Opera Philadelphia

Turandot: Time to call it quits on Orientalist Opera?

By Rob Buscher, Festival Director of Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival

As contemporary audiences become increasingly sophisticated in their ability to discern negative ethnic stereotyping and inherent gender bias, one has to wonder at what point do we retire a problematic piece?

Many prominent opera pieces, including Turandot, contain outdated gender roles, blatant misogyny, and problematic racial stereotypes. Opera Philadelphia’s production sparked recent controversy over the use of yellowface makeup in promotional videos advertising their current production. While they have been willing to accommodate specific concerns of the Asian American community who objected to the inclusion of offensive stereotypes, there are larger issues at the core of this opera that the community takes issue with.

To provide a better understanding of the problematic aspects that are central to the opera’s plot and why members of the community find it offensive, I offer the following critique. I want to acknowledge that this critique is not specific to Opera Philadelphia’s production, but rather to Puccini’s opera as it is written.

Italian composer Giacomo Puccini composed Turandot in 1920-1924, at a time when few Westerners had the privilege of traveling to China. Having never visited China himself, Puccini’s fictitious imagination of the exoticized setting is inspired by Orientalist fantasies and appropriation of Asian culture. The character design and plot draw heavily from pervasive negative stereotypes used to maintain European perceptions of racial and cultural superiority meant to justify colonial subjugation in that era.

Puccini’s Orientalist opera contains many offensive stereotypes against Chinese, which I will delve into later, but first I will examine his misogynistic attitude toward women through the titular character Turandot.

From the outset Turandot is known as an ice queen, beautiful but deadly, killing her suitors because of her hatred of men. In fact the entire plot is derived from the pact she made her father the emperor take, allowing her to kill any would-be suitor who fails to answer her three riddles.

Powerful women will tell you that perhaps their biggest management challenge is responding to constant attempts to undermine their leadership. According to a recent poll by Forbes Magazine, the number one stereotype most frequently attributed to female executives is that they are ice queens. This stereotype unfairly suggests that the only way a woman can rise to power is by being cutthroat, ruthless, uncaring, and unreasonable - looking out for her own self interest above that of her employees or the company as a whole.

Yet in most cases men are celebrated for the very same traits that powerful women are derided for. We use phrases like “looking out for number 1” and “nice guys finish last” or euphemisms such as go-getter, alpha, and top dog. Princess Turandot is a classic example of a powerful woman who fulfils the archetype used to undermine strong female leaders as unqualified and undesirable.

Compounding Turandot’s portrayal as an ice queen is the ethnic specific stereotype of the “dragon lady”, an overused trope dating back to the silent film era in which Asian women are portrayed as beautiful but cruel and deadly. Similar to the ice queen trope, dragon lady has a special significance for Asian American women. Labels and stereotypes such as these contribute to and actively perpetuate pervasive gender inequality in contemporary society.

After introducing Turandot as a dragon lady Puccini then mocks and trivializes her, suggesting she is a weak leader for not accepting her fate to marry Prince Calaf after he correctly answers the three questions to win her hand. Turandot’s icy and powerful demeanor melts to that of a scared child, begging father not to make her honor the marriage pact. Turandot composes herself when Calaf wagers his life and begins scheming how she can discover his identity by sunrise. I should also point out that Calaf and the other suitors before him are not loving, but instead lusting after Turandot for her physical beauty, demonstrating the objectification of women within the opera’s worldview.

Perhaps the most egregiously offensive scene is the one in which Turandot submits to Calaf’s forced advances. Despite ardent protests to their betrothal and physical resistance to Prince Calaf as he forces Turandot to kiss him, she eventually succumbs to his advances. Immediately after Turandot is a changed woman, claiming to love Calaf. How does a woman who despises men to the point of killing dozens of them as revenge for the tragedy wrought upon her ancestor, suddenly lose her entire sense of self and fall madly in love with the man who physically forced himself upon her?

This reinforces a common misogynistic belief that women are objects to be conquered and resistance is part of the game. “Conquest is what you sought here, now it is yours” is the English translation of the words that Turandot speaks during this scene. Aside from being a highly unrealistic outcome, this penultimate scene affirms rape-behavior as something that will not only be tolerated, but also rewarded.

Throughout the opera, Turandot is portrayed as a fickle and foolish woman ruled by her emotions while also invoking dragon lady and submissive Asian woman stereotypes at different points in the story. I cannot think of a single other female character in a mainstream film, television show, or stage play that portrays women in such a distasteful and misogynistic way as Puccini has.

A common argument in support of this opera is that within the context of the art form, the audience accepts it as fantasy. I concede that much of art is fantasy, but is it not based in reality?

