Next they’ll ban Madam Butterfly

Next they’ll ban Madam Butterfly


norman lebrecht

June 15, 2021

Reader’s Comment of the Day on the Nixon in China furore:

I am very concerned about where this is going and fear it would ultimately harm the art form and everybody in the industry – performers, presenters and public. Once a work of art is created, it is out there for performers and producers to interpret and produce in different ways (unless dictated otherwise by the rights’ owners – for instance, the Gershwin estate requires an all-black cast for Porgy and Bess). By definition opera involves acting, and the whole idea of acting is of a person embodying another character on stage. Yes, it’s good to have authentic casting (matching the age and looks of the character) but that’s not always possible nor desirable, and that’s really not the point.

The Nebraska-born Irish-German 48 years old Marlon Brando still was memorable as an ageing Italian mafia boss, and the English Vivien Leigh still moving as an American Southern Belle. Opera has the power to reach deep into our minds and emotions in unique ways. It is that combination of drama, music and the human voice that is much greater the sum of its components. We have countless examples of great operatic performances by artists who were not of the “appropriate” age, race or nationality but still managed to capture the essence of a role in unique and moving ways. We must also realise that works of art that were conceived 50 or 150 years ago do not necessarily convey or adhere to the same values that we aspire to in 2021.

We have to remember what makes these works great and why it is that we want to keep performing them. These works can reach us still now, because in their core they communicate deep truths about emotions and about the human existence. We are currently hearing many complaints about non “racially-correct” casting. These complaints to me are too literal and entirely miss the point of what opera is.

I suspect that a Salome sung by a 17-year old middle-eastern singer won’t be a success, nor a 15-year old Japanese singer as Butterfly. Further, I think that the idea of “racially-correct” casting would be most harmful for non-white artists, in seriously limiting the range of roles that they would be considered for. Case in point – if we apply the “racially-correct” principle across the board, then Eric Greene (a very fine singer) should not be cast as Nixon, and so on.

I applaud and support the movement for more diversity across the board in the music and opera world but hope that artistic merit, talent and skill would continue to be the main parameters by which artistic decisions are made, rather than identity politics, and I believe that artistic excellence is what’s going to sustain the industry long-term. I hope that everyone accepts that artists of all races, shapes, ages and nationalities can and should be considered for the whole gamut of operatic roles if they can sing and act the part convincingly. As far as repertoire – almost every opera deals with difficult themes such as a war, violence, sexual abuse, racism, xenophobia, class warfare.. With our 2021 sensitivity it would not be difficult to find something offensive in pretty much every standard opera, but these are still fantastic and important works of art that have a lot to tell us nowadays. We have to watch out for how cancel culture is affecting us.

An important US industry insider mentioned to me that he might never get to hear Madama Buttefly again – an opera that is very much a target of the “racially-correct” crowd, and that an Asian mezzo-soprano he knows and who has sung Suzuki for many companies is now seeing her many future jobs singing the role being pulled away. I know that this a very sensitive topic right now, but hope that opera companies (especially in the US and UK), while working towards diversity and inclusivity, do their part to defend the art form. I also hope that some of the activists, sometimes in their zeal to increase racial justice and inclusivity in the business, realise that some of their demands might decimate the entire industry – in other words, everything will be just and politically correct, but there might not be so much of it left.




  • Alexander says:

    well done, old jew 😉 I want to confess you when I was a kid I asked my mom why my last name was not as nice as the last name of one of my jewish friends . I really thought that his last name sounded more attractive than mine 😉 Mom was a bit shocked but told me that he was of other ancestry and all people were different. Now I like my last name and it literally sounds excellent.
    This shows how was my childhood’s environment where all people were really equal. No black or white, jews or arabs . The situation is a bit different now. Thanks, America 😉

    • Jan Kaznowski says:

      ==Now I like my last name

      Yes, but not so much that you’ll use it here. Unless your surname is ‘Alexander’

      • Alexander says:

        are you kidding ? 😉 who will use their names in chats which can be visible all around the Globe 😉 as for your Polish name I know Alexandra Kurzak and that new countertenor Orlinsky ( hope I typed his name correctly), Chopin is , of course beyond naming 😉 …. wait a jiffy – Kaznowsky – I remember that oldie with Mrs. Warsawsky (Kathleen Turner?) 😉 Do you?

    • E Rand says:

      Be precise – thank the Left. There’s a whole “America” fighting this malignancy.

