Adjusting the pitch: Canadian Opera Company grapples with interpreting Turandot for today

As the Canadian Opera Company readies its new Turandot, it must face how to stage the mythical, pan-Asian tale set in a China of Puccini's imagination, which has been criticized for showcasing singers in 'yellowface,' depictions of racial stereotypes, and Orientalism.

Classic operas are important 'but they need to be contextualized,' says scholar

Tamara Wilson and Sergei Skorokhodov appear in the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Turandot, beginning Saturday in Toronto. (Michael Cooper/Canadian Opera Company)

Even if you've never set foot in an opera house, you've likely heard Nessun Dorma from the opera Turandot. 

One of the opera world's instantly recognizable arias, Nessun Dorma (None shall sleep) has also had crossover success: it's Hollywood's soundtrack shorthand for bombastic, climatic scenes; a soccer stadium favourite, and a staple for male singers eager to show off their vocal chops. Aretha Franklin — as a last-minute replacement enlisted to deliver ailing tenor Luciano Pavarotti's signature tunetore down the 1998 Grammy Awards with her rendition.

An opera house go-to, Turandot is being seen by a wider audience than ever, but that increased exposure has also meant that Giacomo Puccini's final work has joined other classic operas being re-examined through a modern lens.

As the Canadian Opera Company readies to present its new Turandot, the company is grappling with how to stage the mythical, pan-Asian tale set in a China of Puccini's imagination. Productions of the opera have been criticized for showcasing singers in "yellowface," depictions of racial stereotypes, and Orientalism.

When recalling past productions of Turandot he's seen, Toronto performer Richard Lee is blunt. 

"It's offensive," he said.

Theatre veteran Richard Lee, a member of the COC's Equity, Diversity, and Inclusivity Committee, served as a cultural consultant for the company's new production of Turandot. (Nigel Hunt/CBC)

"I find it really hard to watch art being made that is not as considerate about the communities that it does touch and that it can possibly hurt," said the actor, fight director, and sound designer.

The COC tasked Lee, who is of Chinese heritage and a member of the company's equity, diversity, and inclusivity committee, with serving as a production consultant advising the creative team. 

"I am not there to make changes for the artists. I'm there to go, 'Hey, this is something that I see that I have an issue with because I think it can potentially be very hurtful for an audience that comes to watch it,'" he said on Thursday, the morning after taking in Turandot's dress rehearsal.

"I'm interested in trying to start conversations with artists, especially artists that don't recognize that there needs to be a change," Lee said. 

"I think education of the artists that we have in any community always makes us better as a whole."

An element Lee raised questions about, for instance, was Turandot's slapstick trio of imperial ministers — Ping, Pang and Pong. Puccini created them as jester-commentators in the Italian comedy tradition, but the trio has often been depicted using negative racial tropes.

A scene from the COC's Turandot, which American director Robert Wilson has interpreted with his striking, minimalist aesthetic. (Michael Cooper/Canadian Opera Company)

Taking into account his notes, the creative team decided to tweak the show for Toronto following earlier debuts in Madrid and Vilnius, Lithuania. The trio has been renamed and given new costumes.

Puccini "gave the figures naively pseudo-Asian names to place them in the exotically Orientalist world he had created for his early-20th-century audiences. To our ears, these names are dated and offensive, and they now detract from the figures' place in the work as sarcastic, slapstick commentators of the goings-on at court. That is why, in this production, we are calling the three ministers Jim, Bob, and Bill," American director Robert Wilson says in a note published by the COC.

"Often when people stage Turandot it is extravagant fake chinoiserie, using all the clichés of Chinese culture. With Puccini's music, one has to be careful not to do too much. There is an interior beauty to the stories and characters that is often overlooked or lost."

'Art itself needs to be inclusive'

The name change proved "a bit jarring" for Julius Ahn, who sings the newly renamed Bob in Toronto. The Korean-American tenor, who has played the role across North America, believes Turandot is a musical masterpiece that needs no apologies.

"A lot of complaints that I've heard about this work come from the interpretation ... I've heard 'fake chinoserie' a lot, but that's not in the work. That's actually part of the staging," he said. "It's upon the artists to do a respectful interpretation of the work being presented."

That doesn't mean only one type of characterization, he added. 

"Why can't we be funny? Why can't we be silly? Why can't we be complex? Why can't we be lighthearted? Why can't we be mean? Can't Asians be crass onstage? For me, art itself needs to be inclusive."

Pang (or Bob in Toronto) has become a signature role for Korean-American tenor Julius Ahn. (Nigel Hunt/CBC)

According to Ahn, what the opera world needs is open discussion between artists and increased diversity across the board — everyone from the singers onstage to those in casting or marketing.

Because Western opera "traditionally began as work being performed by Caucasians, being told for Caucasians ... artists of colour have had a more difficult time breaking through that barrier," said Ahn, who is one of two singers of Asian heritage cast in named roles for the COC's Turandot

Today, there are so many excellent opera artists from all backgrounds that "the net needs to be spread wider because there's talent out there," he said.

Context is required

Turandot, Otello, Madama Butterfly, Aida — there's a reason many opera fans are devoted to classics despite thorny issues surrounding how to interpret stories with outdated notions for a contemporary audience.

"Love, jealousy, patriotism and love of country, a sense of wanting to do what's right ... these are issues that will always be important and these are the crux of what opera is," says Naomi André, a musicology scholar, professor at the University of Michigan and consultant to the Seattle Opera on matters of race, gender and representation.

While some might suggest it's time to drop problematic operas entirely, André believes the dialogue that's now happening around them is helping to push opera culture forward.

Opera classics endure because 'love, jealousy, patriotism and love of country, a sense of wanting to do what's right... these are issues that will always be important and these are the crux of what opera is,' says Prof. Naomi André, an opera scholar and cultural consultant for the Seattle Opera. (CBC)

"It's a bit much to scrap these roles or these operas entirely because these are important works," she said from her home in Ann Arbor, Mich. "But they need to be contextualized and they probably should have been contextualized in the past."

Watch: Canadian Opera Company altering some of Turandot's Asian characters

Canadian Opera Company altering some of Turandot’s Asian characters

3 years ago
Duration 2:32
When a beloved opera came to Canada from Europe, the Canadian Opera Company made changes to some Asian characters it believed would modernize the production, but opinions are divided.

In terms of the COC's Turandot, Lee said he appreciates Wilson's minimalist, idiosyncratic aesthetic, which "lends itself to watching the piece in a way that is not about trying to recreate Asian people onstage, but about really telling the story through these characters."

But did the production adequately address the elements he had problems with in the past?

"I'll say personally that I always wish for more. I want more. Is it enough? No, it is absolutely not. But it's a step forward," Lee said.

He said his own dream production of Turandot would include "a stage full of Asians playing those parts, singing the lead [roles]," along with commentary tackling race and consensual relationships.

The operas we consider classics "were commissioned. They were inspired by someone to tell a story perhaps that had already been told," he said, underlining the mutable nature of the performing arts.

"So why are so fearful of being brave [and] allow this to inspire us to change?"

With files from Deana Sumanac-Johnson and Nigel Hunt


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