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Central City Opera Podcast

The Central City Opera Podcast introduces you to the movers and shakers of the Central City Opera Festival. Episodes feature interviews with principal and young artists, designers, directors, conductors, and other production staff.  The podcast is hosted and edited by Emily Murdock, Director of Education & Community Engagement at Central City Opera.

Season 7 features the productions of the 2022 Summer Festival: Guettel's THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA, Strauss' DIE FLEDERMAUS, and Heggie's TWO REMAIN. Make sure you're subscribed on your podcast app of choice to get the latest episodes delivered directly to your device.

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SHOW NOTES: Season 4, Ep. 8 - Japanese-American perspectives on MADAMA BUTTERFLY

Jul 26, 2019

“Stereotypes are really just habits of mind, and we have all been socialized and acculturated with [those stereotypes]. We all have stereotypes about people who are different from us. It’s what we do with that knowledge that matters.”
- Erin Yoshimura, leadership and diversity coach


“The WHY was more important to me than the perfected completion of the gesture.”
- Margaret Ozaki Graves, cultural consultant for CCO’s Madama Butterfly


Left to right: Erin Yoshimura, Gil Asakawa, and Margaret Ozaki Graves


Madama Butterfly is problematic. It’s an Italian opera, written by an Italian composer and Italian librettists, based on an American’s play, which was based on an American’s short story and a French semi-autobiographical novel. Puccini did source some of his melodic material from traditional Japanese folks songs and includes some approximation of Japanese words...but where is the actual Japanese perspective in this opera’s creation? It is, quite obviously, missing. 

Cultural appropriation is defined as “the act of adopting elements of an outside, often minority culture, including knowledge, practices, and symbols, without understanding or respecting the original culture and context.” (Click here for the full run-down on cultural appropriation, complete with examples.) Madama Butterfly is, by its very nature, cultural appropriation, and if opera companies want to keep this opera in their repertoire, they need to address this issue.

Central City Opera and the director of the 2019 production of Madama Butterfly, Alison Moritz, decided to confront that second half of the cultural appropriation definition, “without understanding or respecting the original culture and context,” by engaging a cultural consultant to work with the director, cast, and production personnel. Margaret Ozaki Graves, a Denver-based opera singer, was the perfect person for this role. She holds a Doctorate of Musical Arts degree in vocal performance with cognate studies in Japanese Aesthetics and Music from the Cincinnati College-Conservatory. I’ve included her commentary below, as well as a list of resources she provided to discover more about Japanese art, traditions, and history. 

On this episode, not only was I able to talk with Margaret about her thoughts on Madama Butterfly, but also with Denver locals Gil Asakawa and Erin Yoshimura. Gil is a journalist who runs a blog called Nikkei View - click here to read the blog - which is about popular culture and politics from a Japanese-American point of view. Erin Yoshimura was the Executive Director of the Colorado Dragon Boat Festival for seven years and now is a consultant who coaches clients on empowerful communication and cultural agility skills. Her company is called Empowerful Changes - click here to find out more. Erin and Gil are consulting with the Denver Center for the Performing Arts on the upcoming fall production of Miss Saigon, which is music theatre’s version of Madama Butterfly. (Click here for information on those performances.)

A few things that were mentioned during the episode:

The 19th annual Colorado Dragon Boat Festival is happening this weekend at Sloan’s Lake in Denver, July 27 & 28! Click here for more info. 

New York Times Op-Ed about needing more critics of color: “The Dominance of the White Male Critic,” published July 5, 2019. This is an important read when considering diversity in the arts from ALL angles. 

The 2010 Central City Opera production of Madama Butterfly featured Yunah Lee (Cio-Cio-San) and Mika Shigematsu (Suzuki). Yunah Lee is a Korean-born soprano who performs around the world, and Cio-cio-san is one of her signature roles. Learn more about Yunah on her website. Mika Shigematsu is a Japanese-born mezzo soprano who also performs worldwide in many roles. Read more about Mika on her website. 

We mentioned Raquel Gonzalez and Annie Rosen’s performances, and you can listen to their Central City Opera Podcast episode at this link to hear more about their experiences working with Margaret. 

This was a FASCINATING conversation - I learned so much, and I am so glad we were able to have it. May the conversations continue, and continue, and continue. Read on for more show notes and comments from Margaret.

Notes from Margaret Ozaki Graves:

Question: Considering the opera and all the ways it can be directed, what are your thoughts on Alison Moritz, our director’s decisions? Margaret, were there things that you wanted to be included or addressed that were not able to be done, and vice versa - were there things that you were able to have incorporated into Alison’s direction?

