Director Phil Chan on BLO's 'Madama Butterfly' – Making Puccini's Opera Relevant for 2023
Kilian Melloy READ TIME: 9 MIN.
For the new production of "Madama Butterfly" that the Boston Lyric Opera brings to the Emerson-Colonial Theatre (September 14 – 24), innovative director Phil Chan rethinks Puccini's century-old opera for 2023 audiences. To this end, he places the opera in San Francisco during the Second World War and makes Puccini's heroine Cio-Cio-San – here named Butterfly – a nightclub performer contributing to the war effort, and Pinkerton, a young soldier, on the eve of his deployment. According to the production press release, the first production of the BLO's 2023 - 2024 season is a "culmination of BLO's three-year exploration of authentic storytelling through The Butterfly Process, this production examines the experience of Japanese Americans during a critical moment in U.S. history."
It was dance that brought Chan to the theater at a young age. "I started my dance training in Hong Kong when I was about seven," he explained to EDGE. "We moved to Berkeley, California when I was about 10 years old, right before the handover to Hong Kong," Chan adds. "Dance was a constant for me moving across the world, so I kept dancing."
After training with the Alvin Ailey company and working as a dancer and choreographer for small NYC companies, Chan found himself championing Asian performers, thanks in part to New York City Ballet soloist Georgina Pazcoguin, whom he describes as a "very good friend."
"One day she was in a Diversity Committee meeting at the New York State Ballet," Chan recollects, "and 'The Nutcracker' came up, and she said, 'Well, you know, I'm not Chinese myself.' She's Filipino. 'But if you want to talk to someone who knows the choreography and has done 'The Nutcracker' many times, but also can speak to the lived experience of being Chinese in America, here's my friend Phil's number.' "
That led to a conversation with Danish choreographer Peter Martins about "The Nutcracker." Martins was, at the time, the artistic director of the School of American Ballet, which is associated with the New York City Ballet. Chan recollects that during their conversation, which took place in late 2017, there came "the realization that 'The Nutcracker'... needs to be much bigger if it includes diverse 21st century Americans today".
That, in turn, led to even more exciting changes.
"I called Gina and I said, 'Holy shit, I think Peter Martins is going to change "The Nutcracker," ' [which is] the biggest thing in ballet," Chan recounts. That prompted the question, "If Peter is willing to change, why not every dance company in America, especially since we're talking about diversity, equity inclusion, [but] we're still presenting caricatures and stereotyped representations of Asian folks?"
Thus was born Final Bow for Yellowface, an initiative that seeks to correct the mistake of a past that has seen Asian performers exoticized and pigeonholed according to racist tropes. Only six years old, the initiative is effecting changes throughout the dance world: "The Paris Opera released their first diversity report a couple of years ago, and they cited our work as a contributing factor to their decision to no longer do blackface or yellowface in the ballot or the opera stages," Chan tells EDGE. "We're championing Asian artists – so, replacing these Oriental caricatures of Asian people and [telling companies to] actually, like, hire an Asian choreographer. Most ballet companies have never hired an Asian choreographer until the past couple of years when we started pushing them to."
EDGE had the chance to hear more about Chan's work and how it relates to his taking on the task of directing BLO's "Madama Butterfly," as well as the company's "Butterfly Process" initiative, which is geared toward updating how classical material is presented.
EDGE: Your background makes you a perfect candidate for this project, which is the first production mounted under the BLO's Butterfly Process. Can you say a little about the Butterfly Process?
Phil Chan: I got a call about three years ago from [BLO general director] Bradley Vernatter, saying that BLO had programmed "Butterfly" in 2020. Because of COVID, it was canceled. They also realized that they weren't in a position as a company to do this work in an ethically responsible way... they were just going to do another straight "Butterfly," then they realized, "Maybe doing a story where the tragedy hinges on an Asian woman suffering, and then we leave the theater to see another Asian woman getting pushed under the subway, or coughed on and blamed for COVID, is probably not the best thing we could be doing right now."
EDGE: The show is problematic. But it sounds like you're saying it's culturally and artistically significant enough that it must go on.
