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Princess Turandot, an Occidental Oriental

Stephanie Wong

Brown University

Since its premiere in Milan in 1926, Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot has raised questions about its political, social, and cultural implications for modern production.  Current scholarship on Turandot has begun to contextualize the problematic aspects of the opera’s background, such as its setting in “Peking during legendary times,” but scholars have not discussed Turandot’s intercultural connections to western classical antiquity and the cultural impact of the opera’s prolific modern production throughout China.  My paper addresses the western classical tropes incorporated throughout Turandot and their subsequent orientalization by Puccini, whose sociopolitical motives aligned with the rhetoric of Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime.

The primary objective of this paper is to put two valences of Turandot in dialogue with each other: the reception of western classical paradigms and its inherent orientalizing aspect.  In order to incorporate a comprehensive view of the opera’s development over the past century, this paper discusses Turandot’s production history as well as secondary scholarship from the field of opera studies.  It also draws on research conducted in the spring of 2017 in Beijing, China on the National Centre for the Performing Arts production of Turandot.  I argue that, at the time of Turandot’s premiere, elements of western antiquity served as recognizable markers for a European audience, but the orientalization of these elements provided voyeuristic entertainment value for the same audience.

Classical reception provides a useful lens for analyzing opera, and as conversations surrounding the globalization of western art forms evolve, the cultural thorniness of Turandot requires illumination from fields outside musicology.  The material and historical aspects of Turandot’s production also form a part of the canon of western opera, especially as it is performed outside the West with increasing frequency.  This paper, while discussing the changing effects of prejudice on past and present performances of Turandot, illuminates the legacy of western antiquity in an ostensibly East-facing opera.

Session/Panel Title

Classical Reception in Contemporary Asian and Asian American Culture

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