Opera Philadelphia

Puccini and the Romantic-Exoticism of Turandot

By Scott Nakamura, DMD

Giacomo Puccini, heir apparent to Giuseppe Verdi, was, by most accounts, not interested in politics and the world around him as Verdi was. Puccini was neither a conservative nor a revolutionary. Although he belonged to no musical clique and was generally indifferent to the musical trends of polytonality, neoclassicism, futurism, impressionism, and dodecaphony, he admired the music of Debussy’s Pellets et Melisande and Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. He once described himself as “a mighty hunter of wild fowl, opera librettos and attractive women.” The latter, on a few occasions, getting the composer into trouble. His admiration for women is mirrored in his creation of multi-dimensional heroines like Tosca, Mimi, and Manon and places them squarely into situations that are in line with verismo tradition; at the same time giving them some of the most beautifully melodic arias such as “Un bel di”, “O mio babbino caro” , and “Si mi chiamamo Mimi.” However at the core, Puccini was a master of dramatic form and the theater. He once told a friend: “Almighty God touched me with his little finger and said ‘Write for the theater—mind, only for the theater. And I have obeyed the supreme command.” (3)

Puccini’s musical and dramatic style stem from the Romantic movement. This movement represents a departure from the strict classical forms of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Composers of the Romantic Era and beyond strove to place the expression of emotional intensity at the forefront, and began to experiment with tonal combinations and instruments thereby creating a varied harmonic language. Now composers were better able to weave folk songs and dances not only from their native lands, but also from exotic lands into their music. (6) We can hear this in pieces such as the Bacchanale from Saint-Saen’s Samson et Dalilah or the Dance of the Seven Veils from Strauss’ Salome, both of which influenced movie composers of the Biblical epics from the 60’s and 70’s. Composers were now able to not only transport the listener to foreign and exotic/romantic lands, but also move them to greater emotional heights through music. Additionally, with the growing interest in the East and Orientalism, one can understand why we see pieces such as Thais, Lakme, The Pearl Fishers, and of course, Madama Butterfly and Turandot.

Undeniably, Puccini was a master of the operatic form. For Puccini, the musical tonality from the Romantic Era was well suited for him as he rode the wave of verismo opera. One need only compare the deaths of Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata and Mimi in Puccini’s La Boheme. Although both are dying of consumption, for the listener, the emotional heartbreak seems greater for Mimi. Through music, Puccini was also able to place us in Nagasaki at the turn of the century in Butterfly, and ancient fabled Peking in Turandot. He was a perfectionist who paid close attention to detail and authenticity in both his librettos and music. In Butterfly, woven into the musical tapestry, Puccini uses the popular Japanese folk song “Sakura, Sakura”. In Turandot, despite its fairy-tale East Asian setting, Puccini not only prominently utilizes a Chinese Imperial Hymn, but also utilizes the Chinese lullaby “Sian chok” as the basis for Liu’s “Signore ascolta” as well as the Chinese folk tune “Moh-li-hua” (“Jasmine Flower”) as the basis for the musical motif for Turandot; which is in sharp contrast to her outward appearance as being an “ice princess”. However, in both Turandot and Butterfly, Puccini takes full advantage of the pentatonic harmonies commonly found in traditional Asian music. (2)

The theatric tradition known as commedia dell’arte, which dates as far back to 16th century Italy, is also utilized as a foundation in operas. Characters of the commedia represent stock characters, such as foolish old men, devious servants, or the lady’s maid, and were in ordinary dress with masks. Often referred to as ‘masks’, these characters were used to create a laugh within the drama. However, according to today’s standards, many of these characters may raise some protestations from the modern audience, for they often play to ethnic stereotypes. Contemporary productions need to pay close attention as to how these traditional relics of the theater are executed today. We see this in characters such as the Turk Osmin in Die Entfuhrung aus rem Serail, the Moor Monastatos in Die Zauberflote, and the ministers Ping, Pang, and Pong in Turandot. However, it is clear that Puccini struggled with how much importance the commedia dell’arte ‘masks’ were going to be allowed in the opera. In a letter to his librettist Giuseppe Adami, Puccini writes:

“Immediately on the receipt of your express letter today, I wired to you an a first impulse, advising the exclusion of the masks. But I do not wish this impulse of mine to influence you and your intelligence. It is just possible that by retaining them with discretion we should have an Italian element which, in the midst of so much Chinese mannerisms — because that is what it is — will introduce a touch of our life and, above all, of sincerity.” (5)

