The question from the Chinese-born composer Huang Ruo popped up out of the blue. American playwright David Henry Huang wrote the Broadway hit “M. Opera’s Stage Butterfly?
It was 2013, and fans who worked with fans on the Off-Broadway revival of Dance and the Railroad were eager to collaborate again. The playwright agreed, and in his late July, almost ten years after the first conversation, “M. Butterfly” premiered at the Santa Fe Opera.
Similar to the play, it tells the story of Rene Galimard, a civil servant at the French Embassy in Beijing, who falls in love with the Chinese opera singer Song Liling, who seems to be his ideal woman. Galimard eventually discovers that Song has been a man and a spy all along.
“M. Butterfly” flips Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” and tells the story of Chocho, a betrayed young geisha who waits in vain for the return of her American husband, Pinkerton. Empowering Asian rather than Western characters, the fluidity of gender roles counters the sexist representations of Puccini’s opera.
In an interview from Santa Fe, Juan said, “M. Butterfly,” Until August 24th, spoke at the present moment, more than 30 years after the play’s premiere. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
The play “M. Butterfly. “
When I was a student at J. F. Oberlin University, the first play I saw in America was “M. Butterfly.” It left a deep impression on me. I knew Puccini’s opera “Madame Butterfly”, but I thought it was “M. Butterfly.” I went in wanting to see ‘Madame Butterfly’ but came out with a completely different story.
Why Broadway Succeeded and Inspired 1993 movieto the opera?
I have seen several versions of this play, but it was so related to Puccini and Madama Butterfly’s inversion that I often felt it needed to be told in musical form. I felt it could be integrated freely into the opera — you could twist and turn and create all the drama with the music. There are plays that should not be touched upon or turned into an opera, but I thought this was a rare case.
You grew up on China’s southernmost island, Hainan, and were immersed in traditional Chinese opera and other music. what was it like?
Every village in Hainan has a communal outdoor space like a plaza. During the day, people would dry their clothes and rice under the blazing sun. At night, people would sit there, take off their shirts, cool off and go to sleep.
From time to time, the Hainan opera troupe came to the village to perform. And at that moment, the square became an improvisational theater. Every family brought their own food and chairs. And my grandmother sat me there and took me to the opera.
How did these early experiences influence your art philosophy?
My grandmother was from a poor family and was a woman, so she didn’t send me to school. However, she was educated by watching opera. Opera was for everyone: young and old. She learned all these stories and moral lessons and taught them to me as well.
How did the Madama Butterfly story influence your approach?
Puccini’s opera depicts a submissive Asian young woman who is caged and can even change her faith in order to serve as someone’s wife and have children. And it shows his foolish desire to come back, to be abandoned, to be brutally deprived of her only child, her only hope. He was portrayed as a white man who does not know or respect traditions and culture, abuses Chochosan, and takes advantage of her physically and mentally.
The big picture is this kind of East/West imbalance, and the smaller picture is the interaction between men and women, with Asians being treated as subhuman. . “
Is Puccini’s music “M. Butterfly”?
The overture of “Madame Butterfly” sounds very fast and energetic, in a minor key and very Western. I turned the overture upside down. Inverted Puccini motif. I made it quasi-pentatonic to make it more oriental. Then I have opera gongs, crash cymbals, and all these instruments go with it. So, if you don’t know Puccini well, it’s hard to understand, but in that sense it’s related to Puccini, and “M. Butterfly” itself.
“M. Butterfly” has been postponed for two years due to the pandemic. What does it feel like to open at this moment?
With the pandemic and the rise of anti-Asian hatred, it’s even more timely now. Asian Americans are again treated with subhuman stereotypes and racial hatred. “M. Butterfly”, we’re showing people that this is human history—this isn’t just about exotic stories that happened in the past.
How has it been to witness the surge of Asian hatred in the United States, especially in your longtime hometown of New York City?
You never know when and where you will be attacked. For example, I took my children out biking after a Filipino woman was attacked in her Square last year. I basically disguised them and disguised myself so they all wore masks, they wore helmets and I wore hats so everyone was no longer Asian. That was the first time I felt like I had to disguise myself in .
Asians and Asian Americans usually want to be seen and heard. We have long complained about the invisible. But that was the moment when I wanted to keep a low profile. I didn’t want to be seen or identified. is that normal? is that true? I don’t think it’s normal, but the moment felt so real.
Not only do I want them to understand the story, but I also want them to ask questions. For me, that’s the best opera can do. It’s about asking questions rather than providing answers. And let the audience ask questions about their own background, their own journey.