Turandot, Giacomo Puccini’s final opera, has a “problematic” reputation due to its being a white male European composer’s depiction of medieval China. It certainly proved problematic on the evening of March 20, when a jammed stage elevator at the Metropolitan Opera House reduced Franco Zeffirelli’s lavish 1987 production—recently refurbished by a generous donation—to what a visibly embarrassed general manager Peter Gelb described as a “semi-staged concert performance.” Gelb labored to spin this mishap at his troubled company as a “historic” event (i.e., “the first concert performance of Turandot at the Metropolitan Opera”), but offered refunds, exchanges, or credits to anyone who wished to leave in the few minutes between his announcement and the beginning of the performance. Hundreds of sullen spectators proceeded to the exit. According to the Met, about 150 people claimed refunds. Others exchanged their tickets, accepted credits, or walked out rather than wait in the long box-office line.

Turandot is a popular opera that draws large and enthusiastic crowds. The Met claimed that the March 20 performance, a Wednesday evening show featuring no star-caliber performers, sold about 80 percent of capacity, considerably above average for the company these days and much better than sales for most of the contemporary operas Gelb is banking on to reverse the Met’s dismal financial fortunes.

No matter how eagerly Met audiences attend Turandot, however, the company clearly does not want to risk its woke bona fides by offering the production without a political disclaimer. Visitors seeking to buy tickets on the Met’s website are greeted by a link inviting them to read a program note for “a discussion of the opera’s cultural insensitivities.” Authored by Met senior editor Christopher Browner, the note instructs us “to appreciate Turandot . . . in a way that both celebrates its achievements and acknowledges the problems inherent in it.”

Lest spectators delude themselves into thinking they are spending up to $505 per ticket to be entertained by Puccini’s opera, Browner hopes we will instead “raise our collective consciousness of its faults,” and, “rather than shying away from the less-savory aspects of the opera . . . recognize and grapple with their implications.” “Many audience members of Chinese descent,” he moralizes without providing any supporting evidence, “find it difficult to watch as their own heritage is co-opted, fetishized, or painted as savage, bloodthirsty, or backward.”

Do they? One might ask when the last anti-Turandot protest occurred at Lincoln Center (the answer is never), but in 1998, the People’s Republic of China staged an even more lavish production of the opera in a specially constructed space in Beijing’s Forbidden City, featuring multiple casts of European soloists with hundreds of supporting performers drawn from Chinese companies and, reportedly, the People’s Liberation Army. With prices topping a reported $1,800 per seat, it was perhaps the most important public cultural event in China’s recent history and one that celebrated, rather than demeaned, the country’s legendary past and ancient grandeur.

To find true outrage, one would presumably have to fly 15 hours from Beijing to New York, where the Met considers Turandot so afflicted with “fault” that it is performing it 17 times this season, more than any other opera except for Georges Bizet’s Carmen, which, one might argue, equally “co-opts” nineteenth-century Spain, “fetishizes” its culture, and “paints” its people as “savage, bloodthirsty, and backward.” Carmen, which also has 17 performances scheduled at the Met this season, did not get a cultural trigger warning, though online ticket buyers are cautioned that the production involves “bright flashing lights.” Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, which is set in a modernizing Japan and has 16 performances scheduled at the Met this season, is apparently uncontroversial enough to pass with no warnings.

Is Turandot really so bad? Its plot does feature a cruel princess, the title character, who enforces an oath demanding the death of would-be suitors who cannot answer her three riddles. The Tatar prince Calàf will not be dissuaded, however. He answers the riddles correctly and wins Turandot’s hand, yet offers his life to her if she can learn his name before next dawn. She fails, but Calàf reveals his name, deliberately placing his life in her hands, only to have her heart melt at the gesture and announce that his name is “love.” In the end, the ice princess is merciful and rewards Calàf’s vulnerability. Is this “savagery?”

That’s not the end of the opera’s Asian motifs. It also features a trio of courtiers—characters drawn not from any Chinese source but from the Italian commedia dell’arte tradition—who might superficially be considered stereotypes. But they are, in fact, the opera’s most human characters. In the first act, they advise Calàf to abandon his quest, admonishing him that “life is a beautiful thing” and that he should not risk his own to try to win Turandot’s affections. In Act II, they commiserate about the brutal environment by pining for the serenity of their distant homes. In the final act, they offer treasure and delights if Calàf will leave and free them from their burdens. Is this a “fetishizing” of an imaginary Orient—or are their responses human and universal?

Puccini’s score is naturally European in compositional form, but he included real Chinese melodies, including the “Mo Li Hua,” a folk song known as “Jasmine Flower,” which forms Turandot’s theme, and other Chinese music made available to him despite his never visiting China (Bizet, for all the espagnolerie in his Carmen, never visited Spain). If Puccini wanted to demean China, why did he go to such trouble to make his opera sound like China?

There is no reason to expect a logical response to these questions. Arguments that use words like “fetishizing” or that accuse creators of “cultural appropriation” rarely have any non-emotional basis and cannot be resolved by rational argument. One could ask the Met whether it really wants to sell tickets to one of its few remaining blockbuster productions. Or, as one might say to disappointed operagoers whose evening is derailed by malfunctioning stage machinery: “Get over it!”

Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images


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