Friday, September 29, 2017

Non-Europeans in Opera

This is intended as a catalog with minimal commentary.  We are intending to survey the topic of cultural exploitation.  I have listed only those operas I have seen.

* means race is a factor in the story.

There are a small number of operas by Asian composers which include Asian characters.  They are not to be considered to be exploiting anyone.
  • Tea: A Mirror of Soul by Tan Dun
  • The First Emperor by Tan Dun 
  • Dream of the Red Chamber by Bright Sheng

Asian characters appear in the following operas by non-Asian composers.  It is to be determined if this constitutes exploitation.
  • The Bonesetter’s Daughter by Stewart Wallace is based on a novel by Amy Tan.* Including this is probably a mistake since Amy Tan is Asian and wrote the libretto.
  • A Night at the Chinese Opera by Judith Weir is partly based on real Chinese opera.
  • Turandot by Puccini is based on a Persian story and transferred to China perhaps for the musical effects.
  • Madama Butterfly by Puccini is based on an American short story and a play by David Belasco.*
  • Nixon in China by John Adams is based on historical events that many of us watched on TV. *
  • The Pearl Fishers by Georges Bizet moves us to Sri Lanca.
  • Attila by Verdi is about the Mongolian ruler from the 5th century who invaded Europe.
  • Satyagraha by Philip Glass is about Gandhi in Africa.  The text is original Sanscrit.*

Native populations from around the world also appear in operas.  This should include the European racial minority called gypsies or Romani.  Even today Gypsies are easily identified by their facial features. 
  • Les Indes Galantes by Jean-Philippe Rameau includes Turks, Incas, Persians, and North Americans.*
  • Carmen by Georges Bizet features Carmen, a gypsy.*
  • Il Trovatore by Verdi features Azucena who is a gypsy. *
  • Die Zauberflöte by Mozart includes a gratuitous black character for comedy. *
  • Aida by Verdi includes Egyptians and Ethiopians, but no Europeans. *
  • L'Africaine by Meyerbeer is a clash of Europeans and people from Madagascar. *
  • La forza del destino by Verdi has an Aztec as the male lead.*
  • Moby-Dick by Jake Heggie is based on the great American novel and includes a south sea islander, Queequeg. *  In our production he was played by a New Zealander.
  • Il Postino by Daniel Catán is a Mexican writing about Chilean interacting with an Italian.  I guess that qualifies.
  • La fanciulla del West by Puccini includes native Americans and a Mexican bandit.*
In American musicals and operas white Americans interact with minorities.
  • Show Boat by Jerome Kern features a female black character who is passing for white. *
  • Porgy and Bess by George Gershwin is almost all black.  The copyright owners require all black casting.
  • West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein is about rival white and Puerto Rican gangs.*
  • Champion by Terence Blanchard is about a real person, the boxer Emile Griffith.  No one is exploiting anyone.

Operas about historical figures from before Christianity.
  • Nabucco by Verdi is about Jews and pre-islamic Babylonians. *
  • Semiramide by Rossini
  • Xerxes by Handel

Which brings us to my favorite and perhaps the only blatantly exploitative portrayal of non-Europeans--the interaction between Christian Europeans, usually Italians, and Moslems.
  • Otello by either Rossini or Verdi is the moor of Venice, which makes him Moslem, not sub-Saharan African.*
  • Die Entführung aus dem Serail by Mozart features a Spaniard rescuing his fiance from a harem.*
  • Cosi fan Tutte by Mozart where the young men pretend to be middle eastern.
  • Il Turco in Italia  by Rossini features a Muslim man visiting Italy.*
  • L’Italiana in Algeri by Rossini features an Italian woman who escapes from her Muslim husband.*
  • Maometto II by Rossini is a serious opera where the female character commits suicide.*
  • I Lombardi by Verdi includes a Muslim character who converts.*
  • Death of Klinghoffer by Adams is about a clash between western and middle-eastern cultures.  It portrays an historical event.
  • Flight by Jonathan Dove includes a refugee trapped inside an airport.  For me he could have been from anywhere, but others say he was Iranian.
I am now going to express my opinion.  Either the libretto is exploitative or it isn't.  Whether or not the non-European character(s) is played by the specific ethnicity of the character would in my opinion not affect the fact that the composer and librettist chose to make possibly bogus use of a story outside their culture.

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