In the world of opera, audiences must constantly suspend their disbelief. The fairy tale–like plots of many operas are surreal and wildly improbable. Characters often change their motivations and loyalties to lovers, family and country at the drop of a hat, or merely because they are seduced and lulled by another character’s forcefully passionate singing.

Even within this fantastic milieu, one of the most problematic and least realistic operas has long been composer Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, which undergoes a serious makeover in an intriguing new co-production by Pacific Opera Project and Houston’s Opera in the Heights that opens on Saturday, April 6, at the Aratani Theatre in Little Tokyo.

In the 1904 libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, the opera’s title character, a 15-year-old Japanese girl known as Cio-Cio-san, falls in love with B.F. Pinkerton, a U.S. Navy lieutenant who is temporarily stationed in Nagasaki. Even though the mismatched couple quickly marry, the callous Pinkerton doesn’t take the marriage or Cio-Cio-san very seriously, and he ends up sailing back to America, where he marries another woman, Kate, whom he considers to be a more respectable, genuine bride. What Pinkerton doesn’t know is that, in his absence, Madama Butterfly has given birth to their son, a child named Sorrow. Tragedy inevitably ensues when the lieutenant comes back to Japan with his new wife and only belatedly acknowledges all the heartbreak he’s caused.

Up until the end, Cio-Cio-san remains steadfast in her blind faith in Pinkerton, searching the horizon daily for a puff of smoke that indicates that his ship has finally returned to the Nagasaki harbor. When she sings “Un bel dì vedremo” (“One fine day we shall see”), her naiveté is genuinely heartbreaking, thanks to Puccini’s gorgeous melody in one of opera’s most memorable arias. But, as beautiful as the music is, Illica and Giacosa’s libretto is ignorant at best in its stereotypical reductions of Japanese history and culture.

For Pacific Opera Project artistic director Josh Shaw, the opera’s flaws go beyond its considerable cultural insensitivity and extend toward a matter of basic lack of logic in the story’s overall setup. “Ten years ago, I was singing Pinkerton somewhere for the second or third time and thought, ‘Wait a minute. How are we listening to each other?,’” he says about two characters from such different backgrounds. “These guys can’t talk to each other. It’s so ingrained in us. In Madama Butterfly, we don’t think about what it would really be like as they talk to each other. When I’ve played Pinkerton and directed Madama Butterfly, he’s a brash, I’m-in-charge-of-the-world kind of guy. But if you can’t communicate, you can’t have that swagger.”

Shaw decided that the only way to tell the story honestly was by letting the opera’s various characters sing in their native languages, which required a translation of the original Italian libretto into both Japanese and English. “I knew it would be a very expensive and difficult project,” he says by phone while loading steel decks in Boyle Heights for the production (“my favorite pastime,” he jokes).

He enlisted the help of Opera in the Heights artistic director Eiki Isomura, who co-wrote the translated libretto with Shaw and will conduct the orchestra and chorus in the world premiere of the new production at the Aratani Theatre. “Eiki wrote the Japanese sections, and I wrote the English,” Shaw says. “This was painstakingly translated into a version that’s singable. Every day is a new world for me right now. Every day, we’re tweaking it in rehearsal.”

Discussing the Japanese-American conductor, Shaw says, “I think Eiki has perfectly avoided doing Madama Butterfly for years because he wasn’t sure what to do with it. He shied away from this because he wasn’t sure how he could do it and feel good about it with the stereotypes and misconceptions that Puccini has about Japanese culture.”

Credit: Mike Tomasulo

Credit: Mike Tomasulo

Madama Butterfly is a piece that I’d never taken on outside of just coaching it or as a staffer on other productions,” Isomura, 37, says in a separate phone interview. “I’ve adored the music, but it’s a complex piece, a problematic piece. Josh’s idea to present it in a bilingual fashion had never occurred to me, and I was very excited by the idea. I think everything that has motivated his choices was a more realistic telling of the story. He has placed such a strong emphasis on portraying the culture and interactions that is accurate. That’s a tricky proposition, of course, because the source material is uninformed in its conflation of Buddhism and Shintoism. There are all these names [in Puccini’s opera] that are unfamiliar to Japanese people — they sound made-up.”