During the years Puccini was composing Turandot (1920-1924), China was undergoing a period where the control of the country was divided among its military factions. This period between 1916 and 1928, was known as the Warlord Era. Due to instability in the region from the opium trade, China fell under the influence of most of the major world powers; Britain, France, Germany, Russia, Japan, and (to a lesser extent) America. As a result, until the end of the 20th century, Turandot was banned in the People’s Republic of China because the government felt the opera portrayed China unfavorably. Although the fantasized China imagined by Puccini in Turandot is one based on Western perceptions, we know he had made a conscious effort to “avoid negative racial stereotypes that placed Europeans at the perceived pinnacle of human and social evolution”. What brings this imagined fable and it’s culture into the realm of reality for the observer, is the story’s underlying themes of love, redemption and self-sacrifice, all of which are common to the human experience irrespective of race or culture, coupled with music that reflects a sense of place and heightens the emotional impact. (4)

Puccini’s Turandot, based on the 1762 commedia dell’arte play written by Carlo Gozzi, later translated and re-interpreted to fit the Romantic movement in 1801 by Friedrich Schiller, was based on a Persian tale called Turan-Dokht, or the daughter of Turan, from the epic Haft Peykar (The Seven Beauties) written by the 12th century poet Nizami. Turan consists of the region in Central Asia, known today as the area occupied by the Turks. Puccini’s musical rendition of this tale is not the first. In 1809, Carl Maria von Weber had composed incidental music to accompany Schiller’s play. Then in 1867, Antonio Bazzini, who taught Puccini at the Milan Conservatory, composed the opera Turanda. As an accompaniment to a production of Gozzi’s play, 1905 saw the first performance of Ferrucio Busoni’s Turandot Suite, which he later expanded into an opera which premiered in 1917. It is believed that Puccini, upon hearing of Busoni’s suite, prompted him to work on his own version.

Performances of Puccini’s Turandot require a dramatic soprano of vocal power and stamina, not unlike the Heldensopran found in Wagner operas; compared to the spinto sopranos needed for roles such as Butterfly, Tosca, and Manon. Opera companies scour the globe looking for qualified singers to perform these roles, often times resulting in the casting of Western performers who end up being made up in “yellow-face” to fit their Asian roles. Similar to the opposition voiced by the African American community with “black-face”, many in the Asian American community have raised their voices in opposition to “yellow-face”. As much as opera companies try to present ethnically appropriate productions, finding a qualified Asian dramatic soprano today is nearly impossible.

In the 1996 film version of Madama Butterfly, Chinese coloratura soprano Ying Huang played Butterfly. However she commented that she would probably never sing Butterfly on stage. Saying that, “It’s not right for my kind of voice. It works in a recording studio, but I have a small voice, one that carries through technique, one that’s better for Rossini, Bellini, Mozart. I shouldn’t push my voice.” Additionally, Korean soprano Hei-Kyung Hong commented, “A lot of Oriental sopranos have ruined their voices singing Butterfly.” “I have had offers for Butterfly from the beginning, but I know my voice and I prefer to move carefully. I made it very clear that I do not, and I cannot.” Unfortunately until such time when the world produces another Tamaki Miura (1884-1946) or Yoko Watanabe (1953-2004), Asian sopranos will continue to be relegated to perform Liu, while Butterfly and Turandot are performed by Western sopranos in “yellow face” makeup.

In general however, we are slowly beginning to see in the 21st century, a trend toward the elimination of negative ethnic stereotypes in opera, most effectively seen in the recent Met production of Otello, where Aleksandrs Antonenko performed Otello sans “black-face”. Hopefully, this trend continues and we see productions of Aida performed the same way. Addressing a single ethnically specific character within an opera is much different when all the characters within an opera are of the same ethnicity. Situations such as this present an increasingly precarious line opera companies must tread today when presenting works like Turandot, Butterfly, or Pearl Fishers. In the case of Butterfly, which is set in a very specific time and place, productions have very little latitude as to altering the setting. Although we may see stylized productions of turn of the century Nagasaki, personally, as a Japanese American, it fails to make sense and detracts from the overall production. While the setting of an ancient fairy tale Peking in Turandot would allow for some latitude, if not culturally cognizant, a production can easily fall into the abyss of cultural insensitivity. There will always remain a danger of presenting Eastern culture through Western eyes.


Scott Nakamura, DMD is a fourth generation Japanese-American. He currently serves as Philadelphia Chapter President and Eastern District Governor of the Japanese American Citizens’ League, one of the oldest and largest non-profit Asian American civil rights advocacy organizations in the United States, dedicated to secure and safeguard the civil and human rights of Asian and Pacific Islander Americans and all communities which are affected by injustice and bigotry.

Reference Sources

  1. The Penguin Opera Guide; edited by Amanda Holden; 1993
  2. Puccini: A listener’s guide; John Bell Young; 2008
  3. The Lives of the Great Composers; Harold Schonberg; 1970
  4. Turandot: Backstory and cultural notes; Opera Utah; 2014
  5. The Complete Operas of Puccini: A critical guide; Charles Osborne; 1981
  6. The Enjoyment of Music; Joseph Machlis; 1963

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