‘Beyond Orientalism’ to discuss Opera Philadelphia’s modified ‘Turandot’ and its depictions of Asians

(Philip Groshong for Cincinnati Opera)

(Philip Groshong for Cincinnati Opera)

Last week, Opera Philadelphia opened its new season by producing three operas simultaneously, including two premieres, and a tried-and-true classic: “Turandot” by Puccini.

The offering by Puccini has attracted some criticism from the local Asian-American community and will spark dialogue this week.”Turandot” is an early 20th century Italian opera set in 12th century China, about a game of death to win the hand of a princess. It’s a mainstay of the opera canon, and one of Puccini’s most popular works.

When it appeared last year on the announcement of Opera Philadelphia’s 2016-2017, it threw up caution flags for Rob Buscher, director of Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival.

“The issue with Turandot is that it is part of this canon of Orientalist opera,” said Buscher. “Meaning, it was created during a time period in which European playwrights and composers were writing stories set in the East, but having never traveled extensively in the East, it was their fantasy imagination of what the East was.”

Buscher is on the board of the Gov. Tom Wolf’s Advisory Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs. He likes the opera (“The music itself is beautiful,” he said. “It’s a terrific production.”), but the outdated way the characters are depicted is offensive, particularly in its use of yellowface makeup.

After seeing advanced promotional material for Turandot, which shows performers wearing yellowface, Buscher and the Advisory Commission approached Opera Philadelphia to modify costumes and makeup, and removing the word “exotic” from advertising.

The opera company complied to the extent it was able, citing restrictions on how much a pre-existing production can be altered.

In a statement, Opera Philadelphia said the fantastical setting of “Turandot” was “meant to distance this story from the geographical and political landscape of Italy in the 1920s. In 2016, Turandot resonates differently with modern audiences and offers new lessons, ideas, and opportunities for discourse.”

Now, Opera Philadelphia’s Playbills include commentary about Asian characterizations, much of it written by local Asian-American theater performers, and its website has a place for comment and dialogue.

Tonight,  the Asian Arts Initiative in Chinatown will host “Beyond Orientalism,” an open forum to discuss portrayals of Asians onstage and in media. The event had been organized before the governor’s commission conversed with Opera Philadelphia.

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