The Icelandic Opera’s ongoing production of Madama Butterfly is reinforcing harmful stereotypes of Asian people, local critics say. The opera, composed by Puccini in 1904, centres on the relationship between a white, US naval officer and a 15-year-old Japanese girl. The state-funded production has been accused of using yellowface and Chinese characters in its set design. Vísir reported first.
Laura Liu, a Chinese-American violinist in the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, was the first to publicly draw attention to the issue in a Facebook post. “When you wear another race as your costume that’s called dehumanization,” she wrote. Pictures of performers in the production show heavy face makeup, including painted-on black eyebrows and moustaches as well as black wigs. Many people of Asian origin assert that the characters used in the set design are Chinese rather than Japanese.
The production’s conductor, Levente Török, initially commented on Laura’s post, denying that the production contained racist elements. He later deleted his comment, but a screenshot remains available.
A state-funded production
Daniel Roh, a Korean-American stand-up comedian and teacher living in Iceland has published an open letter to the Icelandic Opera with suggestions on how the company could respond to the criticism with changes to the production and other constructive actions. He points out that the Icelandic Opera is funded in part by public money and that “Performing yellowface in such a big production funded by the state is dangerous. Racism is real and present in everyday Iceland.” Such public displays of racism “can lead to real harm and alienation,” Daniel added.
Daniel is organising a protest of the production at Harpa Concert Hall on Saturday afternoon at 6:30 PM. “There are three performances left, more than enough time to take off some wigs,” he wrote in his letter.
Stage director responds to criticism
The production’s stage director and set designer Michiel Dijkema responded to Laura’s post with a lengthy comment. According to Dijkema, those responsible for the production “have not attempted to change skin color or shape of the eyes to make the singers look Japanese, but we have used elements from theatre makeup of Japanese theatre forms such as “Noh” and “Kabuki” that according to Dijkema “makes the singers actually much whiter.” Dijkema asserted that he had asked “several friends and colleagues of Asian heritage if they would consider such an approach racist, which they didn’t.” As for the characters on the set, Dijkema insisted they were “Japanese Kanji characters” that are “mainly identical to Chinese characters.” Others in the comments, including Japanese individuals, have argued these assertions.
In his comment, Dijkema invited Laura to have a private conversation about the production. In response to Dijkema’s comment, Guðrún Helga Halldórsdóttir wrote: “[The Icelandic Opera] has received grants from the Icelandic government and therefore I ask of you to respect that this should be debated publicly and not to look at this as one on one debate between you and Laura Liu. The Opera is showing for the public, and we, a part of the public are upset and demand a change.”