  • Sam McElroy says:


    It’s acting. Acting is pretending. You pretend to be the character in all ways that permit the suspension of disbelief. That means costumes that reflect the period and culture, decor, props, and hair-and-make-up. Why is only the latter element of all those cultural indicators singled out for PC censure? When the phenomenally gifted Korean baritone we heard last night at Cardiff Singer comes up for casting all over the world, will he only be permitted to sing Korean roles? (Lots of those around!) Or the spellbinding black South African soprano, will she never sing Leonora on stage? The whole thing is utter nonsense, not designed to help anyone, the irrational, pious creed of the new religion of anti-racism. Well, in the wise words of Billy Connolly, “it’s f@#€ing stupid!” Ditch it, before it ditches culture itself (to reiterate the above).

    • Hobbes says:

      Yeah, but at the same time it’s opera, which is unbelievable anyway. Why flog a dead horse by trying to make it look realistic? Just make it sound good, do something interpretive with the production, and let people be singers first, musicians second, and actors third. And don’t try to change people’s ethnicity in the process. You wouldn’t put garlic and onions around every singer’s neck for Boheme to indicate that they’re French, so why paint faces in a stereotypical manner? It’s offensive and unnecessary.

  • Emil says:

    Jeez, if you run out of imaginary cancel culture panics, you don’t need to invent new fictional ones. No one’s cancelling Madame Butterfly. And civilization will not collapse if you stop performing Italian opera in offensive stereotypical productions, and instead reflect on how to do it without being insulting.

    • Drone detector says:


      I can predict which threads you will contribute to and what your attitude will be. Are you not embarrassed by your orthodoxy and extreme predictability?

      • Brettermeier says:

        “Are you not embarrassed by your orthodoxy and extreme predictability?”

        So you are proud to be inconsistent in your views?
        Good for you! Weird, sure. But good for you!

        Btw., SOME people only contribute to topics where they actually know what they are talking about. 😉

        • JYF says:

          My thoughts are my own. As such they have an integrity and uniquity. This is the opposite of the wholesale adoption of someone else’s ideas.

        • Saxon says:

          Brettermeir writes:
          “SOME people only contribute to topics where they actually know what they are talking about”

          We won’t suggest you follow the example these “some people”.

    • Allen says:

      People often choose to take offence, regardless of whether it is intended or not.

      Go on, be offended, who gives a damn? It’s rarely genuine and doesn’t matter in the scheme of things.

    • James Weiss says:

      Burying one’s head in the sand doesn’t mean you still won’t get buried in the sand storm. Anyone who thinks cancel culture isn’t real is either ignorant, a fool, or deliberately daft. Perhaps all 3.

      • Grow up says:

        Or, perhaps, capable of more critical thought than those who denounce it.

      • Emil says:

        Fine, James, I’ll take the bait. Cancel culture as a generalised problem tied to ‘identity politics’ is a myth. It doesn’t exist. That myth is used by those in power – political, mediatic, economic, etc. – to protect their position, shield themselves from criticism, and protect and enable behaviour that is harmful to others. That is why ‘cancel culture’ is used to shield abusers (“They cancelled Placido Domingo! They cancelled Charles Dutoit! They cancelled Jeffrey Toobin!”), racism (“They want to cancel Cecil Rhodes!”), anti-democratic violence (“They’re cancelling Josh Hawley after the January 6 insurrection!”), etc. Often it is just pure fabulation, like the ‘They’re cancelling Handel!’ headline on this blog a while back, which it turned out meant moving a few harpsichords around. In this case, here, what is called “cancelling” means ‘you should not celebrate racist practices that insult Asian people’. Again, no one is banning Madame Butterfly, no one is banning Nixon in China, no one is banning the Scottish Opera.

        Now, as for conservative “cancel culture”, the one that *is* aligned with political-mediatic-economic powers, that gets journalists fired (Lauren Wolfe, Emily Wilder), that defunds charities (Stonewall), that restricts voting, that bans public protest, that bans speech (viz a ton of laws banning ‘CRT’), that fires professors (Nikole Hannah-Jones), that ostracises athletes and personalities (Colin Kaepernick), that one is a real threat to speech, thought, and society. It is a threat precisely because it is aligned with power, and it is a threat because in each case it is used to enforce inequality and cause harm, not to strive towards equality, justice, and openness.

        So yeah, “cancel culture” is a fiction used to enable a fake culture war that benefits those in power. That’s why the Right spends its time wailing over statues of dead slave-owners while thousands of people die in a pandemic they let run amok through their incompetence.

        I hope this satisfies whoever said I was getting predictable above, too.

        • M McAlpine says:

          So why does the Left spend so much time pulling down statues while millions are enslaved today?

