Welsh National Opera’s new production of Madam Butterfly brings the story of Cio-Cio-San into the 21st century, replacing kimonos and fans with a dystopian world in which a man can buy a woman and then leave her bereft.

Influenced by current themes of the #MeToo movement, discussions over the role of colonialism and debates over cultural appropriation, the show, which comes to Birmingham Hippodrome on 19 & 20 October, is very much a Madam Butterfly for today.

Created by an all-female production team of director Lindy Hume, set and costume designer Isabella Bywater and lighting designer Elanor Higgins, the production is aiming to encourage audiences to see the story with new eyes.

“It’s not the typical Butterfly,” explains Isabella. “Lindy and I felt strongly that it would not be right to attempt to make people look Japanese and we didn’t want to pursue the stereotypical exoticising of Butterfly.

“We agreed immediately to avoid kimonos or have anything culturally appropriative so haven’t set it specifically in Japan.”

Premiered in 1904, Puccini’s opera tells the story of American naval officer Pinkerton who, while stationed in Japan, makes a temporary marriage arrangement with a local geisha girl Cio-Cio-San, also called Madam Butterfly. When Pinkerton leaves, he thinks that is the end of the affair but Cio-Cio-San believes their marriage is genuine and their love real - so much so that she waits faithfully for three years for his return, only to have her hopes bitterly dashed.

Isabella went back to the original story, Madame Chrysanthème, a memoir by French naval officer Pierre Loti which was published in 1887, and discovered that at its heart, the story is one of exploitation of a local woman by a wealthier Westerner based in her town.

“When Pierre Loti was stationed in Nagasaki in the 19th century he ‘bought’ a pretty girl with whom to have a pseudo marriage, and he talked about her often as a doll and a toy – statements like ‘to think this little toy is mine’.” says Isabella. “It was very much a shopping expedition. Loti was looking for romantic company while away from home, and he was able to buy it.”

It is this sense of power imbalance and exploitation which the team are reflecting in the new Madam Butterfly conducted by WNO Conductor Laureate Carlo Rizzi.

“We are focussing on the notion of selling a beautiful underclass girl and a romantic marriage experience package to a man who is stationed abroad,” says Isabella.

“In our production we’re stressing a corporate element, where Pinkerton could be a businessman stationed away from home and, rather than trawling through the local prostitutes, chooses to set up ‘home’ with a lovely young indigenous person, or someone who appears to be indigenous, in ‘a special arrangement’ organised by a person or corporation dealing in young girls. This has been a common occurrence throughout history and still continues to this day albeit in a different form.”

While many productions of Madam Butterfly stress the Japanese setting with geishas in kimonos, black wigs and whitened faces, Isabella’s sets and costumes are not specific to any one country. The apartment building is the kind of anonymous space rented by people worldwide and, while the women’s costumes include a lush wedding dress and party outfits, they again are not associated with any one country and the men are largely in suits.

The team have also brought the story forward from Puccini’s setting at the turn of the 20th century into current times.

“We have set our production loosely in the near future,” says Isabella. “When Madam Butterfly was originally written it was set in the near past but in another country. We are doing something similar in a contemporary dystopian setting.

“We know these things continue to happen all across the world. Puccini audiences would have recognised the story of Butterfly as something that happened in their time.  We want our audiences to feel the truth of it as something that still happens rather than merely thinking of it as historical drama.

“Our conception of Pinkerton is as a businessman who goes to strip clubs with his friends, who thinks it’s amusing to grab a woman. He could be any age from 30-50. #MeToo could apply to him.

“Pinkerton and Butterfly are not equal in this arrangement, men like Pinkerton have the choices, the girl doesn’t get any. This is an arrangement set up by someone who is ‘managing’ girls – the girls have no autonomy - ultimately it is a form of sexual enslavement and exploitation.

“These girls find themselves in a position where they need money to survive and these ‘marriages’ are better than being on the streets, although perhaps not that much better. Poverty and other problems can lead to this kind of choice for many women. Butterfly is also only 15, something we would like to stress, and she needs the money to look after herself and her mother, her father being dead.”

Despite setting the opera in an unidentified country, the team retained the American identity of Puccini’s Pinkerton.

“We started working on this in March 2020 and at that time President Donald Trump was still in the seat of power,” Isabella recalls. “America being the symbol of Western freedom and democracy influenced the decision to keep Pinkerton American. He might well be a Trump supporter.”

Alongside reading Loti, Isabella also found inspiration in a very modern concept – the television series Married at First Sight. The show, which was launched in Australia and now has a UK version, sees single people being matched by a panel of relationship specialists and meeting for the first time at their weddings.

“These programmes have similarities to our Madam Butterfly. The grooms and brides are shown as equals, unlike Butterfly, but it remains an uncomfortable notion of shopping for a marriage with no meeting until at the aisle. In the TV show psychologists match the couples, whereas Pinkerton would perhaps have been offered a choice, after being asked what kind of girl he liked.”

Isabella is aware the production will be a radical change for audiences familiar with the traditional Butterfly and hopes it will encourage people to see the story in a new light.

“There will be many who have seen Butterfly before and initially some may go, ‘Oh no, they’ve done a modern version’ but we hope as the show progresses they think ‘I’d never realised he was behaving in that way’ or ‘I did not notice that before’. Our aim is to engage the audience differently so they will get something new from the opera and come away slightly shaken.

WNO's Madama Butterfly shows at Birmingham Hippodrome on Tuesday 19 & Wednesday 20 October

Feature by Diane Parkes