I spent three hours earlier today listening to three panel discussions about the issues involved in presenting Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. The overall event was titled Grappling with Madama Butterfly Today: Representation, Reclamation, Re-imagination. They were three very different panels as we shall see. But first some context. The event was co-presented by Confluence Concerts, Amplified Opera, the Canadian Opera Company, the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto, and the Humanities Initiative at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto. One of the “triggers” for the event was the planned revival of Madama Butterfly at the COC (now to be done as an “on-line” event of some description) though one might have listened to the discussions without actually realising that.
The first panel consisted of COC boss Perryn Leach with soprano Teiya Kasahara, soprano Jaclyn Grossman and Boston Lyric’s Jessica Johnson Brock. I expected it to tackle the problematic nature of Madama Butterfly head on, as indeed the other two panels did, but it didn’t. It got sidetracked into essentially blind alleys about whether the work should be performed at all and whether one should always cast Asians in Asian roles and such. I got the strong feeling that no-one involved wanted to touch the issue of why, in 2022, the COC had planned to present a thoroughly unreflective, indeed deeply racist and sexist, production of the work. And that in the context of a season of three problematic operas presented in equally unambitious productions. Indeed, so unambitious that Leech’s deputy has described Mozart’s The Magic Flute as a “whimsical comedy”. Brigid Brophy must be gyrating in her crypt. Why was the discussion so anodyne? I think it comes down to power dynamics. Perryn Leech advanced views that I think can be summed up as “as long as we present enough new work (preferably short stuff on small stages) and do a few token events like this one it’s OK to give the bougie donors their fix. Even if that fix is racist and misogynist. Nobody challenged this. After all, if you are a young woman trying to make her way in the deadly world of opera why would you call out the most powerful person in Canadian opera?
The second panel consisted of four academics; Caryl Clark, Kunio Hara, Ellie Hisama (the new dean of music at UoT) and Susan McClary. They didn’t pull any punches. Dr. Hisama said she wouldn’t waste her time sitting through a traditional production, Dr. McClary called the opera sadistic and questioned the intelligence of an audience that could sit through it without noticing that. Dr. Clark asked “can’t we do something”. The answer of course is that something could be done, and often is in Europe, but “we” can’t.. She wasn’t speaking to the bougie donors who call the shots. They weren’t on the call (of course). Again, curiously, it was largely abstract and again avoided any reference to the COC. What will Dr. Hisama advise her students if the COC production does hit the stage for the umpteenth time?
Panel three; Aria Umezawa (revival, director of the COC production that got cancelled because of the latest COVID theatre from the Government of Ontario) and American conductor and director Eiki Isomura and kt shorb, was more interactive and was at least prepared to be challenging and imaginative about making changes to canon repertory but, of course, only one person fully understood the Toronto context. To her credit Aria did engage with my question about the cancelled COC production which was incredibly brave. She was elliptic but the between the lines answer was “we did a few little things but nothing fundamental”.
And here’s the rub. The panel discussion had an audience of between 60 and 80 which is tiny compared with the maybe 15000-20000 people who might attend a run of a popular opera at the COC. So what one gets in practice is a semi-public continuation of conversations that have been going on now all through the pandemic and before about how we tackle the harm that operas like Madama Butterfly causes which is nice but it’s obvious that those conversations have had minimal impact on the people who make programming decisions. And nor will this panel. Marion Newman expressed the hope that the audience could act as some kind of amplifier. Well, like her, I’m trying. But let’s be realistic if you are reading this you are one of a few hundred people and so my influence is very limited and the real conversations happen between the bosses and the big donors.
The signs across Canada are clear. In the wake of the financial damage done by COVID the response is to be as conservative as possible and under no circumstance piss off what kt short called the “blue hairs”. If they want pretty, unintelligent, fluffy productions of familiar operas that don’t mess with their preconceptions or, heaven forfend, cause them to think, that’s what our main stages will present. The bosses will salve their consciences with half hour pieces on secondary stages. And we can go on talking to each other.
Of course, you don’t have to share my interpretation of the event. It’s freely available on Youtube.
There’s an associated initiative; The Butterfly Project: The Ballad of Chō-Chō San, in which Teiya Kasahara笠原貞野 (they/them) examines Puccini’s Madama Butterfly: the role, the opera and the appropriated Japanese melodies in a one artist tour de force of creation and performance. Well worth three quarters of an hour of your time.
And I want to close this off by expressing my thanks to the panelists. they were insightful and interesting. But I am incredibly frustrated that we have these conversations over and over again in our own little echo chamber while the power politics of North American opera plays out in the traditional way.
Thanks for this thoughtful and characteristically honest summary/appraisal of the symposium, John. I do agree with your assessment and conclusions, but I also want to assure you that the Canadian Opera Company – and Perryn Leech in particular – were wonderfully collegial, open and agreeable in their co-presentation of the symposium. There are strong indications of new approaches and attitudes growing at the COC, due in a very large part to the involvement of the folks at Amplified Opera as “disruptors in residence”. As you point out, it’s going to take a while to recover from the effects of the pandemic, but I think there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic.
Thanks. Look, I have no doubt that Perryn is a decent bloke but can he find a model that works financially and artistically? I’m not convinced that COVID is an excuse for programming soft productions of canon rep. It’s equally disruptive whatever is programmed and there’s just no evidence that “conservative” programming works. Look at Hamilton and Ottawa. Add in a three year hiatus during which a good chunk of the old audience has passed on and, one imagines, few new converts have been made. I think there’s a case or boldness. In any event, if the COC is goiung to fail, I’d rather see it fail for excess of ambition than lack of it!