A Fringe opera production of Madam Butterfly has raised fresh accusations of “yellowface” and been criticised for “denying opportunities to a marginalised community” by having an all-white cast.
Opera Loki’s production of Puccini’s work – Madam Butterfly – ran Upstairs at the Gatehouse in London from September 26 to 29, following a tour of France.
Industry figures including actor and playwright Daniel York, actor Mei Mac and artistic director of Actors Touring Company Matthew Xia have criticised the production on social media, branding it “literal racism”.
However, Opera Loki has denied the accusations of yellowface and argued that “the intention of this production was certainly not to be racist”.
York posted on Twitter: “Madam Butterfly casts one of the biggest and most persistent racial tropes in the history of popular culture and white people donning geisha make-up and inappropriately worn cultural dress to perform it is literal #yellowface which is racism.”
Mac argued the opera should be cast with an all East Asian cast or not at all.
She tweeted: “Yellowface is racist. Understand your source material: Madam Butterly is based on the hugely racist Madame Chrysanthème – to stage this opera you must subvert the racist foundation on which the opera is written.”
Xia added that the opera company was being “archaic in its thinking”.
A spokeswoman for British East Asians in Theatre and Screen – an advocacy group that campaigns for equality for British East Asians in theatre, film and television – said: “The practice of yellowface in Opera Loki’s production of Madam Butterfly is completely tone deaf and has no place on our stages today.”
Speaking on behalf of the organisation, actor Jennifer Lim added: “It not only blatantly ignores the current ongoing conversation around diversity and onstage representation, but reinforces the false narrative that there aren’t any East Asian performers in the UK and continues to deny opportunities to a marginalised community.”
Artistic director at Opera Loki, Jane Gray, told The Stage the “negative response” had been a “shock” and had upset the cast.
“The review that started the comments referred to one of our singers having a ‘yellowface’. This performer was wearing a foundation that matched her skin colour. We did use a slightly peach light on the London venue (one of seven venues) but only to create a warm, daylight scene,” she said.
She added: “The other Japanese character had geisha makeup for the first act only and both characters wore authentic kimonos and where possible we used Japanese props.”
Gray argued the production had not intended to be racist and claimed “many social media posts have been made by people with other agendas, including rival opera companies”.
She added: “We do understand that opera in the UK is often limited to those who have grown up with money to enable singing lessons and music college tuition – it can be seen as elitist.
“We support any attempts to widen participation of minority groups or any group underrepresented on the world’s opera stage but do not accept this judgement of racism.”
In 2017, Music Theatre Wales was accused of “yellowface” casting for an opera set in a Chinese takeaway featuring Caucasian actors.
This followed protests in 2016 outside west London venue the Print Room at the Coronet, which came under fire for casting Caucasian actors in a play set in China and featuring Chinese characters.