Commissioning a new production of Madam Butterfly

20 August 2021

As rehearsals start, and live opera returns, WNO General Director Aidan Lang explains the thought process behind commissioning a new production of Madam Butterfly, and ensuring it is relevant in today's world.

'Many of the great operas contain uncomfortable truths about our humanity and the societies in which people live. The need to repeat certain core repertoire pieces is a fact of life for opera companies, but there are inherent dangers in this. Repetition breeds familiarity, and this can quickly dilute the potency of those truth contained in the works. Furthermore, we make a huge investment in the creation of a new production of an opera, intending that it will be revived in future years, even if the production’s insights may dissipate with subsequent revivals. 

If you reduce any opera down to its basics, it is a construct consisting of a set of human interactions - actions and dialogue – on which we are ultimately invited to pass judgement - to find the meaning of the work. But that meaning is not fixed in time. As society and its values continually evolve, so too does the way the actions of an opera are construed, according to the prevailing social viewpoint of the times. So there comes a point in the lifespan of any production when we ask ourselves an important question: is it still speaking to the audience of today, or is it time for a fresh new look at the work with a brand-new production? 

As we embark on our newMadam Butterfly, it is easy to look back at the 43-year-old Joachim Herz production with rose-tinted spectacles and forget how controversial it was when it was new, the work of an East German director forcefully underlining the work’s anti-imperialist message, and by implication, the evils of American capitalism. But today, we have new issues with the piece, as we contemplate issues of representation on stage in a multi-cultural society and look with open eyes at the true nature of the exploitation of its central character, seeing parallels between her plight and that of innumerable young women today. 

One aspect of Puccini’s operas is the strong emotional commentary to the action that his music provides, as was the taste in Italian opera of his day. The aim is always to create work that gives our audiences a balance between thought and emotion; but this is quite difficult with Puccini, as the emotional pull of his music is so strong. The potent and thought-provoking storyline of Madam Butterfly can easily be lost under the beguiling sway of the music, so our new production seeks to redress that balance. Our response should be more than just pity at Butterfly’s plight, but also outrage at the society that created her situation in the first place. 

And looking at Madam Butterfly through a contemporary lens is, in fact, nothing new; it has always happened. Consider Mozart’s Così fan tutte, which was seldom performed throughout the 19th century due its perceived immorality, as viewed through the stern moral lens of the Victorians. It bounced back in the 1930s, but now comes under a completely different scrutiny in the light of #MeToo. 

Madam Butterfly raises so many issues, it would be impossible for one production to include them all. We are therefore hosting a series of panel discussions to accompany the production, highlighting the issues, and hopefully stimulating ongoing discussion. 

Art has always held up a mirror to society, and it is the role of an arts organisation like WNO to ensure that this still happens, especially when the work being presented is so challenging to our social mores.'