Turandot isn’t just problematic—it’s complicated | Performing Arts Feature | Chicago Reader

Turandot isn’t just problematic—it’s complicated 

Puccini’s opera returns to the Lyric, and so does its troubling Orientalism.

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click to enlarge Zachary Nelson, Stefano La Colla, Keith Jameson, and Rodell Rosel in the Lyric's current production of Puccini's Turandot

Zachary Nelson, Stefano La Colla, Keith Jameson, and Rodell Rosel in the Lyric's current production of Puccini's Turandot

Todd Rosenberg

Giacomo Puccini's Turandot, now being produced by Lyric Opera through January 27, is one of the most popular operas in the classical repertoire. Lyric has staged it five times in its 60-plus-year history, roughly once a decade; both the San Francisco Opera and the Met are also putting on runs this season; and "Nessun Dorma," Calaf's sung promise to win over the princess, is arguably the most famous tenor aria in opera (and the stuff of many a Pavarotti compilation).

But for all Turandot's popularity, and for all Puccini's efforts to weave Chinese melodies into his score, the opera has always been a problematic exemplification of Western projections about the Far East. Puccini never visited China (nor did Franco Alfano, who completed Turandot in 1926, two years after Puccini's death) and suffered from what today might crassly be called "yellow fever," an obsession with Asian women he twice made the tragic heroines of his work. To ask what it means for Lyric to stage Turandot yet again is to ask what it means to present an Orientalist fantasy for public consumption in 2017.

Turandot opens in mythical ancient China, replete with sumptuous royals, bedraggled peasants, and a slew of fantastical beasts—phoenixes, unicorns, and giant tortoises carved into the walls of the palace loggia. A masked character known only as the Mandarin issues a fearsome proclamation in a deep baritone: the vicious but beautiful princess Turandot must marry any man who successfully answers three riddles, which she herself will pose. But even one mistake will doom the suitor to death. That doesn't deter Calaf, a Tartar prince in exile, who falls in love with Turandot after glimpsing her in a window. Despite admonishments from his father, the exiled Tartar king, and a slave girl named Liu, he strikes a massive gong, signaling his intention to vie for Turandot's hand.

From there the plot twists and turns, but by the end of act three, Calaf has bested Turandot's riddles and the piteous Liu is dead by her own hand, having sacrificed herself to protect Calaf, whom she secretly loves. Moved by Liu's example, Turandot gives in to Calaf, dropping her resistance to love, marriage, and domestication.

Ask opera lovers why Turandot is still produced today and they'll likely cite the power and beauty of the music.

"Puccini is a master composer, a master orchestrator, a master writer for voices, both solo and choral voices," says Anthony Freud, Lyric's general director, president, and CEO. "Turandot was his last opera, and I think he poured into it both a lifetime of experience and a determination to break new ground. But ultimately, why is it popular? Because it has fabulous tunes."

Freud and others tend to dismiss the opera's Orientalism—the nameless "Mandarin," the stereotypical dragon queen, the trio of buffoonish jester-ministers named Ping, Pang, and Pong—by describing the work as a fairy tale or fable.

"It doesn't represent China any more than Brighton Pavilion does," says Rob Kearley, director of Lyric's current production. "It doesn't represent China any more than Beauty and the Beast represents medieval France."

But others have branded Turandot outright racist, staged as it often is and historically has been by mostly white performers whose pancake makeup and choppy, exaggerated movements are basically "yellowface," or ethnocentric representations of Asians in media and entertainment.

"It is cold comfort to say it's not really real, because it's being treated as if it's real," says Naomi Andre, a University of Michigan scholar who studies race and gender in opera. "We get to have all of our negative associations of the West coming in and domesticating the East, of women learning the right way to be domesticated. That's how that opera seems to live today."

"Opera companies are always asking [me to direct Turandot], and I've always turned them down," Chinese-American opera director Chen Shi-Zheng told the Daily Review, an Australian newspaper, last year, after finally acquiescing to staging a massive production in Sydney Harbor. "I've always thought they're very offensive stereotypes of Asian women and very stereotyped stories, in spite of some very beautiful music." Performances of Turandot were banned in China until the late 1990s.

