Nina Yoshida Nelsen on Racism and Representation in Opera

FA reckoning with Nina Yoshida Nelsen (mezzo-soprano singer of opera), has long been due. Nelsen was a fourth generation Japanese American who experienced a flash of clarity following the tragic shooting in Atlanta’s spa. Nelsen saw a pattern emerging in photos posted by opera companies on social media. Despite the diverse group of performers, which included multiracial Asian Americans of fifth generation, as well as artists who have traveled to America for work and artists from Asia, many of these singers were seen only playing Asian characters.

Nelsen considered her own career: over the course of more than a decade, she had performed in Giacomo Puccini’s Madama ButterflyHe had only been given non-Asian roles three times and was credited with casting more than 150 people. This realization both shocked and sobered her, prompting her to speak with other Asian performers in the industry, finding that many had had similar experiences of being pigeonholed in stereotypical roles (which often dealt in offensive caricatures) or being seen as the “other” and passed up for non-Asian lead roles.

Nelsen—the subject of a new TIME documentary, Beyond Butterfly, by TIME senior producer and filmmaker Diane Tsai—decided to not only seek new management but also advocate for her community by co-founding the Asian Opera Alliance in the summer of 2021. The organization was inspired by the Black Opera Alliance’s work and aims to support the Asian community as well as people of color in the industry while advocating for racial equality. “It’s time to make change,” Nelsen says in the film. “We should not be embarrassed of our identity. We should not be worried that all we’re ever going to sing is Asian roles.”

Classic opera has been plagued by racism and sexism since its inception. This is a historical European and white art form that relies on operas that have high esteem despite their racist stereotypes. Madama ButterflyAccording to the American Opera Research Center, the opera, which tells the story of Butterfly (15-year-old Japanese Geisha) who is sexually exploited and deceived before being abandoned by a US naval officer to her tragic end, was the most-produced in America since 2000. Opera America. OperabaseIt was the sixth-most-performed opera worldwide from 2008 through 2013.

Continue reading:A Long history of intertwined racism and misogyny leaves Asian women in America vulnerable to violence

For artists like Nelsen, however, there’s a bittersweet tension involved in taking part in productions like Madama ButterflyThe opera is about an Asian character but it also has a strong Western connection. The opera, born out of a white man’s fantasy of the Orient and the other, has long been critiqued for its reinforcement of persistent racist and sexist stereotypes of Asian women that cast them as submissive and sexually subservient, tropes that have proven to have dangerous real-life consequences.

It is important to note that the content of this opera was not included in its original production. Madama Butterfly has had a long history of yellowface (where non-Asian, usually white, performers play Asian characters using makeup and often relying on racist caricature), it’s also been one of the few operas that has consistently provided opportunities for Asian singers to take center stage as leads. As opera companies have grappled with how problematic classic operas reinforce harmful racial stereotypes in light of events like Black Lives Matter protests and the Atlanta shootings, some have considered doing away with performing the pieces all together—something that Nelsen firmly believes is not the answer, especially since it could undermine the very minimal, if flawed, representation that singers of Asian descent have in the industry.

“My first reaction was, ‘Well, that’s great that you’re trying to protect me,’” Nelsen says in the documentary. “But you’re also taking work away from me as someone who’s only offered Asian roles. And you’re also creating erasure of my face on a stage. Is it really doing any good to cancel this? Or are we creating more harm?”

Nelsen thinks that structural changes within the industry would be a better approach. She suggests consulting and hiring Asian creatives and artists for roles on stage and off to make sure that every production level, from casting and costuming to set and costuming is identity conscious. Nelsen believes the issue of Asian-specific pigeonholing could be addressed if Asian actors were treated equally for all roles.

“If you are hiring us for Madama Butterfly, then hire us for non-Asian identifying roles,” she tells Tsai. “We just want to see diversity on our stages. If you come to an opera and you only see white singers telling these stories, that’s not what our world looks like. If our stages don’t look like that, then we’re doing our world our disservice.”

Nelsen finds inspiration in the new operas and other productions. The following are some examples American DreamFor which she was part the original cast. She is the opera’s main character, which tells of a Japanese American family being sent to World War II incarceration camps. While workshopping the project ahead of its 2015 premiere, the composer and librettist wrote an aria for her based on an interview with Nelsen’s grandmother, who was the same age as the main character, Setsuko, when she was sent to a camp. For Nelsen, this was the first time she had heard stories about her grandmother’s incarceration, since many Japanese Americans have shied away from discussing this painful history. Her grandmother’s story, now immortalized in song, is one that Nelsen is committed to telling as the oldest living person in her family.

Nelsen enjoyed one of her best years in singing this year, despite the effects of the Asian Opera Alliance’s formation and the continuing pandemic. Nelsen booked 8 new roles (five of them not Asian-specific) and performed a variety of concerts. While appearing in, The following are some examples American DreamAnd again Madama ButterflyShe was also part in the premier of The RiftHuang Ruo’s new opera is accompanied by David Henry Hwang (the latter being well-known). M. Butterfly,A play cleverly inverts Madama ButterflyFor example, to tackle issues such as orientalism and gender. But Nelsen hasn’t lost sight of the larger need for change in her industry; it’s not lost on her that even after last season’s show of support and her much more diverse bookings, so far, she’s back to solely Asian-identified roles next season. She knows there’s so much more work to be done.

“This industry was not created for me,” she tells Tsai. “As a singer of color, an Asian American singer, there have not been tons of people who have come before me, but I can make sure there are a lot who come behind me. It’s my responsibility and privilege to be able to do that.”

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Send an email to Cady Lang at and Diane Tsai at


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