          • Emil says:

            …because…slavery should not be celebrated, not now, not ever? And because systematic slavery has long legacies that effect the world today, and that should not be glorified?
            I wonder, rather, why some conservatives seem to be unable to imagine their world without the glorification of slave-owners.
            Like, if one’s argument is that British culture is indistinguishable from the celebration of Cecil Rhodes’ state-sanctioned brutality, that sounds like an own goal to me, but what do I know.

          • JYF says:

            Rhodes died in 1902. The celebrations are ancient history. It’s absurd to attack him as though he’s a living person.

          • Emil says:

            Well, no, the statue is there, now, today. If he’s dead, ancient history, and absurd, then it will harm literally no one to take down that statue.
            (Unlike, say, the claim above that Mark Twain – equally dead – is being “cancelled”)

        • Yellow Fever says:

          Ideologues do not belong anywhere near art, mainly for their boring predictable inventions. Mark Twain has been canceled along with other writers. Madam Butterfly is very much under threat from leftist academia, from which the cancel corruption sprang.

    • Karl says:

      Madama Butterfly already has been cancelled.

      “Opera in the Rock cancels ‘Madama Butterfly’ stream, cites Asian-American cultural concerns”

    • E Rand says:

      Emil – “No one’s cancelling Italian opera, just stop performing Italian opera in any manner to which the Left might object!” Dur dur dur.

      • Emil says:

        No, what I’m saying is, stop putting racist and offensive stereotypes on stage. Or are you saying you are unable to enjoy Madame Butterly without ‘yellowface’ makeup?

  • Stop pretending says:

    As usual the negative response and handwringing around this is to something *no one said*. Manufactured rage about an imagined extreme view in order to dismiss people’s legitimate and much milder concerns

    The complaint was about:
    – use of make-up to make white people look East Asian, rather than just play as themselves as was done for Nixon / Eric Greene
    – only one person with an East Asian background being involved on and off stage; the concern was that more could’ve been done to involve more East Asian people, the complainant did not say that every East Asian character had to be played by an East Asian

    *No one* is saying this means every single character forever more has to be played by someone of the same race, gender and age. But it suits those who would prefer not to face the actual issues to pretend that these extreme views exist, in order to distract from meaningful change where needed and to dismiss legitimate problems.

    • Pianofortissimo says:

      Maybe you didn’t read the first blog post:

      “Scottish Opera has withdrawn its production of Nixon in China from a major award after complaints of ethnic confusion.”

      That is, that opera production was “cancelled”, and it was not the result of an “imagined extreme view”.

      • Stop pretending says:

        The production was not cancelled, it was withdrawn from an award.

        The complainant is not responsible for how Scottish Opera reacted. Imagined extreme views are often found in people’s ‘understanding’ overreactions to a problem being raised, as well as in overreactions that view the complaint negatively.

      • Emil says:

        That is, again, for “yellowface” makeup, not against the opera itself. Maybe you didn’t read the first blog post yourself. No one “cancelled” the opera (whatever that means) – Chou-Lambert objected to this specific production, which includes offensive elements. No one’s burning scores, no one’s suing John Adams, no one is burning the Scottish Opera to the ground. By all means, put on a production of Nixon in China, or Madame Butterfly – just do it right, that’s all.

    • Brettermeier says:

      ” use of make-up to make white people look East Asian”

      They really did that? Wow. The original article here didn’t reflect that (“But a composer called Julian Chou-Lambert complained that only one of the Chinese was played by an Asian and that was ‘not good enough’.”)

      • Marfisa says:

        If you read Chou-Lambert’s tweet imaged in the original article (zoom it up, or click to see his twitter account), ‘yellowface’ was his original complaint.

        Scottish Opera replied in his twitter feed, among other things denying ‘yellowface’,.

        But he then went on to complain that there was only one SE Asian singer among the six Chinese roles, and that it seemed that SE Asians had no representation in ‘the backstage/creative team’. He also stuck to his ‘yellowface’ accusation.

        Without having seen the opera, or good images from it, it is hard to say who is right.

        I agree that to insist on the singer’s race having to correspond with the role would make much operatic production very problematic, and it would deny opera its universality. Much better to be genuinely color-blind; maybe one day it will happen.

        When SD deigns to give links to its sources, it is worth checking things out before commenting.

        Is Chou-Lambert part of the famous Lambert family – Constant, and Kit?

  • Cynical Bystander says:

    The person that got SO to withdraw their production has a bit of a nerve. He complains about yellowface but seems to blind his woke eye when it comes to whiteface. And more specifically when it relates to him and his career. A reading of his biography is illuminating and this is extract shows that ‘appropriation’ is a one way street in his case…..

