The question from the Chinese-born composer Huang Ruo came out of the blue: Would David Henry Hwang, the American playwright, consider adapting his Broadway hit “M. Butterfly” for the opera stage?
It was 2013, and Huang, who had worked with Hwang on an Off Broadway revival of “The Dance and the Railroad,” was eager to collaborate again. The playwright agreed, and in late July, almost a decade after their first conversation, “M. Butterfly” had its premiere at Santa Fe Opera.
Like the play, the opera tells the story of René Gallimard, a civil servant at the French embassy in Beijing, who falls in love with Song Liling, a Chinese opera singer who seems to be the ideal woman. Gallimard eventually discovers that Song has been a man — and a spy — all along.
“M. Butterfly” upends Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” which tells the story of Cio-Cio-San, a betrayed young geisha, waiting in vain for the return of Pinkerton, her American husband. It gives power to Asian characters instead of Westerners, and the fluidity in gender roles counters sexist tropes in Puccini’s opera.
In an interview from Santa Fe, Huang said the discussions of race, gender and power in “M. Butterfly,” which runs through Aug. 24, spoke to the present moment, more than three decades after the play’s premiere. He also talked about his early immersion in Chinese opera, the impact of the pandemic on the production and Asian representation in the arts. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Tell me about your first encounter with the play “M. Butterfly.”
When I was at Oberlin, in my college days, the first play that I saw in America was “M. Butterfly.” It left a very deep impact. I knew Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” the opera, but I did not know “M. Butterfly.” I thought it was a misspelling. I went in expecting to see “Madama Butterfly” but walked out with a totally opposite and different story.
Why turn the play, which was successful on Broadway and inspired a 1993 movie, into an opera?
I saw several versions of the play, and I often felt it needed to be told in musical form because it was so related to Puccini and to the reversal of “Madama Butterfly.” I felt in opera I could freely integrate — to twist and to turn, to create all the drama with the music. Some plays should never be touched or turned into opera, but I felt this was one of the rare cases where it could work.
You grew up on Hainan island, the southernmost edge of China, immersed in traditional Chinese opera and other music. What was that like?
In every village in Hainan, there is a communal open-air space, like a square. People would bring their clothes during the day to dry under the burning sun or put the rice out to dry. At night, people would sit there, the guys would take their shirts off, to get cool and to fall asleep.
Occasionally there were Hainanese opera troupes that came to the village to perform. And at that moment, the open square became an improvised theater. Every family would bring their own food and chairs. And my grandmother would take me to sit there, to see opera.
How did those early experiences inform your artistic philosophy?
My grandmother was never sent to school because her family was poor and she was a woman. But she got her education through watching opera. Opera was for everybody: men and women, the elderly and the young. She learned all these stories and moral lessons, and she taught me those as well.
How did the story of “Madama Butterfly” influence your approach?
Puccini’s opera shows a submissive, young Asian woman who will do everything — even change her faith — to be put in a cage, to serve as someone’s wife and even bear a child. And it shows her foolishly wanting him to come back, only to be abandoned and to have her only child, her only hope, brutally taken away. Pinkerton was portrayed by Puccini as this white man who doesn’t know or respect Eastern traditions or culture, and just abuses Cio-Cio-San, and takes advantage of her, both physically and psychologically.
The big picture is this kind of imbalance between East and West, and the smaller picture is the interplay of male and female, and Asians being treated as subhuman. That is entirely reversed in “M. Butterfly.”
Can you give an example of how Puccini’s music influenced the score of “M. Butterfly”?
The overture of “Madama Butterfly” is very fast and energetic, in a minor key, that sounds very Western. I turned the overture upside down. I used the Puccini motif, and I reversed it. I made it quasi-pentatonic, to make it more Eastern. And then I have an opera gong, crash cymbal and all these instruments go along with it. So it’s quite unrecognizable if you don’t know the Puccini well, but I felt that in that way it’s related to the Puccini, and it also became new, just like “M. Butterfly” itself.
The premiere of “M. Butterfly” was delayed for two years because of the pandemic. How does it feel to open in this moment?
It’s even more timely now, because of the pandemic and the rise of anti-Asian hate. Asian Americans are again being treated with subhuman stereotypes and racial hate. They’re being treated as others, not as equals. With “M. Butterfly,” we are showing people this is the history of humanity — that this is not just an exotic story happening in the past.
What has it been like witnessing the spike in hate directed toward Asians in the United States, particularly in New York City, your longtime home?
You just don’t know when and where you might get attacked. For example, I took my kids out biking after the severe attack on a Filipino woman in Times Square last year. I basically disguised them, and disguised myself, so we all had masks, and they had helmets on, and I had a hat, so we all looked less Asian. That was the first time I felt I had to disguise myself in America.
Normally Asians and Asian Americans want to be seen and heard. We have been complaining for a long time that we are invisible. But that was the moment that I wanted to be invisible. I did not want to be seen or identified. Is that normal? Is that real? I don’t think that’s normal, but that felt so real at that moment.
What do you want audiences to take away from “M. Butterfly”?
I want people to understand the story, but also to ask questions. That, to me, is the best opera can do: Not to provide answers, but to provoke questions. And to leave the audience asking questions about their own background, their own journey.