When I was a young man discovering the world of opera many years ago, when you only heard music in person or on the radio or on records, I would first experience a work entirely by sound. I might have listened to opera dozens of times before I would get my hands on a libretto and actually learn what everyone was singing about. 

Often, those moments would be a disappointment as a lot of great operas have really bad plots—or even a shock. The biggest shock of them all was "Madama Butterfly" by Giacomo Puccini; music so beautiful it has me in tears every time I listen to it. 

The opera is about an American sailor stationed in Japan who exploits a Japanese woman, tricking her into a sham marriage, using her sexually and then abandoning her, all the while singing about the evil plan. Added into that is Puccini's problematic portrayal of Japanese culture and people, and the fact that the Japanese Butterfly has pretty much always been portrayed by a white singer, typically in yellowface. 

There's a lot wrong with everyone's favorite opera, especially if you happen to be Asian or a woman, but a group of Asian-American artists is coming together here in Boston to try to save "Madama Butterfly" from itself. Chinese-American artist, director and writer Phil Chan and a group of Asian-American artists are re-envisioning Madama for the Boston Lyric Opera this month. He joined me on All Things Considered to discuss this exciting new production. What follows is a lightly edited transcript.

Arun Rath: I want to talk about how this all fits into a broader artistic project for you. You've written a whole book about it called "Final Battle for Yellowface." But first, tell us about this re-envisioned Butterfly. The original, which I described a bit, is set around, I think, 1905, and it's set in Japan. Tell us about the new version.

Phil Chan: So, when the opera was written during Puccini's lifetime, the defining moment between Western civilization and Japan was Commodore Perry and the opening of Japan, known as the Meiji Restoration.

Rath: The forced reopening of Japan. 

Chan: Yes, exactly. So, that was really within the Western imagination when Puccini was writing this opera. Whereas, from where we sit in 2023, probably the largest cultural defining moment between us and Japan is World War II: bombing Pearl Harbor, Japanese-American incarceration, and all of the geopolitical events and relationships since have been defined by World War II. So, that just felt like a more immediate and urgent setting for the opera. 

I was also fortunate enough to host a Q&A at Lincoln Center with Arthur Dong about his film "Forbidden City, U.S.A.", which is a great short documentary that details the story of these Chinatown nightclubs in San Francisco that were Chinese-American spaces featuring Asian-American performers that were excluded from white spaces, and what that subculture was about. 

And just thinking about a congruent setting for "Madama Butterfly", if you think about what is the geisha at the heart of the story? Well, the geisha is an artist, a performer in Japanese, so what if "Madama Butterfly", instead of being a 15-year-old geisha in Japan, was instead an American jazz singer in the forties? And how could this same musical story be grafted onto a congruent libretto that would fit a contemporary 21st-century audience that is very different than who Puccini was writing for? 

A lot of my work, in general, is shifting these Eurocentric classics that were made by Europeans, for Europeans, and enlarging them for a diverse 21st-century audience, which includes white Americans. 

You know, most white Americans don't identify as Europeans, so we're not actually doing anybody any favors by pretending that we're Europeans in this art form. Right? So, how do we get these works to resonate with who all of us are in the audiences we're presenting to, specifically here in Boston? 

Rath: The original ends in Japan with "Madama Butterfly", and she has Pinkerton's child. With your version, the story stays in the States, and she's in an internment camp. 

Chan: Yeah. So, our production starts in a San Francisco nightclub, sort of on the eve of war. Pinkerton's a young Navy guy, and every night at this nightclub, they bring one of the Navy boys on stage, and he has a little wedding—you know, they get to marry one of the girls. It's one of the skits in the nightclub. 

That night, Pinkerton is chosen. And then he, quote-unquote, marries Butterfly as part of the skit. As the story unfolds, we see that it's more than just these two characters coming together, but a larger chain of events that leads to the tragedy at the end. 

But in the second and third act, we find ourselves in a Japanese incarceration camp with Butterfly and her child and the race to save her child's life. It really takes on a new and dramatic arc that fits well for who we are today while retaining the music, the drama and Puccini's original intentions. The dynamics of the story are the same. The music is the same. We haven't changed a single note. 

Rath: You mentioned Arthur Dong, the documentary maker. Who are some of the other people who are involved in creating this new vision of this work?

Chan: I really have to tip my hat to Nini Yoshida Nelson. She's the co-founder of the Asian Opera Alliance, which is replacing Orientalist caricatures and representations of Asians and also supporting the Asian community and being creative voices in their own right. So, she's an artistic advisor here at Boston Lyric Opera. 

Her family was incarcerated in the forties, so there's a personal element to this story as well as a performer. She sang in over 200 productions of Suzuki, so she knows this opera inside and out, and so comes to it with this incredible wealth of knowledge and heart to this piece. 

She was really instrumental in helping us—working together to get the words just right, to make it feel like the intentions match to this new story and that it really had the emotional impact that "Madama Butterfly" has to have in order to be a successful work. 

Rath: This is not just new. It's frankly radical. And I’d think the American opera establishment may not be fast to embrace change. I'm curious how you got the Boston Lyric Opera to buy into this.

Chan: Well, I mean, I don't think it's that radical, right? I mean, if you've seen a Shakespearean play that's not set in the traditional setting it's supposed to be set in or, frankly, features women performers, then you're seeing something already radical, right? 

The reason Shakespeare is still alive and relevant is because it can withstand the reimaginations to always echo who we are in this current moment. If you've been to opera in Europe, pretty much any opera you can imagine has been set somewhere else in a different place, in a different time. 

So again, what we're doing here isn't radical, but the part that is maybe different is that we are consciously centering the story for a multiracial audience as opposed to specifically shifting to another Eurocentric way of approaching the characters in the story. So you can set "Madama Butterfly" on the moon, but if you're still looking at her as an Oriental sex object, then you haven't broken out of that lens. 

Rath: You've taken on now, in this project—as you articulated it in the book "Final Bow for Yellowface"—the beloved ballet "The Nutcracker", and now beloved opera "Madama Butterfly". Is there another work that you feel is really ready to be taken on next?

Chan: Well, actually, my next big project is a full-length production of "La Bayadere" at Indiana University. It's premiering next March. It takes place in an Indian temple—you know, this Oriental fantasy, India. It features blackface, a lot of really uncomfortable racial stereotypes, weird ideas about Buddhism and Hinduism, but ultimately it also contains really beautiful passages of music, the foundations of classical ballet, and is probably one of the best preserved classical ballets we have. 

As somebody who is a practitioner, I really feel like you can't push the boundaries of these art forms if you don't know where we've come from. You don't know what's cliche, what's been done before unless you actually can embody some of these works in the past—so, really having that root in history, but then able to look forward with it. 

So, instead of it being set in India, we're keeping the notation, the classical steps from the 1870s. We're keeping the music. We're giving it a little 1920s jazz treatment, and we're treating it like a 1920s Hollywood musical. So, it's like it's a Busby Berkeley musical, and it's dancing cowboys instead of sort of Oriental-Indians feel.