Multiculturalism or Cultural Imperialism?
A Discussion of Puccini and Zeffirelli's Depiction of China
Students will enjoy starting the class with an open discussion of the Met performance. What did they like? What didn’t they? Did anything surprise them? What would they like to see or hear again? What would they have done differently? This discussion will offer students an opportunity to review the notes on their My Highs & Lows sheet, as well as their thoughts about the set design and staging of this Met production—in short, to see themselves as Turandot experts.
Turandot was not the first opera in which Puccini tried to capture the flavor of a non-European culture. In Madama Butterfly, the story of a geisha betrayed by the U.S. naval officer she loves, he created a part-mythic, part-historical version of Japan (see the Madama Butterfly Classroom Activity: Crossed Cultures and the Post-Show Discussion: Japan & America, found here). In La Fanciulla del West (“The Girl of the Golden West”), he invented an Italian-speaking California at the time of the Gold Rush. In each case, he sought to authenticate the musical textures of his setting by researching and incorporating local music.
Turandot, however, proved controversial in China; Puccini’s Chinese fantasy was banned until the end of the 20th century. Whether for its portrayal of a cold, murderous maiden princess, for its three stumblebum ministers, or more generally for its depiction of a bleak, heartless empire, Turandot was perceived as an insult to China and its people.
In 1998, a grand production of the opera was mounted in the heart of Beijing, in the Forbidden City, the real-life analog to the palace Turandot refers to as “questa reggia.” (The performance is available on DVD, as is a documentary called “The Turandot Project.” Information is available at turandotonsite.com.) The project certainly benefited from political changes within China, but it’s interesting to consider how understanding of Puccini’s work might have changed over three quarters of a century.
Now that your students have seen Turandot and encountered the title heroine, the Emperor, Ping, Pang, and Pong for themselves, what do they think of Puccini’s—and Franco Zeffirelli’s—depiction of China? Did the Chinese have reason to feel offended? Are Puccini’s characters cultural stereotypes or figures of pure fantasy? Is the opera, based on an Italian fairy tale, so far from historical reality that no reasonable person could mistake it for an accurate portrait of China?
More broadly, can it be praiseworthy—or even legitimate—for an artist to borrow from a culture that’s not his own, as Puccini did so often? Are there limits? Why might China’s leaders have decided to change their minds and embrace Turandot?
Students may enjoy not only debating these issues but also identifying similar works of art in contemporary culture. Are there parallels between Puccini’s appropriation of Chinese musical themes and, for instance, the technique of sampling in hip-hop? Are there problems of cultural ethics in the popularity of Chinese-character tattoos among young people in the U.S.?
As a follow-up, students can assemble a classroom museum of multiculturalism and cultural imperialism. They may be amazed to see how many global brands are represented and how much cultural cross-fertilization is found in the magazines and on the websites and TV shows they experience every day.