SOAS University of London

The show must go on - SOAS expert helps shape revival of Madame Butterfly

14 June 2022

Madame Butterfly, Puccini's opera focusing on a young geisha who falls in love with an American naval officer, has been reimagined for 21st Century audiences following a consultation by the Royal Opera House. 

The Royal Opera House revival, due to open today (June 14), has been relaunched thanks to historical expertise and input from Dr Satona Suzuki, a lecturer in Japanese and Modern Japanese History with SOAS.

Dr Suzuki was drafted in to help make the production fit for 2022 audiences after outdated narratives from the late nineteenth century, around imperialism, orientalism and sexism, and misrepresentations of Japan, threatened the opening with a possible backlash from modern audiences.

A year-long consultation by the Royal Opera House involved staff at the Royal Opera House, academics, practitioners, performers and Asian representatives to help remove any references that could offend.

The collaboration inspired discrete but important changes to several aspects of the existing staging, including makeup, wigs and costume, and movement. 

Commenting on her involvement, Dr Suzuki, said: 

"As a historian, I genuinely believe that when facing difficult and uncomfortable issues we reflect on our past from different perspectives through meaningful discussions. It makes more sense than simply ignoring or cancelling such a masterpiece that is still so important for modern audiences."

Oliver Mears, Director at The Royal Opera House, who led the consultation, said:

"Puccini's opera is a masterpiece. However, it is also a product of its time. For this revival of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier's classic production, we wanted to interrogate the depiction of Japanese culture in the staging of this work and involve Japanese practitioners and academics to help us work towards a Butterfly; both true to the spirit of the original and authentic in its representation of Japan."

Dr Suzuki also contributed a piece to the show’s programme on Japan titled Caught in the Vortex of Imperialism: the Emergence of Modern Japan. 

She also helped to curate a free exhibition on the complicated history and context of the piece, addressing issues that include stereotyping and imperialism. Historical images will sit alongside a series of newly commissioned portraits taken in the Royal Opera House revival workrooms, demystifying the revival process and exploring the moderations made to wigs, costume and make up. The exhibition will be displayed in the Royal Opera House’s Level 5 Foyer.

Madame Butterfly opens on Tuesday 14 June at the Royal Opera House and runs until October 2022.   

Find out more about Japanese expertise at SOAS.

Photograph by © Yasuko Kageyama. Royal Opera 2022 ROH
Photograph by © Yasuko Kageyama. Royal Opera 2022 ROH