Orientalism or chinoiserie?

turandot300.jpg
Marketing material for the 1926 Milan premeire of Turandot on the left, and for the 2008 Singapore staging on the right.

Like most people, I don’t know where I first heard the famous aria Nessun Dorma of Puccini’s Turandot. But my interest in the opera has certainly been revived several times recently.

Maybe it was Pavarotti’s triumphant (if staged) performance of the aria at the 2006 Torino Olympics. Or maybe it was the recent Beijing staging of the opera, with a new ending that revisited Puccini’s version of a Chinese folk song instead of recapitulating Nessun Dorma.

Both of these revivals, for me, took place (via YouTube and podcasts) in Singapore. It’s an interesting vantage point, to see how an Italian opera set in “legendary China” — Peking more specifically — is interpreted in Asia. Some criticize Puccini’s work at worst as Orientalist, and more diplomatically as chinoiserie. So when I read that the Singapore Lyric Opera is staging a production at the Esplanade, I bought a seat (back, center) to see how they would interpret it.

While the quality of the music was not awe-inspiring (though, Nessun Dorma takes my breath away under almost any circumstance), the staging was interesting and rich. Along with the simple but grand sets, came sometimes grammatically awkward English translations on two side screens, as well as Chinese translations below. The audience laughed heartily at the wise-cracking ministers, Ping, Pong and Pang, and other elements of the show most often criticized as stereotypical.

China had banned Turandot for 70 years. Its brutal title character, a steely princess who has her suitors beheaded for not answering riddles correctly, was not an ideal heroine. The opera was, however, an inaugural piece for the Beijing National Center for the Performing Arts, with its new ending by a Chinese composer. Puccini died before completing the opera and the most commonly staged ending is by his contemporary, Franco Alfano.

It’s interesting that the Hong Kong-born director of Singapore’s production, Lo King-man, has also endeavored to localize the opera by adjusting for Chinese sensibilities, though he sticks with Alfano’s version of the end. “For us Chinese, to see it being set in the Qing Dynasty [1644-1911], we lose that exotic and remote and fairy-tale and legendary feeling that some time there could have been such a woman like this,” he told Time Out Singapore. Lo took a darker approach, using bronze metallic colors and simple, peasant costumes for the chorus, instead of the flashy Qing and Ming Dynasty costumes and sets of more famous stagings of the opera. It was meant to look older than the Qing Dyanasty, Lo said.

These kinds of adaptations create cultural webs — Italians interpreting Chinese, then Chinese interpreting Italians interpreting Chinese — that say a lot about how cultures get appropriated and reappropriated, by the West, East and every multinational production (such as Singapore’s) in between.

  • Hey, just checking the links to see who is coming to BarCamp PP! I think with all this talk about tech, a writing session would be a great idea.
    FYI, in ‘The Killing Fields’, Sydney Schanberg mourns the loss of his friend Dith Pran. He drinks and watches films of aerial bombing on TV and the whole scene is scored by… ‘Nessun Dorma’. Italians interpreting Chinese mapped over Cambodian issues? It could interpreted in a variety of ways.

  • Angilee Shah

    Thanks for the comment, Jinja. Nice to meet you — looking forward to Phnom Phen.
    I love that film — it just makes me sad (and ashamed) to know that Dr. Haing S. Ngor, who survived the killing fields and portrayed Dith Pran in the film, was shot by gang members in Los Angeles. Will have to watch it again and listen for the aria.