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Opera Australia sparks criticism over traditional use of ‘yellowface,’ Chinese stereotypes in ‘Turandot’

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  • Vietnamese writer Cat-Thao Nguyen and her Chinese husband walked out of Opera Australia’s performance of “Turandot” during the first act after being appalled by its traditional use of “yellowface” as well as its racist and sexist stereotypes.

  • “I felt utterly sick,” she wrote in an article for Sydney Morning Herald. “I clutched my husband and clamped my hand over my mouth. As the scenes unfolded, I felt a violent wilting of dignity for myself and my Chinese husband.”

  • Equally disconcerting for Nguyen was that the predominantly white audience appeared to be quite comfortable with what they were watching.

  • “Turandot,” completed in 1926, is set in ancient China, a country that its famed Italian composer Giacomo Puccini never visited.

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Australia’s premier opera company is being called out for its traditional use of “yellowface” in its current performances of “Turandot.”

Cat-Thao Nguyen, a writer of Vietnamese origin, was so appalled with what she and her Canadian-Chinese husband saw in Opera Australia’s production that they walked out of the Sydney Opera House after the first act.

In an op-ed for the Sydney Morning Herald, Nguyen expressed her frustration over the production’s racist portrayal of three particular characters who are supposed to be of Chinese origin. 

“As I sat in the theatre, the horrible caricatures kept coming like a tidal assault,” she wrote. “Ping, Pong and Pang pranced around the stage with their Fu Manchu-style moustaches and fake long ponytails flicking across their costumes. I felt utterly sick. I clutched my husband and clamped my hand over my mouth. As the scenes unfolded, I felt a violent wilting of dignity for myself and my Chinese husband.”

“Turandot,” which premiered in Italy in 1926, revolves around the titular cold princess who executes her suitors who fail to answer her riddles, before she ultimately marries Prince Calaf. The story is set in ancient China, a country that its famed Italian composer Giacomo Puccini never visited. On its official website, Opera Australia describes the production as a “fantasy opera of poetry and myth, set in an exotic world.”

“Unsurprisingly, the play, which centers around a barbaric Chinese princess, contains outdated Orientalist stereotypes of Chinese people,” Nguyen observed. 

While the main page for “Turandot” on Opera Australia’s website features an Asian actress, the main role is played by Australian Anna-Louise Cole and American Lise Lindstrom.

The use of outdated racist, Orientalist stereotypes in traditional opera and ballet repertoires has been increasingly criticized in recent years. Nguyen noted, however, that the predominantly white audience she sat in during the performance appeared to be quite comfortable with everything they saw on the stage.

“No one else saw the fire of cultural appropriation and the use of Chinese music, traditional dress and perpetuating historical Western depictions as demeaning,” she lamented. “Instead, on the Opera House balcony people chuckled, talked about property and holidays. It was achingly normal.”

Nguyen went on to further criticize the depiction of Asians in Western media as part of an overarching racist culture that produces “unequal results between different cultural groups.” 

“Equity and inclusion cannot happen until leadership in our institutions better reflects contemporary multicultural Australia,” she added. “Otherwise, our nation will stagnate because innovation requires a genuine embrace of diverse perspectives.”

Opera Australia has two performances of “Turandot” left in their 2022 schedule, on March 10 and March 14.

Featured Image Opera Australia

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