Giacomo Puccini.

As a filmmaker having conducted extensive research in media literacy and all forms of narrative storytelling, I challenge the notion that Puccini and others of his ire were somehow above the spirit of their times. All artists are products of their environment and Puccini lived in an era where misogyny and racism were commonplace. Why should contemporary opera companies, or audiences for that matter, assume that his work is untainted by these elements?

It also begs to question: how many opera aficionados are familiar with the history of colonization in China?

By the time Puccini wrote his opera in 1924, nearly two-thirds of the total landmass of current day China was under so-called spheres of influence by European, American, and Japanese imperial powers. China had been weakened by foreign intervention for over a century, with formal territorial concessions in place some 85 years since the First Opium War began in 1839. With blessings from their government, British merchants flooded the Chinese market with opium to profit from addiction and intentionally destabilize society. When the Chinese government tried to intervene in the interest of their people the British actually went to war over it. Thus began European colonial concessions in China.

Colonial concessions granted foreign governments power over commerce, legal jurisdiction on Chinese territory, unilateral control of trade tariffs, and unrestricted Christian missionary presence. If a foreign national committed a crime against a Chinese local, it was the foreign government’s decision whether or not to prosecute. Once mighty China had been reduced to a tributary state, and a culture formerly regarded as a European equal was openly mocked as inferior. Any guise of sovereignty was summarily eradicated while tensions between rival factions in China prevented the Chinese from unifying against foreign intervention.

This caused a terrible economic disaster for the people of China, but the human cost associated with colonization through the Chinese Coolie Trade was far worse. This practice became rife during the second half of the 19th century as Chinese coolie workers replaced hard labor jobs left vacant after the African Slave Trade was abolished in Europe, and later the United States. Many laborers were either taken against their will or tricked into contracts from which they could never escape. To say that Puccini was ignorant to the reality of China’s position in the world and in relation to Europe is both unrealistic and irresponsible from the perspective of a historian.

Negative stereotypes have always existed, but they became increasingly important in defining colonial relationships and were used to reinforce the racial hierarchy that European imperialism perpetuated. By distancing themselves from, and dehumanizing their non-white colonial subjects, the European public accepted the atrocities their governments committed against people who were perceived as lesser beings because of their skin color or eye shape.

As admirers of art we must be mindful of the history behind the pieces we celebrate. D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation is one of the early triumphs of Hollywood cinema, yet it glorifies the Klu Klux Klan as saviors of honest government who restored order in the post Civil War South. In spite of its blatant bigotry, film historians and media studies professors continue using this film for educational purposes based on the artistic merit of its innovative film technique. They also openly acknowledge the extremely problematic aspects within this film as products of that bygone era. We can be critical of something while also appreciating it as art; these are not mutually exclusive concepts. If we are to continue admiring the beauty of classical theater, should we not also acknowledge problematic aspects within it?

Turandot and other plays from the Orientalist canon differ from historically racist cinema because film exists in perpetuity. We study film as a primary source derived within the era in which it was produced because it will never change from its original state. A film produced in 1924 is the same film when watched in 2016. In the case of problematic films that use blackface, yellowface, and other negative ethnic stereotypes, we can still appreciate them from this historic context. However, a contemporary film production company could never justify a remake that included openly racist elements from the original.

Somehow problematic theater pieces continue being produced faithful to their original stage plays by contemporary theater companies, largely unaware that they are perpetuating negative stereotypes inherent within. Perhaps this case is unique to theater because pieces are traditionally performed as they are written. But the suggestion that eliminating problematic racist or misogynistic aspects might compromise the integrity of a piece is no longer a defensible argument in 2016.

As patrons of the arts we must challenge our theater companies to critically engage in conversations like these. If companies insist on staging productions such as Turandot they must acknowledge the problematic aspects and frame the production as a relic from a bygone era. We as audience members should also demand that our theater companies reinterpret these pieces according to contemporary standards of social equality. If not, we condone their role in perpetuating these negative stereotypes and greater systemic inequalities.

We ask that our athletes, politicians, celebrities, educators, and journalists be held to a certain moral standard of accountability regarding implicit bias within their work. Is it really too much to ask the same from our artists?

About the Author: Rob Buscher, Festival Director of Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival, is a film and media specialist who has worked in many aspects of film including production, administration and distribution. Due in part to his biracial Japanese American heritage, Rob’s expertise is Japanese, East Asian, and Asian American Cinema. Some of his career highlights include co-founding Zipangu Fest - the UK’s premier Japanese Film Festival, co-hosting and programming Philadelphia Japan Arts Matsuri Tohoku Earthquake charity film festival and creating the Japanese Cinema Studies curriculum at Arcadia University.

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