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Madam Butterfly reimagined: Poppy Burton-Morgan explains more

Posted on 15 January 2020

This year, Olivier Award winners OperaUpClose embark on a UK tour with their new English translation of Puccini’s Madam Butterfly, beginning at the Belgrade Theatre on Thursday 6 February.

Known for their inventive, unconventional approach to opera, OperaUpClose aim to challenge perceptions around the artform and open it up to young, contemporary audiences, often by giving established classics a modern twist.

In 2018, their take on Mozart’s The Magic Flute followed two lovers after a messy night out clubbing. This year, they transpose the tale of Madam Butterfly to 1980s Japan, where traditional culture collides with the dizzying pace of a new digital age.

But it’s not just the setting that’s different: for director Poppy Burton-Morgan, it was vital that her version addressed the opera’s sometimes problematic treatment of women, and particularly Japanese women. As well as attempting to retell the story from a female, East Asian perspective, OperaUpClose have also recruited East Asian women to develop the project as part of a diverse cast and creative team, including designer Cindy Lin, movement director Shala Iwaskow, Assistant Director Fumi Gomez and composer Ruth Chan, who has reorchestrated the score for a small ensemble of musicians.

Ahead of the show, Burton-Morgan told us more about why OperaUpClose chose to take on Puccini’s opera, and how they’ve worked to modernise the story.

How is this Madam Butterfly different to previous versions out there?

Madam Butterfly – stunning melodies, terrible politics. Passive women and Asian stereotypes don’t really cut it in 2020. So we’ve tried to excavate the musical core of the piece while reimagining the story through a contemporary lens. In many ways there is a subtlety to our radicalism – the plot is fairly consistent with the original, but the motivations are different. We explicitly name Pinkerton’s fetishisation of Asian women, and the array of female characters portrayed offers a more diverse and complex picture of Japanese womanhood than the original.

Also crucially in our production Butterfly is a young woman whose mental health unravels in front of our eyes, and for reasons far beyond losing the love of her erstwhile husband. So while our Butterfly reaches the same tragic conclusion, it’s underpinned by a twenty first century physiological logic, which makes the story resonate far more strongly with now.

What do you want audiences to feel?

Rather like at traditional productions – you should leave feeling pretty heartbroken (in that enjoyable, cathartic, way you feel heartbroken by the tragedy). I also hope some audiences will leave feeling angry – by transposing the action to the late twentieth century you can’t avoid confronting the fact that globally we still face a huge issue of western men travelling to Asia for sex-tourism, often leaving behind children who face an uncertain future.

Why is this relevant today?

Some people will be frustrated that we haven’t been more ‘radical’ in our choices but the truth is we still inhabit a world where men exert power over women, both financial and physical, in a way that compromises their freedom and their sense of self. We still inhabit a world where western men travel to Asia for sextourism.

Rarely do those stories end happily for the women. So provided we honour and investigate those realities with compassion, sensitivity and without falling prey to fetishising those women ourselves, then sadly the story of Madam Butterfly will continue to resonate with audiences for many years to come.

Who would enjoy watching this production?

We hope our production speaks equally to opera lovers who know the piece intimately, as well as audiences new to opera who can meet it with fresh eyes, as an extraordinary exploration into one young woman’s mind and heart, and how that heart and mind are destroyed by the carelessness of one man. For opera lovers there’s a thrill to recognising Puccini’s melodies exquisitely reimagined through a palette of traditional Japanese instrumentation. For the newbies – it’s visceral and gut-wrenching musical storytelling – just don’t forget to bring a hankie.

Presented by OperaUpClose in association with the Belgrade Theatre, Madam Butterfly shows in Coventry for one night only on Thursday 6 February. Tickets are available to book now.