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Taboo Alert at the Met

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Taboo Alert at the Met

A revival of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot tramples on the new theatrical orthodoxy. October 12, 2021
The Social Order
Arts and Culture

Peter Gelb, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, may be quaking in his boots right now. A revival of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot, in Franco Zeffirelli’s opulent 1987 production, opens tonight. Bursting with violations of rapidly evolving taboos, it presents a glittering target for the woke mob. If the race censors take down the Met’s Turandot, they will have notched their biggest victory to date. The production’s transgressions of the new theatrical orthodoxy have likely kept Gelb up at night.

First, the lead singers are not Asian. They happen to be superb, but who cares? As Turandot’s suitor, Prince Calàf, the Azerbaijani tenor Yusif Eyvazov gave an overwhelmingly seductive rendition of “Nessun Dorma” in the October 8 dress rehearsal—suave, virile, and self-assured, with a honeyed legato and stylish ornamentation. Christine Goerke brought her usual power and dramatic drive to Turandot; the Nicaraguan-American soprano Gabrielle Reyes offered a lyrical, crystalline line as the self-sacrificing slave Liù. Veteran Met baritone James Morris sang the blind Timur, Calàf’s deposed father, with much of the resonance that he brought in decades past to Don Giovanni and other leading roles. The cast’s only Asian was baritone Hyung Yun as Ping, one of the three court ministers who fret over Turandot’s bloody vendetta against males. Ping’s colleagues Pang and Pong—tenors Tony Stevenson and Eric Ferring—were regrettably Anglo, however, if otherwise excellent.

Earlier this year, the opera world learned of the perils of casting white singers in nonwhite roles, a practice dubbed “whitewashing” by race activists. Scottish Opera had mounted John Adams’s Nixon in China in February 2020, garnering rave reviews and a sold-out box office. When the production was nominated for a British arts award in June 2021, a member of an obscure Asian advocacy group complained on Twitter that Scottish Opera had cast whites in the roles of Chairman Mao and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. No one had noticed Scottish Opera’s dereliction during the 2020 run; indeed, no one had noticed that same dereliction in the vast majority of Nixon in China productions since the opera’s premier in 1987. Within 48 hours of the “whitewashing” accusation in June 2021, however, Scottish Opera had withdrawn its arts nomination and had issued a groveling apology for causing “offence.”

Like Scottish Opera, the Met would have cast this season’s Turandot in the halcyon pre–George Floyd era, when music directors could focus on a singer’s vocal and dramatic gifts rather than on his race and ethnicity. This latest revival was originally scheduled for the Met’s cancelled 2020–2021 season; the singers would have been selected long before that. Now Gelb is in the position of every other opera and theater director in the post–George Floyd world, nervously eyeing artistic decisions made pre–Floyd and wondering how many of them will blow up in his face. This revival’s second run, beginning in late April 2022, does have Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee as Calàf, singing opposite Anna Netrebko. But that substitution does not compensate for the current “whitewashing.”

The second transgression is the opera itself. In the pre–George Floyd era, Turandot could be seen as a triumph of the border-bursting human imagination. The story dates from a twelfth-century Persian poem, reworked first by a French scholar, then by the eighteenth-century Italian playwright Count Carlo Gozzi. Friedrich von Schiller and Bertolt Brecht wrote their own theatrical takes on the icy, man-hating princess; stage producers of Turandot’s various dramatic iterations included Goethe and Max Reinhardt. Carl Maria von Weber, Franz Danzi, and Ferruccio Busoni, in addition to Puccini, composed musical adaptations.

To today’s race police, this cosmopolitan genealogy is something not to be marveled at but rather condemned, under the rubric of “cultural appropriation.” No one gave permission to Puccini or to any of Turandot’s other narrators to set their story in China, nor did those vandals bother to ask permission (though to whom a cultural appropriator is supposed to address his appeal has never been made clear). No one licensed Puccini to incorporate the pentatonic scale and Chinese folk melodies into his ravishing score; why, he even dared to order a special set of gongs to achieve a greater sense of authenticity! Who allowed that?

