Giacomo Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” is one of most beloved operas of all time. Musically rich, dramatically taut and shamelessly wringing every last drop of sentiment from its tale of innocence betrayed, it shows Puccini at the top of his form. Yet its seductive beauty and the emotional immediacy disguise some of the more troubling aspects of this story — aspects that become increasing difficult to ignore when it is performed in Japan.

The story is most clearly a critique of callous Western colonialism, as represented by Pinkerton, a U.S. Navy officer who marries Cio Cio San, a Japanese woman from Nagasaki, and later abandons her. But it has also been accused, with various degrees of justification, of misogyny and racism, and of perpetuating a legacy of cultural misrepresentation and Western superiority.

The opera, composed in 1904 at the height of the craze for all things Japanese that swept through Europe at the turn of the 19th century, shows a thoroughly European, specifically Italian, vision of Japan, a vision that would have been just as exotic to the Japanese at the time. It’s hard not to imagine a Japanese audience being baffled by it. More insidious perhaps is the opera’s enduring fantasy of Japanese women as self-sacrificing and, the helpless victims of cruel and powerful Western men.

These are perhaps inevitable products of the opera’s time, but it is also worth pointing out that Puccini went to some pains to remove many of the more obvious racist slurs from the libretto and give the tragic heroine more dignity. It was a step in a more progressive direction, away from the frankly offensive portrayal of Japanese women in the novels and plays on which the opera was based.

Performances of “Madama Butterfly” in Japan have always had a political edge. A pre-World War II production presented Cio Cio San as a chaste Meiji bride corrupted by Western decadence; after the war, Japanese performers refused to take part in a performance sponsored by the Occupation forces.

In the new production at the New National Theater in Tokyo, director Kuriyama Tamiya suggests that little has changed in Japan’s relationship with the West, namely the United States; its influence over the country is just as now as it was during the Meiji Period.

From June 24, the production has been playing to packed houses — a testament to the enduring and human appeal of Puccini’s music and its ability to transport the listener beyond mere time and place, as well as to the vocal and dramatic assurance of Hiromi Omura in the title role.

Indeed, the opera’s success or failure hinges on the performance of the singer who plays Cio Cio San. It’s a grueling role, charting both vocal and emotional extremes and requiring the singer to be almost constantly on stage. Omura handles her early scenes as a 15-year-old with grace, delicacy and a touching vulnerability, brings a weight and power to her portrayal of the older, betrayed Cio Cio San, and rises to the challenge of the stark and brutal suicide scene. It would be a stony heart that isn’t moved by her aria “Un bel di.’

Omura is ably supported by a cast of Japanese and European singers, as well Italian conductor, Renato Palumbo, a major presence in opera houses around the world and regular conductor here in Japan.

The Japan Times spoke to him about looking beyond the specifics of “Madama Butterfly” at its more universal themes.

What do you think is the modern relevance of this opera?

“Butterfly” is more modern today than 100 years ago. When we saw “Butterfly” a long time ago, I think we thought principally about the music. Then, we focused on things like the umbrellas, the pipes, the bowing. Today our level of cultural understanding is higher. We can better understand that it is about the clash of cultures. Puccini, I think, was instinctively aware of the terrible tragedies that could come from that. Japan here can now be also, with Iraq, Afghanistan, Rwanda.

Take, for example, the first two minutes after the curtain opens. It’s aggressive, violent. Then it stops and the story starts. These two minutes represent what Westerners have done, what they still do. We go to some place, we think we have a wonderful culture, and because we have wonderful culture, history, religion, music, art, politics, philosophy, we think we can go destroy everything else. In just those two minutes he makes us think of that — that attitude of “I don’t want to understand you. I’m not interested in your culture.” We can all be Pinkertons deep down.

Puccini saw the original play in London. It was in English, which he didn’t understand, but as he watched, he understood the relationship between the people onstage, the relationship between the two cultures, and he responded to that.

Why have you called Puccini a genius?

When he wrote this piece, it was a difficult time in Italy, not long before World War I. Also, Verdi was dead and the Second Viennese School was established in Vienna. Puccini thought about doing something direct, something apparently easy. When you hear “La Boheme” for the first time, you enjoy it. The music is easy to listen to. In fact, that was the big criticism — that music could be understood even by poor people, and I think composers should write for poor people. Even so, the music is like a river. On the surface it may be pretty but underneath there is depth. He had an understanding of human feeling, human problems, human fear that was incredible. That’s also why he’s so modern.

How did you feel about performing this work in Japan?

I tried to do cut down on the expressiveness of the score, keep it clean, keep everything to a minimum, very Japanese, like the director decided to do with the production. Also, Japan’s opera scene is very young, and when something is young, it’s still fresh. It’s not corrupt. I don’t mean in terms of money, but corrupt in terms of ideas. Going onstage is like a sacred experience. It’s not like in other theaters where you go, you sing, you go for a drink. It’s like a rejuvenation when I come here. I’m reminded of why I started doing this in the first place.

Do you remember your first performance of “Madama Butterfly”?

The first time I did “Madama Butterfly” was in Italy and it was without rehearsal. As you can imagine, it was a nightmare. It was a bad orchestra, a horrible situation where it was not possible to make music. But still I remember, at some moments, I felt something special. You can destroy a score, but you can never destroy good music. Something beautiful always comes from it.

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