It would be easy to label this production troubled: songs which, although beautiful in Chinese, did not translate smoothly into English; Chinese actors refusing to wear costumes they saw as inappropriate; even a controversy that led to a Chinese government directive to change the ending.
Yet to do so would be to undermine the importance of Cho Cho, a production that director Peter Wilson says is not only the first musical drama presented in both Chinese and English, but a metaphor for relations between East and West, for imperialist oppression of China, and the emergence of its new and co-operative relations with other nations.
"It was one of the most challenging works I have ever done," he says of this new music theatre production, incorporating puppets and based on Puccini's tragic Madame Butterfly. The show has runs planned in Sydney next week and then Melbourne the week after. "Its challenges lay at the very core of the bilingual aspect of the play."
It is the story of a young woman (Cio-Cio San in the original opera) longing for the return of Pinkerton, her American naval officer lover and the father of her child. Madame Butterfly was set in Japan, but Cho Cho relocates the story to 1930s Shanghai with Cho Cho a 15-year-old Chinese girl.
"The creation of the work is very much about the differences that exist in the story, between the Australians and the Chinese, the American and the Chinese, the destruction of the East by American imperialism and about misunderstandings of culture and unknowns and betrayal. It is very much about how our relationships work," says Wilson, an Australian whose credits include founding Handspan puppetry theatre in Melbourne in 1977, directing segments of the Sydney Olympics opening ceremony in 2000, and now creating a show for Apec (the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum) in Bali.
The production, which has surtitles, stars Australian musical theatre's Scott Irwin as Pinkerton, David Whitney and Danielle Barnes Irwin, with Chinese pop singer and actress Wang Zheng as Cho Cho, and Chinese musical veterans Dong Wenliang and Du He.
Supported by A$150,000 (about HK$1.8 million) from China's Ministry of Culture, it premiered in Beijing in January and Wilson described the team's 10 weeks there as a time of "raw emotions, of misunderstandings and cultural differences and actors wanting to understand each other".
Puppets are central to the work, in particular portraying Cho Cho's child, and 15-year-old Cho Cho in the second act, which is set three years after the first. "It is the essence of Cho Cho, but she is just this gorgeous, beautiful puppet, this wonderful girl that in the eyes of Pinkerton is the most beautiful person on earth," says the director.
"Cho Cho sings through her, remembering what it was like as a 15-year-old girl to meet this man."
Wilson says this meant he could stage powerful scenes impossible with real people - when Cho Cho is taken to bed by Pinkerton he not only removes her clothes but dismantles the puppet, piece by piece, until he makes love to only a mask. "The scene is disturbing and quite beautiful," the director says. "When we performed it in China people loved it, they were shocked, they had never seen anything like it and found it very strong."
But the ending, with Cho Cho suffocating her puppet child so Pinkerton could not have him, then killing herself, was too much for the Beijing audiences. "The puppet child is the essence of her kid and new life. When we snuff that life out it is devastating and powerful," Wilson says.
Says producer Wang Ziyin Gantner of production company Playking Productions: "The Chinese could not take in this, it became a big internet debate. We were surprised how many young girls sympathised with Pinkerton, we had a young girl say, 'I could not stop crying for two hours after the show', because she could not forget the last moments. People said, 'The Japanese woman [in Madame Butterfly] did not kill the child, how could the Chinese woman?' I had to tell Peter Wilson, 'In Japan you defend your honour, you can take your own life, it is glory, but in China it can easily be seen as cruelty'. For the mother to take her life, it is already extreme, and for the mother to take the life of the child, it is too much."
For the show's final China performances, at the Shenzhen International Arts Festival, Wang and Wilson were absent and the assistant director allowed the puppeteer to leave the stage with the child - "they did not kill the child".
"Certain things had to change, certain things were not approved of by the Chinese for future touring. China asked us not to do it again," Wilson says.
"I was against that notion, I was really strong on that notion that I did not want the ending to change," he says, despite noting that the playwright, Australian Daniel Keene, was willing.
"On reflection and looking at how Chinese culture works, it does not seem appropriate for the child to be smothered. She did not want Pinkerton to have the son and what was still important in Daniel's writing was he wanted to give the sense that Pinkerton has nothing. In the original story Pinkerton ends up with the child and Butterfly becomes the victim. Daniel did not want that.
"In the new ending they take the child away and there is a slight ambiguity - whether it meets Pinkerton, whether it survives."
This 85-minute, 25-song show is a comprehensively reworked production which began life as a puppet play, staged by Handspan in 1984. It has new music written by Cheng Jin, known in China for his work with pop stars.
The show is produced in co-operation with the National Theatre of China and will be presented in Melbourne with Art Centre Melbourne, and in Sydney with the Australian Chinese Performing Artists Association.
Wang, a Beijing Film Academy graduate and former child actor in China who has lived in Australia for 28 years, pushed for a bilingual production. She sees Cho Cho as two people talking about love with a completely different mindset, and "a tragedy caused because people cannot talk to each other".
Describing herself as "Chinese, English talking", she says language is not just about words but a way of thinking, "how you can form your ideas and communicate".
But despite Wang's own sister undertaking the translation, the production was challenging. As well as the issues with the puppet child and the music, the Chinese actors took exception to aspects of designer Richard Jeziorny's vision.
In particular, there were disputes over the costumes which they believed were not authentic 1930s Shanghai, including Du He protesting that her fur coat made her look like a Mongolian herdsman.
Says Wang: "Richard did a design that was more abstract, but in China because it is a period show, they hold so tightly [to] culture and history. I was the one who had to finally tell Richard that China will not allow this to happen." A Chinese costume expert was called in.
"I was quite confident and believed I could interpret everything that had been said, but then I realised you cannot just explain because you cannot help the other person to see what you see."