How difficult was it translating the original Italian libretto and making it fit musically in two different languages? “It was hugely challenging,” Isomura admits. “I can’t overstate that. With issues of word order, if you have a long phrase with one continuous thought, do I do what sounds honest in the language? Do I put myself in the shoes of the character or do I put myself in the shoes of the composer? There were difficult choices between honoring the culture, honoring the character and honoring the music. At every corner, there were these dilemmas, such as picking vowels and consonants that are more user-friendly for the singers.”

“It sounds very natural to me,” Shaw says. “Occasionally, there’s an extra pickup note or half notes divided in half.”

“It has been really, really intense,” Isomura says. “Josh Shaw is this incredible force who can do everything. He can design and build. He used to be a singer so he can empathize with singers. … I had known about his work from hearing about it from singers I’ve worked with. We all have the same friends; the opera world is very small.”

In the past, Shaw has earned a reputation for irreverently transforming classic operas into modern comic variations, such as Mozart’s The Abduction From the Seraglio, which he rewrote as if it were an episode of Star Trek. More recently, Pacific Opera Project staged a version of Mozart’s The Magic Flute in which Shaw and co-librettist E. Scott Levin set the action inside of a 1980s video game. But for Madama Butterfly, Shaw and Isomura were faithful to the original libretto, apart from translating it into English and Japanese. “That’s the crux of the whole production, loyalty to what was written,” Shaw says. “For me, there was no temptation to change anything. I want to tell the story in the most compelling way so people can make up their own minds. I think it’s going to be very eye-opening.”

“The concept set us up to bring a lot more nuances even though we’re staying close to the source material in the development of the plot,” Isomura says. “For me, this is kind of an important part of the performance history of this piece, to go about it with new eyes and ears and heighten awareness of the piece and make people want to engage with it more mindfully.”

Credit: Mike Tomasulo

Credit: Mike Tomasulo

Shaw and Isomura’s attention to detail extended beyond the libretto to the production design, costumes, the cast and the venue. What was the reaction when the duo proposed staging their production in the heart of Little Tokyo to the staff at the Aratani Theatre? “The first thing they said was ‘Madama Butterfly?!,’ but when they heard the concept, they loved it,” Shaw says.

“We had the shared goal of making things more realistic to reclaim the story to an extent,” Isomura says.

In another twist, the Japanese characters are largely portrayed by Japanese-American singers. The American roles are filled by such white vocalists as tenor Peter Lake as Pinkerton, whereas Cio-Cio-san is played alternately by Australian-Japanese soprano Janet Todd and Japanese-American soprano Keiko Clark.

“When we started the project, we never thought we could get all Japanese-American artists. We turned over every stone, searching Facebook. Almost all the casting came from digging and digging,” Shaw says. “It’s one of the most difficult projects I’ve ever done. We were lucky to find so many great Japanese-American performers. I have 40 advisers in the room at all time,” he adds about the large chorus, which features Japanese-American vocalists from the South Bay Singers. “If they say it’s OK, it’s OK.”

“The orchestra will be 23 players, and the chorus is very large, a lot more than I ever expected,” Isomura says. “It is ambitious, but we allowed ourselves to dream a little bigger.”

“What you see onstage is real. These aren’t costumes. That’s authenticity you can’t fake,” Shaw says of costume designer Sueko Oshimoto’s extravagant kimonos. “But at the end of the day, we’re just playing dress-up.”

Aratani Japan America Theatre, 244 S. San Pedro St., Little Tokyo; Sat., April 6 & 13, 7 p.m.; Sun., April 14, 2 p.m.; $15-$75. (213) 680-3700,

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