remove classic works from the canon. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. “The Butterfly Process” acknowledges the beauty and importance of “Madama Butterfly” as well as the racial stereotypes often utilized in its production. The project works to find a middle ground where the work can be performed and appreciated with sensitivity to the cultures it describes.

“Boston is not a Eurocentric mono-racial place. It never has been. Boston is a multiracial city,” says Chan. “We have to keep asking ourselves, what is the context that we’re presenting this work in, and how can we keep the work alive for us for now?”

The internal work at BLO includes extensive workshops to discuss “Madama Butterfly” and what can be done to bring such stories into a contemporary moment. In one meeting, each person in the BLO organization shared one small, specific antiracist step they can take in the coming months. Chan says, “If everyone in the organization takes one little step together, the whole organization has just shifted.”

Beginning Dec. 14, BLO and Chan will take these conversations to the people with a discussion series that will run monthly through May 2022, delving into Puccini’s work and what it means to perform it equitably. “The Butterfly Process” will culminate in a spring performance wherein the artists originally contracted to perform “Madama Butterfly” will instead perform works centering Asian voices.

“If opera as an art form is to survive, it’s got to be bigger than the old white donors that are currently paying for it,” says Chan. “This is the opposite of cancel culture. This is how we keep this work alive.”