I have to say that I am a huge fan of Alison Moritz. I am really excited by new approaches to the problematic aspects of this work. One of the inherent issues of Butterfly is how to work against the stereotypical portrayal of the Asian female as weak and submissive. I was really moved to see how Alison showcased feminine strength through Butterfly and the portrayal of her relationships with the women in her life. When Butterfly is disowned, her mother has to be torn away. Butterfly and Suzuki demonstrate strength and independence as female family unit in this production; they create a life together, co-parenting Trouble and supporting each other equally. Raquel and Annie play this with such beautiful intimacy.

Japanese culture is full of detail and the aesthetics are a part of that. The combination of colors is meaningful, the style of dress, the hairstyles, the accessories are all meaningful and can be indicative of so many things. I gave a great deal of feedback on aesthetic aspects of the production, communicated what some of these choices would be implying and the artistic team worked to improve authenticity and the cultural messages they were communicating through their choices. We were all working with an existing production with a decidedly fantastical point of view and it was sometimes a challenge to find balance between honoring cultural authenticity and honoring the artistry of the original production.

Question: The United States has a long, long history of imperialism, colonization, and oppression of “others,” including Japanese-American internment camps during World War II. Colorado was home to one of those camps – the Granada Relocation Center – also known as “Amache” near Granada in the southeast corner of the state. I feel like there are parts of and themes within Madama Butterfly that make Americans, especially white Americans, confront that ugly history. What is the impact of the story for you as Japanese-Americans, and specifically Japanese-Americans involved in arts and cultural experiences?

As a Japanese-American working in the arts, particularly opera, I have often been the only Japanese- or Asian-American in the rehearsal room. It is important and essential for us to continue bringing attention to the very real dangers of “othering,” particularly because discrimination and fear-mongering of the minority can and has lead to the incarceration of entire groups of people—both historically and presently—simply for being outside of the majority. I have made the pilgrimage to Amache and played taiko there with Mirai Daiko, the all-female group I started with my sisters and cousin. I recently made a pilgrimage to Crystal City, Texas (where my father’s family was imprisoned) and sang and played taiko there with One World Taiko, my aunt and uncle’s group, for their ceremony of remembrance at the site where a young Japanese-Peruvian girl drowned during incarceration. My art has given me a voice to communicate about these things and a means to process the existing inter-generational trauma.

Recommended Reading:

A Vision of the Orient: Texts, Intertexts and Contexts of Madame Butterfly, ed. by J.L. Wisenthal, Sherrill Grace, Melinda Boyd, et. al.

This book analyzes Puccini’s opera—as well as the Balasco play, John Luther Long short story and Pierre Loti travelogue that inspired the character and plot—both favorably and not. Some chapters examine David Henry Hwang’s play, M. Butterfly, as a commentary upon the Asian tropes promoted through earlier renditions of the Butterfly story.

The Look of the Meiji Era:

Check out the woodblock prints of Toyohara “Yohshuh”** Chikanobu (1838-1912), particularly those of the 1890s, to see some of the influence of Western fashion and style. 

Meiji Era Haikara (high collar) and Romantica Men’s Fashion




Female Fashion with Western Influence in the Meiji Era


Operas on Japanese American Internment:

An American Dream

Music by Jack Perla

Lyrics by Jennifer Murphy Moo

Productions: Anchorage Opera (2019), Lyric Opera of Chicago (2017), Opera Maine (2017) Seattle Opera (2015, 2017)


The White Bird of Poston

Eli Villanueva, composer

Leslie Stevens, librettist

LA Opera has performed and toured this 45-min. children’s opera in a number of productions over the past decade.



History Colorado Center

The museum has an exhibit on Amache, the American concentration camp located in southeast Colorado.


DU Amache Project

The University of Denver Anthropology Department has an ongoing research project onsite at Amache and on exhibit at their museum. 


JA-NE Japanese Arts Network

A network for and about artistic collaboration and connection through Japanese-American and Japanese cultural arts. 

Current National Movements by JA Organizers

Insta: #tsuruforsolidarity

Twitter: @tsuruforsolidarity

Check out Densho or Tsuru for Solidarity for more information on the Japanese-American experience and the connection between historical and present day incarcerations on and near former Japanese-American incarceration sites.


Mile High JACL

The local chapter of the Japanese American Citizen’s League that Gil mentioned during the episode.