Friday, September 27, 2019

Review: 'Madam Butterfly' at Upstairs at the Gatehouse, 26th September 2019

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 1 Stars

Though I've reviewed a whole bunch of opera over the years I'm still a neophyte. I love smaller-scale comedies as performed by Pop-Up Opera, I check out the occasional large experimental piece at the ENO and, on a basic level, I just like the music and singing. So, Puccini's Madam Butterfly, performed above The Gatehouse Pub in Highgate by a small but talented company, should be very much my bag.

And it would be, if it weren't for the yellowface.

This is the bit where I stroll blithely into a decades-long debate about racism in opera. Hold onto your hats. Going in and taking my seat I had no idea what I was in for: I only knew the vaguest plot outline of Madam Butterfly (mainly that it is set in Japan) and with the programme cover and show posters featuring a Japanese woman in geisha makeup I naturally assumed that the show would feature this performer and other Japanese cast members.

So when white British actor Olympia Hetherington walked onto the stage as Suzuki, wearing a kimono, her face tanned and her eyes made up to look slanted my jaw dropped. What the hell kind of show have I come to? I sensed my plus one tense up next to me (later confirmed when, during the interval, we both immediately began talking about it).  

I can anticipate the defences. Yes, it's probably very difficult to find opera singers of Japanese origin to play these parts, especially for a small-scale fringe production. Or that Madam Butterfly has a long tradition of being cast and performed in this manner. Maybe it's not right to deprive audiences of the beauty of Puccini simply because contemporary politics have shifted. And, of course, demanding that all casting be accurate to the role's race is going to limit the amount of plays featuring characters of colour that are staged.

I thought about all this at length during and after the show. After all, the rest of the audience didn't seem to have a problem with it: perhaps this is just the way opera is done and I should just go with the flow.

But I can't deny what my conscience was screaming at me throughout: "this is wrong!

If it's a choice between not staging Madam Butterfly vs doing it in yellowface - then you don't stage it. This shit just doesn't fly in 2019. 

By this point, it seems academic to get into the iffy politics of the narrative, which features stereotypically servile Japanese women and concludes with a noble white woman swooping in to rescue a mixed-race child and transport him back to the West. But believe me, that's not great either.

Thing is, aside from the racism, this production is full of pretty good stuff. I enjoyed Taylor-Stokes' singing in the lead role, Thomas Birch makes an enjoyably monstrous Pinkerton and the puppeteering of Butterfly's son is effective and technically inspired.

But quality doesn't mean much when it's rooted in a foundation this rotten. Surely at some point during the production of this show, someone queried whether performing Madam Butterfly in this way was a good idea. Based on some research it's not as if casting white performers in Madam Butterfly is a new debate, with most companies at pains to address this elephant in the room. That Opera Loki doesn't seem to have considered it at all reeks of privilege.

What on Earth were they thinking?

Madam Butterfly is at The Gatehouse until 29th September.

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