‘Cio-Cio-San is a song, a melody'

Written by Marie Mergeay
at La Monnaie, Belgium

MADAMA BUTTERFLY remains one of the most beloved Puccini operas – and one of his most difficult works for contemporary directors as it touches topics such as colonialism and male dominance. Kirsten Dehlholm, founder of the Danish artistic collective Hotel Pro Forma, talks about her vision for a modern approach to the opera and its heroine.

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Marie Mergeay (MM): Who is Cio-Cio-San for you? What is her story?
Kirsten Dehlholm (KD): Cio-Cio-San is a song, a melody... For the composer, she was the pretext for creating the most magnificent sad music. She's a reservoir of emotions. This girl of 15, a symbolic victim of Western colonial behaviour, subjected to the laws and traditions of her culture, attempts to escape the barriers imposed by poverty, but fails - the only solution left to her is death. 

Love? Freedom? A change in social status?

Cio-Cio-San is a young Japanese woman, nicknamed Butterfly, who accepts a pro forma marriage with an American officer, Pinkerton – that leads her to reject her culture, her past and her ancestors. Once the marriage is celebrated and after one night of love, Pinkerton leaves, promising to return ‘when the red-breasted robins are busy nesting.' Three years pass and Butterfly is still waiting and hoping. Love? Freedom? A change in social status? When Pinkerton returns accompanied by his lawful wife, an American, Butterfly understands that he will never consider her as his wife and kills herself.

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MM: With RACHMANINOV TROIKA, you brought together and staged three short, very little-known Rachmaninov operas. Is your approach different now that you are tackling the famous, much-appreciated opera MADAMA BUTTERFLY?
KD: The story of Butterfly is indeed well known, thanks to the opera, the broadway musical and the film. Our staging will bring a new perspective to it, as seen by ghosts. By killing herself, Cio-Cio-San becomes a ghost obliged to recount her story without respite in order to find peace.

The concept of ghosts is very significant in Asian culture, even today.

The concept of ghosts is very significant in Asian culture, even today. The soloist singer, placed at the front of the stage, is an aged ghost. She is not the character in, but the narrator of the story; the voice that tells the story. Cio-Cio-San, the young girl of 15, is played by a life-size puppet.. The soloist-narrator carries the music and the voice, while the puppet amplifies the emotion of the music through the simplicity and expressiveness of its mute gestures.In this staging, the ghost motif is also associated with the evocation of the ancestors.
They appear when Butterfly rejects her culture and traditions by agreeing to marry Pinkerton. We give them a strong visual presence: they are menacing, mysterious, mute. But at the end, when Butterfly commits suicide, they embrace her and welcome her to the realm of the dead.

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MM: Hotel Pro Forma usually puts together a specific artistic team for each production. Who are the 'guest artists' of MADAMA BUTTERFLY?
KD: Indeed, for each production Hotel Pro Forma seeks out performers, designers and technicians who have the talent and experience required for a given project. For MADAMA BUTTERFLY, our concept requires a special team of puppet-makers and puppeteers. The Ulrike Quade Company has been involved from the very beginning to find the right expression for the puppet that has been made in Japan especially for our production. 

A visual score, composed of global scenic images

Our staging is based on a visual score, composed of global scenic images. A 'moving chorus' of 12 dancers creates the kinetic motifs and visual variations in a more static scenic landscape. These dancers must bring and represent objects in each scene; they embody the ancestors, dressed in large costumes. The Japanese dancer Kenzo Kusuda developed the choreography of the dancers or as we call them: the ninjas.

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MM: What happens in the preparation phase, particularly with the puppets and the puppeteers?

Puppet and singers must get used to each other.

KD: The puppeteers rehearse for a rather long time with the puppet before its encounter with the soloists. Puppet and singers must get used to each other. We impose the rules of their interaction: an equilibrium between distance and proximity, between live performance and imagination.

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MM: In Puccini's opera and the sources of the libretto, the story of Cio-Cio-San is told by men. Does it make a difference that  now a female director, you, tells the story of Butterfly?

We wanted to challenge the idea of a suffering female character.

KD: It's challenging to work on a very well-known opera. The comparison with previous productions is inevitable. You can't touch the score or the libretto, but it is possible to transform the staging. When we looked more deeply into the story of MADAMA BUTTERFLY, we wanted to challenge the idea of a suffering female character who is merely more than a victim of the dominant male culture. Our narration includes an idea of vengeance. The moment has come, after all these tragic BUTTERFLIES. Towards the end of the opera, stepping out of her function as a narrator, she gives voice to a short burst of fury. Then comes a kind of redemption. She must find peace so that her ghost can be released.