    “He has also played Figaro Barber, Malatesta Don Pasquale, Harlekin Ariadne, Steward Flight, Ipparco L’Egisto and Il Conte Figaro, for RAM opera scenes in London and Italy,”

    Now he is entitled like all other artists to sing what is within his vocal range irrespective of his ethnicity. But he should have the good grace to extend the same opportunities to others without calling them and the companies that engage them for something he himself seems (colour) blind to when it relates to himself.

    • Stop pretending says:

      Read my post above.

    • Saxon says:

      Why are you complaining? He believes he is entitled to play whatever role he wants, but only Asian people should play Asian roles. Logically, there is no contradiction because he is Asian.

  • japecake says:

    A beautifully and convincingly stated argument, which I fully expect will be met with petulant defiance and howls of rage.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    For some reason this reminds me of a (once) famous New Yorker magazine cartoon that appeared in the 1940s — two women in the lobby of the Metropolitan Opera and one is saying something along the lines of: “I’ll be so happy when this terrible War is over and we can feel sorry for poor Cio-Cio-san again.”

  • Hokland says:

    Poor me, who thought that the opera was named “Madama” and not “Madam” Butterfly. But if Prof. Lebrecht thinks otherwise, let us all follow his lead!!

  • NelSop says:

    A British person playing an American person is not the same as a white person playing BIPOC. This article misses the point. The point is that operas that mimic minority cultures are no longer acceptable. Continuing to allow white people to dominate BIPOC roles is a continuation of white priveledge in the genre. It’s not the death of the genre, it is bringing the genre into present slday. Directors should be given more controll to change the direction of pieces like Madam Butterfly despite traditionalist push-back. It is not a case of “If a white person can’t play an Asian person then a black person can’t play a none black role” that is not how this works. White people have been in a position of racial priveledge for centuries and need to make space. The same rules don’t apply to both parties because that is how it works when one party is opressed and discriminated against for hundreds of years. And white people who don’t understand that are the reason why it is still a problem

    • Nonsense says:

      Total nonsense. Typical wokeism.

    • Marfisa says:

      It is time for BIPOC to go the way of the now discredited BAME, and for the same rasons.

      The I of BIPOC stands for Indigenous; melanin-challenged people are indigenous to Europe.

      Black: Xhosa and Maasai and Yoruba are different peoples. POC (= not Black or Indigenous or White), another irrational grouping of many very different ethnicities: what do Chinese and Indian people have in common?

      Why, in any case, are white people regarded as a single homogeneous group, while broad) distinctions are allowed between ‘non-white’ people? How much, culturally and historically, do the Irish people have in common with the people of Georgia?

      The current orthodoxy is that ‘white people’ up to now
      have oppressed the rest of mankind. A smattering of knowledge about global history would show this to be a gross over-simplification.

      Racism is an evil that has to be understood and fought against. But creating labels that further institutionalize racism is a bad way to go.

      • Marfisa says:

        reasons; (broad) distinctions. Memo to self: Check for submitting.

        The present fuss is partly about Chinese roles not being given to ESEA, ‘East and South-East Asian’, singers. So it is OK for a Malay or Filipino tenor to play Chairman Mao, but not for a European one?

  • Luca says:

    Having been tremendously impressed by Laurence Olivier’s Othello to the point that I went to see it seven times, I find it totally absurd than none of today’s great white actors are able to play the part.

    • Saxon says:

      Funnily enough, the blackness of Othello refers to his excessive maleness rather than his ethniticity. Men are very slightly darker than women, and blackness always represented this maleness; whiteness represents femaleness: this is why Othello is black and his partner is white. Othello can not control his male passion (he is excessively male and has not tempered his maleness with reason).

      Thinking it is about race is anachronistic, and would not have been understood by Shakespeare or his contemporaries.

  • David says:

    People who look to Madam Butterfly or Nixon in China for an authentic representation of Asian cultures, are deluded.

    But I am not clear what is rattling some white commentators so much when some people question why some other white people play at being Asian on stage, exaggerated make up and all.

    That people seek to close down the debate is in itself quite offensive.

  • Kröner says:

    In the end, no one can portray any role on the stage except him or herself. Anything else is cultural appropriation. The highest – soon the only – form of art is reality TV.

  • I agree with you we have to stop this racial phobia……labour party are in people make the decision on the talent and on the character… We must allow the artist the director the filmmaker the painter the singer to do what he likes and the way he likes don’t impey the artist

  • David says:

    Since Meryl Streep is known for her legendary foreign accents — Polish, Italian, Danish, Australian, and probably many others — I guess we should ban showings of her films, and restrict her to roles for women from New Jersey.