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Miho Morioka

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Different Opera Productions as Mirrors of Modern Society:
Madama Butterfly as a Case Study

Miho Morioka
Associate Professor, Faculty of Economics, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: Opera production criticism, English literature

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The Start of Analyzing Opera Productions

I studied 19th century English literature in graduate school and now focus on the analysis of opera productions as one of my main areas of research. This may seem odd, but during my two-year study abroad in England (Fall 1993-1995) to study various critical theories, I had the opportunity to enjoy many dramatically rich operas in Nottingham and London and started wanting to “read” theater the way I interpreted literature. In Europe, the theater is thought of as a place that not only offers entertainment but gives people an opportunity to think about their lives and the nature of society and share their views with others. The early 1990s was a period when this aspect of theater was increasingly emphasized in opera and treated as no less important than the musical component.

A big turning point for me was my experience of Richard Jones’ 1994-5 production of Wagner’s cycle of four operas, Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), at the Royal Opera House. I was primarily studying feminist and gender criticism at the time and noticed very strong objections to patriarchy that were woven into the production in various ways. Critiques from this point of view were almost non-existent in the newspapers and magazines of the time, however. I became keenly aware of the need for this kind of criticism—both in the sense of communicating the appeal of the work and the sense of raising questions about society—and realized this was the kind of work I wanted to do.

Different Productions of Madama Butterfly

One of my main areas of research is the many different productions of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (Madame Butterfly). It is a tragedy, set in Japan right after it opened its doors to the West, about a Japanese woman who becomes the “local wife” of an American soldier and is abandoned. It was once consumed as a sentimental story framed within a typical Orientalist paradigm, but the approach to the work surely changed as the perspectives of gender studies and post-colonialism became widespread from the 1990s onward. Focusing on examples I present in my book Viewing the World from the Opera House [Opera Hausu kara Sekai o Miru] published last year by Chuo University Press, I would like to show the diverse ways in which a single work serves as a mirror reflecting the problems of our current society.

Bieito’s Production: A “Myth” for the Age of Globalization

For example, in this age of globalization, Madama Butterfly is not a story that could have only happened in 19th century Japan. In Calixto Bieito’s production of the opera at the Komische Oper Berlin (2005), Cho-Cho-San longs to find some way to immigrate to a “wealthy country” from her home somewhere in modern Southeast Asia, where the only way for the village to survive is to provide sex tourism for Americans. While this version seems to portray a very specific, grotesque situation, it teaches us that Madama Butterfly can serve as a “myth” representing a universal tragedy that transcends space and time.

Dörrie’s Production: The Tragedy of a Woman in “Modern Japan”

The filmmaker and stage director Doris Dörrie, who is familiar with modern Japanese culture, depicted “Cho-Cho-San” as a Goth Lolita girl from Shibuya and set the story in some kind of fantasy version of “modern Japan” in her production of Madama Butterfly (2005, the Staatstheater am Gartnerplatz in Munich). The presence of intense pressure to conform in Japan is suggested by the image of a gigantic housing complex. During an interlude, she has a dream of spinning a cocoon and then spreading her wings as a butterfly against the backdrop of a Shibuya nightscape with car lights flowing by. Strictly speaking, the image of foot-binding implied by the cocoon is not Japanese, but Dörrie communicates the tragedy of a woman who is unable to freely choose her way of life with beautiful poignancy—a tragedy that certainly exists in modern Japan more or less.

Bergmann’s Production: The Poor Demand “Change”

With the problem of poverty coming into focus throughout the world during the last years of the 2000s, representations intertwined with this problem have become conspicuous in new productions of Madama Butterfly from the end of the 2000s onward. In Anna Bergmann’s production of the opera in Oldenburg, Cho-Cho-San and her son are homeless. In the first performance, held in 2009 right after the U.S. presidential election, the son wears an Obama campaign T-shirt. Living with his mother in the depths of poverty, he must long for “change” as he makes the flower petals he gathered dance wildly in the breeze of an electric fan in “The Flower Song.” The fate reserved for him, however, is crueler than that in the original story, and the falling cherry blossoms suggest that the poor’s hope for the future is futile.

Wagemakers’ Production: A Look at a Sexual Minority

There have also been interpretations in which Suzuki and Cho-Cho-San have homosexual feelings for each other rather than a mistress-maid relationship, as seen in Monique Wagemakers’ production in Stuttgart (2006). Suzuki’s sorrow over the subject of Pinkerton’s return is shown when she can’t help but vent her frustration during, before and after the aria “One Beautiful Day.” You or I may also know someone who has, unnnoticed to us, fallen in love with someone of the same sex. With one in 50 people reportedly a member of this sexual minority, the production is an attempt to make the possible existence of such a relationship visible.

Finding Moments of New Meanings

New interpretations like these are not all complete successes, whether in their portrayal of the theme or its compatibility with the music. But as a work is reexamined and reborn over successive periods after its composition, a “representation=reproduction” that takes the work in a new direction appears every now and then amid the countless attempts and renews the meaning and value of the work for that time period. It is when I come across these productions that I keenly feel my devotion to opera—a genre that requires a lot of patience—has been worth it. I hope that as many people as possible can use these performances at the theater as an opportunity to reconsider the issues they face in their own society and lives.

Miho Morioka
Associate Professor, Faculty of Economics, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: Opera production criticism, English literature
Professor Morioka was born in Chiba Prefecture in 1966 and graduated from Chiba Prefectural Funabashi Senior High School. She graduated from the Faculty of Letters, University of Tokyo in 1989. In 1992, she received an M.A. in English Language and Literature from the Graduate School of Humanities and Sciences, University of Tokyo. In 1998, she completed the coursework for the doctoral program in European and American Studies with a specialization in English Language and Anglo-American Literature from the Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology, University of Tokyo without receiving a degree. In 1998, she started working as a full-time lecturer on the Faculty of Economics, Chuo University and assumed her current position in 2004.
She specializes in opera production criticism, 19th century English literature, and gender criticism. Her publications include the book Viewing the World from the Opera House [Opera Hausu kara Sekai o Miru] (Chuo University Press, 2013) and the chapter “The Significance of the Museum in Stefan Herheim’s Production of Madama Butterfly [Shutefan Heahaimu Enshutsu Chou-Chou Fujin ni okeru Myuujiamu no Imi]” in A Series on Gender History Vol. 4: Visual Representation and Music [Jendaashi Sousho Daiyonkan: Shikaku Hyoushou to Ongaku] edited by Shinobu Ikeda and Midori Kobayashi (Akashi Shoten, 2010).