Madame Butterfly

Madame Butterfly The Racial Dimensions of Madame Butterfly

While Puccini's Madame Butterfly stages a narrative that implicates a white man in the demise of a Japanese woman, which some might regard as a critical depiction of imperialism and colonialism, many regard its plot as racist and anti-feminist. Many point to the depiction of Butterfly as delicate, naive, and obsessed with her American husband as enacting racial stereotypes of a helpless Asian woman. Others have taken issue with the traditional stagings of this opera, which often rely on stereotypes, and have often used white actors in yellowface.

Arguments are split on whether the content of the opera itself is racist. Some suggest that its depiction of a young Japanese girl getting taken advantage of by a rich white American stages a narrative of Asian helplessness and American superiority. Others argue that in staging this colonialist violence and positioning Butterfly at the center of the narrative, the opera is actually an indictment of imperialism and American entitlement. In an article for the Los Angeles Times about the opera, Catherine Womack writes, "At its best, it sheds light on a woman’s tragic circumstances. At its worst, it relies on “yellowface” makeup and makes a mockery of her culture." Written at the turn of the 20th century, Madame Butterfly, we ought to remember, was conceived at a time when the understanding of racial issues was quite different, and from our current perspective many of the views common to that time now seem dated and offensive.

Additionally, the legacy and history of the opera and its stagings is undeniably racist. Most productions of Madame Butterfly until recently have featured white singers adopting yellowface to inhabit the characters in the opera. Some have suggested that in the highly rarefied world of opera in the West, it has been more difficult to find Japanese singers who are right for the roles needed, but this does not take away from the implicit racism of casting white actors and employing minstrelsy.