Opera companies' tendency to stage the same repertory pieces over and over again gives directors and performers an opportunity to reinterpret and recontextualize, directly addressing the misogyny, Orientalism, or reductive elements present in the source material.

"I think the way a contemporary opera company has to present [Turandot] is with sensitivity to those issues, bearing in mind the difference in our perspective from the perspectives of the audiences of the day in which it was written," Freud says. "And frankly, to have dialogue and discourse about those issues."

But the extent to which opera companies actually do this or do it well is mixed, even in Lyric's case.

For this winter's run, Lyric has purchased (for an undisclosed sum) a 1982 coproduction of Turandot originally created by Bliss Herbert and Allen Charles Klein for four opera companies in Texas, Florida, and California. In other words, Lyric is reusing most of the set design, costumes, and props from a production first staged when conversations about cultural appropriation were far less prominent.

Kearley says he and his collaborators worked to tone down some of the more obviously offensive or problematic elements from the original production.

"We've gone back and looked at the costumes and gone back and looked at the use of masks, certainly the way the physical language as well, the way these characters are presented, and we've tried very hard to avoid anything that doesn't come across as genuine or real," he says.

"This wasn't a conversation we were having ten years ago," Kearley continues. "And I think it's great we are having it."

But is it enough? The centerpiece of Lyric's production is still a 30-foot carved mustachioed dragon grasping the glowing orb of the moon in its claws. The emperor still sports a comically long white beard; Ping, Pang, and Pong still prance around the stage in brocade robes and fix their elaborate makeup in lacquered dressing chests.

Even toning down the staging or hiring an all-Asian cast wouldn't solve the real problem with Turandot: its Orientalism is inextricable from the opera. It raises the question of whether it's possible to responsibly engage in what one might call transracial fantasy fiction, or whether works like Turandot should just be put to bed.

"I think that can be an important learning place for people of one culture to think about another culture," Andre says, as long as it's done with sensitivity and respect. That approach, she says, has given us other beloved if problematic works, like Gershwin's 1935 opera Porgy & Bess, in which the characters belt out American standards like "Summertime" but also speak in an uncomfortable approximation of black dialect based on minstrel stereotypes.

"I think it was an important and a good thing to have a sympathetic side of black culture portrayed," Andre says of Porgy & Bess. However, "Gershwin was able to do something that no black composer or impresario were doing," because black composers of the era faced incredible discrimination. "Scott Joplin found black composers who wrote operas and couldn't get them produced."

If Lyric wanted to take a dramatically different tack, it could reprise what I've come to think of as the anti-Turandot—Zheng's Monkey: Journey to the West, first performed at the Manchester International Festival in 2007 and staged at the Met in 2013. Written by Zheng with music by Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz, Monkey is based on an actual 16th-century Chinese fable; is sung entirely in Mandarin, by Chinese performers; and is produced without sacrificing any of the colorful spectacle or pageantry opera audiences love.

Lyric does get credit for its own ongoing efforts to support new works by a more diverse crew. To date, Freud has boldly commissioned a pair of mariachi operas (the first of which was created when he was still running the Houston Grand Opera) and has launched a partnership with the Chicago Urban League that has enlisted black high school students to write a new opera based on the stories of their lives.

Although she doesn't advocate censorship, "if we have some voices of the culture representing itself in the dialogue," Andre suggests, "maybe we won't need Turandot any more."

It's probably unrealistic to think that Turandot could ever be phased out—it's too popular with hard-core opera fans and too lucrative for the companies that stage it. But hopefully opera houses can tackle it in a way that actually confronts the Turandot's Orientalism head-on rather than preserving it while simultaneously dismissing it as incidental or trivial to its popularity, as I'd argue Lyric has done this time around.

Staging works by a more diverse set of creators could help Turandot be one voice among a choir, instead of a lone soloist.  v

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