Madama Butterfly is one of Puccini’s most beloved operas. The enduring tale of love, loss, and sacrifice has enchanted audiences around the world for more than 100 years. And, in what should prove a great one-two punch for Houston audiences, they can see two different versions of the Butterfly story in the next three weeks.
Opera in the Heights closes out its 2018-2019 season this weekend with the Puccini classic, given a whole new spin; then, Broadway Across America brings Miss Saigon, the '90s musical inspired by Butterfly, to the Hobby Center stage.
Madama Butterfly tells the story of Cio-Cio San, a Japanese girl who falls for Pinkerton, a rake of a Navy captain. Ostracized following their affair and his leaving, she raises their child, believing that someday Pinkerton will return.
“I think this is a piece that is so enduring because the music is just so gorgeous,” says Eiki Isomura, the artistic director at Opera in the Heights. “It may not have aged quite so gracefully because our sensitivities of what constitutes a fair portrayal of different cultures have changed. But my goodness, that music.”
Over the last century Butterfly has been the center of controversy for how it portrays its Japanese characters, especially in comparison to its white, Western ones. Stereotypes of how the Asian characters are seen as exotic and charmingly backward have caused many opera companies to think about how, and if, the opera should be performed. Opera in the Heights’s answer to that question is that it emphatically should be, and the company’s presentation of the classic is one Isamura hopes shows the story in a different light.
The company has partnered with Pacific Opera Project on a new adaption, which features Japanese American singers in the Japanese roles, and an opera that is sung in both English and Japanese. The adaptation was shown in April in Los Angeles, Pacific Opera Project’s home base.
“Josh Shaw [of Pacific Opera Project] came up with the concept,” explains Isomura. “He began with the question of, how would these characters have understood each other, with the language barrier between Japanese and English—you have to suspend disbelief as an audience member when you see it. But I was fascinated by that idea. And it’s our understanding that no one else has presented the show in this way.”
As a Japanese American man, Isomura says the project was deeply personal to him, and he worked very hard to honor the music and Puccini’s intent as he went about adapting the piece. As a conductor who has a keen regard for the composer, Isomura made it a point not to tinker very much with Puccini’s original score. But he did look to Japanese speech rhythms to see how best to incorporate them into the music.
“Some of the pacing is changed, on the recitatives,” he explains. “And it will be different for the audience to hear it in English and not the original Italian. So, this is going to feel like a very different experience of Butterfly.”
Claude-Michel Schönberg and his artistic partner Alain Boublil (the duo behind Les Misérables) used Madama Butterfly as inspiration for Miss Saigon. Schönberg came up with concept, then wrote the music; Boublil wrote the lyrics and the pair co-wrote the book. Their musical is set during the Vietnam War. Chris, an American GI, falls in love with Kim, a dancer in a bar. Their love affairs unfolds against the confusion and turmoil of the fall of Saigon.
“Madama Butterfly is an opera that I know and love,” says Schönberg. “I was 5 years old when my mother took me to see it, and I can still tell you everything I saw and heard. I was totally amazed by that art form.”
Following the success of Les Misérables, Schönberg says he started talking informally to Boublil about doing some kind of updated version of Butterfly, which had always been a dream of his. He considered penning it from a French perspective, perhaps in one of France’s former colonies in Africa or Vietnam. He also thought about setting it against the backdrop of the American invasion in Grenada.
“I didn’t find the right locale,” he says. So, he shelved the idea and moved on to other things.
It came back to him when Schönberg was reworking some of the music of Les Misérables as it was preparing to move from the Barbican Theatre, where it premiered, to the Palace Theatre. He took a break one afternoon, picked up a magazine and saw an image of a Vietnamese mother putting her child into the hands of an American soldier. The photo was from the 1970s, clearly tied to Vietnam conflict, and something clicked for Schönberg.
“I realized the sacrifice of the mother, who was looking for the father of the little girl," Schönberg says. "She knew that she would not see her anymore. But for the future of the child, she made the sacrifice to look for the father. When she found him, she knew that her daughter had to go to America and she would not see her again.”
The image shook Schönberg, who was newly a father himself.
“But I realized that the sacrifice was the same as the one undergone by Cio-Cio San,” he says.
From there, he and Boublil built a show that echoes Butterfly in its characters, using the war as a backdrop for the doomed romance. One sticking point for the duo, however, was what to do with the character of Pinkerton.
“We thought Pinkerton was a bad man,” he says. “And we wanted Chris [the musical’s mirror to Pinkerton] to be a good guy. This is the story of a boy who meets a girl and their lives as destroyed by war.”
The iteration of Miss Saigon that’s landing in Houston is the latest version of the show. If it strikes those who have seen it before as more raw and violent, it’s by design. Since the show premiered in London in 1991, expectations of the kind of realism audiences want to see has changed. To that end, this Miss Saigon is edgier, presenting the war and its chaos in a more in-your-face way. It also gives a new song to the character of Ellen, Chris’ wife.
Like its operatic predecessor, Miss Saigon has also been criticized for its characterizations of its Asian characters. And like its Houston operatic counterpoint, the touring cast features several actors of Asian descent in starring roles.
Upon learning that Houstonians had the opportunity to see both Madama Butterfly and Miss Saigon within weeks of each other, Schönberg was delighted.
“I have a scene in Miss Saigon where I put a little musical quote from Puccini,” he says mischievously. “But I am not going to tell you where. I’ll leave it for you to find.”
Madama Butterfly. April 26-May 4. Tickets from $40.50. Opera in the Heights, 1703 Heights Blvd. (713) 861-5303. More info and tickets at operaintheheights.org.
Miss Saigon. May 7-12. Tickets from $35. Hobby Center, 800 Bagby St. (713) 315-2400. More info and tickets at thehobbycenter.org.