Racial Stereotypes in the Icelandic Opera

Daniel Roh skrifar

The state-funded Icelandic Opera has staged a production of “Madama Butterfly” from March 4- March 26. Written and composed by Puccini in 1904, this work centers around the relationship between a white US Naval officer and a 15-year old Japanese girl that he impregnates.

The production has been received with vocal criticism by many Asian people living in Iceland. Their claims are that yellowface (the act of making white actors appear asian by means of wigs, make-up and costume) are harmful and perpetuate dangerous stereotypes. A production funded by the state should have no part in retelling a racist narrative.

The conductor and stage-director/set-designer have replied and dismissed the possibility of any changes to repair the situation. Many of those that originally raised the alarm feel that the conductor and stage-designer are the wrong individuals to spearhead this controversial production. They lack the understanding and lived experience to address such complicated topics of racism in this regard.

It is worth noting that to the author’s knowledge, no individuals on the Creative Team on this production are people of Asian descent.

While it may be an odd approach, the author of this article would like to address the Icelandic Opera as an organization.

Dear Icelandic Opera Company,

Hi! My name is Dan Roh. I’m a Korean-American stand-up comedian and a teacher here in Iceland. As an Asian person living in Iceland I have to let you know that your production of Madama Butterfly in its current form is upholding dangerous racial stereotypes. But you have the power to change that.

So, you screwed up. We all screw up. A whole lot of your white actors were dressed up in Yellowface. They had pulled-up eyebrows, thin mustaches, and jet-black wigs. In a picture circling social media, they are seen squinting their eyes pretty hard while holding Japanese beer. Their dedication to the craft of acting is unmatched.

Your conductor also seemed to suggest that the yellowface is not offensive as the actor playing the main role is a Korean woman.

Although it is delightful to see a woman of color highlighted, the conductor’s hope that her “Koreanness” would transform the Icelandic actors into people of Japanese descent, has not, in fact, been realized. I do not blame the actors, especially the Korean singer. Actors need to work and the decision making power lies with others.

Your stage director has replied and offered only justifications and no commitments to change.

In my opinion, there are generally two options when you make this kind of mistake. Option one, you own up to it and try to make it right. Two, you refuse to apologize, you double-down, and you try to down-play and discredit those that you have hurt.

In my personal opinion, here are some things that would be helpful in solving the situation.

Take off the racist wigs, the degrading make-up and the funny little mustaches. Maybe tell your actors they don’t have to squint so much.

Change the background or provide context to the audience before the show.

Publicly apologize and make an official statement. By the way, leave out the phrase “for those we may have offended,” in the statement, please. You already have offended many people.

Meet with Asians in Iceland and see how your decisions have hurt us. Listen to how dehumanizing and making costumes out of real people and cultures lends itself to othering of Asian people around the world and here in Iceland.

Hold a forum for White Icelanders and explain context and the dangers of yellowface.

The Creative Team of the Icelandic Opera’s “Madama Butterfly” have until now chosen option two. While disappointing, it is not wholly surprising.

Now, to be perfectly serious. Performing yellowface in such a big production funded by the state is dangerous. Racism is real and present in everyday Iceland. If the state-funded Icelandic Opera is proud to display yellowface, would parents not feel more assured in dressing their children up in yellowface costumes for Oskudagur, or for dress-up days in High School? Make no mistake, these are racist actions.

What you perform and display matters. These choices say that seeing Asian people as costumes and props is acceptable. The new generation of Asians in Iceland should not have to grow up with squinty eye jokes. Those jokes can lead to real harm and alienation. You can send a message that your organization does not condone this treatment of Asian Icelanders.

So we’ll be at Harpa on Saturday with a couple signs. I might have a couple friends with me. There are three performances left, more than enough time to take off some wigs.


Daniel Roh

The author is a teacher living in Iceland.

Athugið. Vísir hvetur lesendur til að skiptast á skoðunum. Allar athugasemdir eru á ábyrgð þeirra er þær rita. Lesendur skulu halda sig við málefnalega og hófstillta umræðu og áskilur Vísir sér rétt til að fjarlægja ummæli og/eða umræðu sem fer út fyrir þau mörk. Vísir mun loka á aðgang þeirra sem tjá sig ekki undir eigin nafni eða gerast ítrekað brotlegir við ofangreindar umgengnisreglur.



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