BY DIRECTOR ALISON MORITZ

IN 1853, JAPAN’S DOORS WERE OPENED TO THE WEST for the first time in over two centuries, and Western audiences were captivated by their first glimpses of Japanese culture. This booming trend of “orientalism” coincided with another major cultural phenomenon — the invention of the photograph.

Madama Butterfly (2019). Directed by Alison Moritz, Photo by Amanda Tipton.

Within a decade, Western photographers had arrived to document and stage visions of Japan for their growing audiences back home. Italian photographer Felice Beato was one of the most famous of these enterprising artists. He and his workshop produced hundreds of hand-tinted landscapes and genre scenes, beginning with Nagasaki. In fact, the photographs themselves represent a blending of Eastern and Western culture and technology. The delicate process that Beato and his assistants used for coloring their photos was directly inspired by the hand painting of Japanese watercolor and woodblock artists.

“In many ways, I see Puccini’s beautiful opera Madama Butterfly as the theatrical equivalent of Beato’s staged Japanese photos.”

Print by Felice Beato (Henry and Nancy Rosin Collection of Early Photography of Japan).

In many ways, I see Puccini’s beautiful opera Madama Butterfly as the theatrical equivalent of Beato’s staged Japanese photos. Here we have two Italian gentlemen interpreting Eastern culture through the lens of Western art. In many ways, verismo opera and the nascent art form of photography share similar qualities — both forms were promoted as more immediate, more “true to life” than their antecedents.

While we cannot ignore the romanticizing intervention of the Western gaze, there remains something true and essential about today’s subject and her story. People like Butterfly and Pinkerton really existed. Just like us, they struggled, caught against the cusp of modernity and uncertain in the face of social and cultural change.

This article is an excerpt from the 2019 Festival program book.