Phil Chan: This opera is such an important part of our ecosystem. It speaks to the human condition. It's beautiful music. It's worth continuing to do as a work. The question is, "What else could this work be?" I try to take that approach with these Eurocentric works: "Okay, so it was done in blackface? Does it contain hypersexual, hyper-submissive stereotypes of Asian women? Is there more to it than just that?"
The Butterfly Process was bringing together folks from many different perspectives, folks who are reinterpreting "Madama Butterfly" in other ways. That process was [about] trying to create an evergreen resource, not just for BLO but for smaller opera companies who don't have the resources to hire a DEI consultant. After that conversation, Brad, just on a whim, said "Hey, Phil, what do you see is the potential for 'Butterfly?' What would you do with it?"
EDGE: And here you are, directing the show! What was the thinking behind updating the story to 1940s San Francisco and making the central relationship between a performer and a serviceman heading off to fight in World War II?
Phil Chan Our strongest cultural moment with Japan is probably still World War II – the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Japanese American incarceration. It just seemed like a congruent setting for a story like this.
Cio-Cio-San, as a character, is probably our first Japanese-American character: The sort of hybrid, neither-and-both character, and boy, if you know Asian people, we're still struggling with that: "Are we Americans? Are we not? Do we belong? Do we not? Are we seen as foreigners?" All those issues Cio-Cio San faces as a character, Asian Americans in 2023 are still very much chewing on. (In the BLO production, the cast includes Karen Chia-Ling Ho as Butterfly, Alice Chung as Suzuki, Rodell Rosel as Goro, Dominick Chenes as Pinkerton.)
There were [also] other things on my mind as an Asian American: Going through COVID, being spat on. My father's an older Chinese man who was afraid to leave the house for three years, worried about getting the shit beaten out of him. How could we do this opera in this moment, when this is the climate that folks who look like me live with?
EDGE: What was your process for reinventing this opera?
Phil Chan: I was invited to moderate a post-film Q&A at Lincoln Center for a screening of [queer Chinese American filmmaker] Arthur Dong's "Forbidden City, USA." This was a part of American history that I knew nothing about, but I highly recommend the documentary. It's about the San Francisco Chinatown nightclub scene from the '20s to the '60s. Asian American performers were excluded from the white clubs, so they created their own spaces. Thinking about "What else could it be?," I thought, "Cio-Cio San is a geisha, right? A geisha is a performer. So, could Cio-Cio San be a Japanese American jazz singer in a nightclub in 1940? But of course, being of Japanese heritage, she had to hide her heritage."
Puccini's "Madama Butterfly," is not a literal story about one person. It's [drawn from] lots of little narratives. We took that same approach where we found a congruent story for the score, and we didn't have to change Puccini's music. We wanted to give audiences the chance to hear the music and have the emotional journey that Puccini had wanted us to have – but without the 15-year-old geisha, and without the hypersexual, hyper-submissive tropes. There are no kimonos in this production. Not a single one. But it still is "Madama Butterfly."
EDGE: Gay people are going to feel a resonance with this story of being othered and having to pass for the sake of one's career or social acceptance.
Phil Chan: Yes, but there is also a lot of queering in the story. I just love being a fabulous homosexual! And so there are moments in the story that are a little bit queer. Our character Goro is the owner of the nightclub, and he is quite flamboyant. There is a little bit of queerness in this show that Puccini did not intend to [put into it], but I can't help it.
Also, I've always been interested in the relationship between Suzuki and Butterfly. There's an unrequited love from Suzuki, and there are so many tender moments that are just so intimate between these two women in the music. It just seemed like there was a potential for another story there.
As a gay director, I'm treating relationships between same-sex people with a little bit more nuance, not just taking everything as, "Oh, they're just good friends." Sometimes there is something more, and sometimes that can add to the story. If you don't see yourself represented on stage, the story isn't going to mean anything. But if you say, "Oh, no, that was my mother," or, "Oh, no, that was my lover," it is not an abstract thing that Puccini wrote 100 years ago; it's about you. It's about us. That's where art becomes powerful. That's when we cry, and that's when we are moved.
"Madama Butterfly" plays at the Emerson Colonial Theater Sept. 14 – 24. For more information, click here.
Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.