By all means, address racist elements in opera—but be smart about it and respect the art form

October 4, 2022 at 10:47 am

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Jesus Garcia and Lauren Michelle in Boston Lyric Opera’s production of Puccini’s La boheme. Photo: Olivia Moon

“If you don’t like the weather in New England now,” Mark Twain allegedly quipped, “just wait a few minutes.”

Replace “weather” with “opera” and you’ve got a principle that seems to be applying itself increasingly, in our identity-conscious and -sensitive age, to the art form. Just ask Giacomo Puccini, who’s been in for a particularly rough couple of years.

First, several of his greatest works (including Turandot and Madama Butterfly) have come under fire for catering to outdated stereotypes of race, class, and gender. Then, Yuval Sharon got his hands on La bohème.

Which of the two is more damaging? In the long run, probably neither.

Addressing instances of cultural appropriation, racism, and misogyny that were deemed acceptable by an earlier era but are unfashionable in ours is worthwhile and, often enough, overdue. What’s more, these works can certainly stand some scrutiny; the cringe-inducing names of Ping, Pang, and Pong in Turandot are right up there with Mickey Rooney’s heinous “yellowface” character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

But surely one can do so without much of the overheated righteous indignation and pearl-clutching that often accompanies the “realization” of these moral flaws. That something written in 1896 (or 1924) doesn’t reflect the mores of people living in 2022 shouldn’t come as a surprise.

And if it does, subsequent angry howls for justice don’t exactly seem like they are imbued with the glowing hue of enlightenment. Rather, they suggest a staggering lack of historical awareness and often, a degree of smug, cultural superiority that is as shallow as it is unhelpful. Either way, they lead into an artistic cul-de-sac.

That’s pretty much where Sharon’s version of Puccini’s beloved tragedy ends up. A blinkered, unnecessarily staged-in-reverse adaptation of La bohème, it requires a narrator popping up at various points to guide the confused proceedings and utter inanely obvious questions at key moments. While it doesn’t quite doom the piece—Puccini’s music and the opera’s tearjerker story are too strong for that—it arrogantly toys with the fundamental structure (and dramatic conception) of a masterful creative team that knew exactly what they were doing. If this is what passes for thought-provoking theater these days, heaven help us.

It was fitting that this bohème (reviewed here) opened Boston Lyric Opera’s fall season last week. The city’s major opera company waded into the larger Puccini culture wars when it shelved a production of Butterfly in November 2021. Originally slated to open its cancelled 2020-21 season, the piece was pushed back to the following year, then delayed, then finally postponed indefinitely.

BLO said the decision was made in light of the uptick in anti-Asian violence that had been unfolding across the country since the beginning of the pandemic, a well-meaning if highly attenuated nexus. But the whole process—included the usual mea culpas and tortuous rhetorical questions from general manager Bradley Vernatter (“Why would BLO be presenting this? Why did we choose this originally? And what is it we have to say with this piece right now?”) – had the air of surreal performance art about it.

Still, “The Butterfly Process,” resulted in some valuable cultural, historical, and musical insights. A multi-part effort intended to address the problems in Puccini’s 1904 opera, it was guided by Phil Chan (author of Final Bow for Yellowface) and involved various members of the BLO administration, Butterfly cast, and others in the company’s community (including playwright David Henry Hwang).

Their half-dozen discussions on themes of Asian representation and appropriation in the West, as well as a website that offers resources to help contextualize the broader treatment of Asian culture by Western artists, provided both nuance and surprising statistics (stereotyped casting, for one: mezzo-soprano Nina Yoshida Nelsen told The Boston Globe that she’d tallied over 150 performances of Cio-Cio San in her career but just three of non-Asian characters between 2009 and 2019).

And, to be fair, Butterfly does portrays its Japanese characters, particularly women, as, generally, submissive and weak. This is precisely the sort of thing one would love to encounter heading into a new production of the opera and it’s been done before: Seattle Opera’s 2017 presentation of the work, which involved public discussions and a large-scale exhibition on Asian misrepresentation in the arts in the theater’s lobby, addressed Butterfly’s problems head-on. One expects that, whenever BLO brings the piece back, it will incorporate these lessons learned.

Still, this kind of historical reevaluation is no guarantee of a quality production, as Sharon’s current La bohème reminded us.

The Israeli director is, these days, pretty hot stuff. His Los Angeles-based company, The Industry, has presented a variety of experimental operas over the last decade and, recently, he staged an acclaimed Götterdämmerung in a Detroit parking garage. Sharon’s backwards Bohème, though, is too smart by half.

At no point does it answer the big question of why go this particular route? Rather, there seem to be conflicting arguments in support of his singular approach.

One comes in the form of a program book essay from Sharon. He refers  to the opera’s four acts as “four pictures,” in an attempt to bolster his idea that Puccini would have no issue with reordering them as one might rearrange images in an old photo album. Beyond that he offers as a defense, that this Boheme doesn’t change or drop a note—it only shifts the weight of the narrative to the happy couple’s meeting in Act 1.

Apart from the elephantine presumptuousness, this tack shows a glaring lack of trust in the opera’s music. To be sure, Bohème is among the most familiar and melodramatic works in the canon. More than most, it thrives on its score. That alone, a marvel of thematic development and instrumental genius, is what elevates a sometimes cloyingly saccharine sextet of characters and their situations above the level of caricature.

Yet Sharon’s conception pays no heed to the sophistication of the opera’s musical structure. Inverting its plot assures that the payoff of Act 4—which is clearly where Puccini intended the weight of the drama to land —is irredeemably muddled.

On top of this, BLO’s marketing of Bohème has veered much too close to the notion that, due to the tough times we’re living through, opera needs to lighten up and entertain, rather than send us out into the night feeling sad because the heroine died at the end.

Whether intended or not, this patronizing ad campaign suggests that the company doesn’t respect the art form, its audiences, or both. Besides, there’s a simpler, less problematic solution: if happy endings are all that we’re after, why not just write and stage a new, made-to-order opera that banishes all darkness and gloom?

To do that, though, would be to apparently miss the point—or to at least rob Sharon of the opportunity to recast Puccini in his own image.

What this whole sorry spectacle reveals, though, is something larger and more insidious—a palpable contempt for the viability of the art form, both from companies and directors. 

That’s not surprising, given the ongoing backlash against dominant European forms of entertainment like opera by the quickly offended—who, it must be said, in many cases, care nothing for opera and only care about it now as a useful vehicle to vent political anger and their own, social media-driven prejudices.

But it is disconcerting. If the role of the arts is fundamental—to “[wash] the dust of daily life off our souls,” as Picasso put it—then our artistic leaders need to show boldness. Indecision, self-flagellation, and disregard for the intricacies of the work are not that.

So let’s hope that BLO will stage its next Butterfly sooner rather than later. Let the casting be color-blind. May the production underline the rapacious American imperialist attitudes that Pinkerton embodies. Emphasize the decency and strength of the Asian characters (as well as the humanity of the American diplomat Sharpless). Respect the music. Hold lectures, put on exhibitions in conjunction with other institutions around the city, don’t shy away from the opera’s complexities, problems, and contradictions.

Take risks but be smart about it. Sharon’s Bohème reminds one that optics and dubious advertising can overwhelm the artistic content being presented. 

That needn’t be the case and it isn’t what the present moment demands.

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