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Written by Giacomo Puccini. Produced by Handa Opera, Opera Australia

Reviewed by Juliana Payne

Fleet Steps, Mrs Macquarie’s Point

24 March - 23 April, 2023


- Opera Australia takes Madama Butterfly to the Harbour in a production of great specatcle with a political lens -

Madama Butterfly is a stunningly beautiful opera about a woman’s pure and noble heart, a woman who makes the high moral choice of self-sacrifice and an honourable death when a perfidious man betrays her. Madama Butterfly is a worthless reactionary museum piece of performance that simply perpetuates harmful racist and gender stereotypes in the guise of some nice music and singing. Which one of these statements is true?

Probably both, and that’s why Opera Australia creative director Lindy Hume takes pains to make the point that “you have to take these operas and look at them through the lens of the society in which the audience exists”. Otherwise, presumably, we’d just cancel everything. Boring.

Photos by Opera Australia/Hamilton Lund

So, if we start from the position that Madama Butterfly was written in and of its time (1904) with a bunch of ‘givens’ then we can start to critique and unpack it in light of the creative choices that the Opera Australia team have made. They do a pretty good job on the political side, for instance they don’t take things for granted and use the contemporary property development industry as the frame for this production, replete with its baggage of greed, exploitation and corruption that inform and enhance the relations in this opera. CioCio San here stands for youth, femaleness, non-white, poverty – all the factors that pretty well still determine someone’s fate in our world. Her own family treats her like dirt, let alone the white male coloniser!

Just the awfulness of its plot and Pinkerton’s role in her downfall makes one fume and rage whilst watching – but does that mean we shouldn’t see these elements of human nature called out as an example and a warning, an exhortation to us all to be better people? To be aware of the harm we can potentially cause others? The futility of remorse when the damage is done, when we could have just been nicer or more honest in the first place.

Fireworks, construction cranes, a bamboo grove silhouetted on the horizon, silent white Tesla motorcades, and 5-metre-high red silk curtains adorn the production

OK, now we’ve got the politics out of the way, let’s talk about the real reason we go to the opera – the wonderful music, the beautiful-spine tingling voices and, in this case, the magnificent spectacle of watching opera on the edge of Sydney Harbour. It’s always going to be about how to maximise this location and designer Alfons Flores got stuck into it. Fireworks, construction cranes, a bamboo grove silhouetted on the horizon, silent white Tesla motorcades, and 5-metre-high red silk curtains adorn the production. Even the weather bowed to the creative vision, with no storm as forecast, a clear balmy night, and a gentle breeze to move those curtains perfectly.

Karah Son as CioCio San does all the heavy lifting in this production; with few chorus scenes it tends to be a series of duets between her and the other characters in turn. Her sweet pure voice was mesmerising, and she made the best of the dark underlying ironies and humour of the plot as she changed from a traditional geisha to a Harajuku girl in the second act. Her songs of hope and love as she waits for the swine Pinkerton are just heartbreaking. The renouncement scene is a stunner, and the combined women’s voices really are spine chilling as they cast her out of the family.

Diego Torre is your classic tenor, and I know it’s shallow, but he doesn’t really look like how Pinkerton should look. Virgilio Marino as the odious Goro the marriage broker (pimp) who sells Butterfly adds some slimy comic relief. I don’t know if they did this on purpose but in his tan suit, black leather gloves, round sunglasses and crinkly hair he was the spitting image of Dr Strangelove from the movie! So that was hilarious!

The music soared into the blackness, the water lapped the barricades, and poor CioCio San copped it again. As beautiful as this opera is, maybe one fine day we won’t see this tragic story happen again. Maybe.


CREATIVE TEAM Conductor Brian Castles-Onion

Director Àlex Ollé

Revival Director Susana Gómez

Set Designer Alfons Flores

Costume Designer Lluc Castells

Lighting Design by Alexander Koppelmann

Lighting Realised by Jason Morphett

Sound Realised by Jake Luther

CAST Cio-Cio-San Karah Son, Eva Kong Suzuki Sian Sharp, Agnes Sarkis Pinkerton Diego Torre, Thomas Strong Sharpless Michael Honeyman, Luke Gabbedy Goro Virgilo Marino

Opera Australia Chorus Opera Australia Orchestra


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