No sane person would judge Turandot’s story by the standards of historical accuracy. The Gozzi play, upon which Puccini’s librettists drew most heavily, is a self-described “fiaba,” or fairy tale. The libretto identifies the location as Peking, “in legendary times.”

We are not in a moment where sanity reigns, however. And so the plot and characters are living on borrowed time. Many operas contain a bloodthirsty crowd. In Turandot, however, the mob is Chinese, so its portrayal can only be due to racism. Many operas contain brutal imperial guards—visible at this very moment, in fact, in another opera on the Met’s stage: Boris Godunov. In Turandot, the guards are Chinese, not Caucasian, so only a racist would imagine them. Turandot’s sycophantic courtiers, another operatic staple, are clearly intended as conventional comic foils; Ping, Pang, and Pong could step into a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta as bureaucratic Brits (or Asian lackeys). The three P’s wistful recollection of their tranquil rural past (recalling La Frugola’s country dream in Il Tabarro) in fact fleshes out their humanity more than that of Turandot’s other characters. But they also embody certain stereotypes of Asian movement and attitude, so they cannot be saved from the ax, should the censors choose to wield it. Many a light-hearted operetta has come back to torpedo its contemporary producers. Of course, staging vicious stereotypes about white racist cops is not just acceptable today, but exalted.

Turandot herself presents more of a difficulty to the race censors. On the one hand, she is a proto-Thelma and Louise feminist, out to avenge the rape and murder of a distant ancestor by sending as many men to the executioner as she can. On the other hand, white males imagined her, and she succumbs to Calàf at the end, so patriarchy is presumably reinforced.

Third transgression: the production. Zeffirelli’s cultural appropriation sins are even more shocking than Puccini’s. He dared to imagine the imperial court as an ecstatic outburst of silver-splendid excess, as finely wrought as any Baroque church. Indeed, the emperor’s canopy recalls the Bernini baldacchino in St. Peter’s basilica. Zeffirelli incorporates Chinese pageantry of dragon puppets and banners, again raising the question: Who gave him license? And the answer comes back ominously: Nessuno.

If Turandot’s casting sins do blow up, Gelb will find the defense of meritocracy unavailing. Colorblind excellence no longer cuts it in the arts, as the San Jose Playhouse discovered this September. The theater had planned a holiday production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods. Last year’s holiday production, The MeshugaNutcracker!, had been cancelled due to the Covid shutdowns. Playhouse owners Scott and Shannon Guggenheim allocated eight Into the Woods roles to the cancelled Nutcracker actors, in compensation for having broken their contracts. Those eight MeshugaNutcracker! actors were all Jewish, since they needed to speak Hebrew—and thus, by almost inevitable demographic reality, white. The Covid recuperative set-aside left two leading roles in Into the Woods to be filled. The Guggenheims held auditions and chose the most qualified applicants, though they foresaw the coming uproar: these actors, too, were white. “We knew,” Shannon Guggenheim told the San Francisco Chronicle. “In retrospect . . . I wish we would have been like, ‘Then forget it! We’re not doing the show. We’re just going to cancel.’” In today’s thespian world, the show must not go on if it lacks racial proportionality (though the paucity of remaining acting slots in Into the Woods meant that they would have to have been meted out fractionally to match peninsula demographics). Shannon Guggenheim only worsened matters by writing on Facebook: “No one who was capable was passed over for an opportunity to be considered,” leading to further accusations of bias and disrespect toward minority actors. A Bay Area director told the San Francisco Chronicle that however “excellent and supremely talented” a cast, however “amazing” a production, a show should not take place if it lacks “inclusivity.” On September 12, less than two weeks after an actor denounced the upcoming Into the Woods on social media, the Guggenheims cancelled the run.

If the Turandot “whitewashing” becomes a scandal, Gelb will not be able to point out that few dramatic sopranos and tenors have the vocal power required of the lead roles. He will be implicitly invoking merit and excellence, both code words for racism. Erecting a race or ethnicity prerequisite will make the opera even more challenging to produce, however.

Gelb has banked a large store of credit with the Black Lives Matter opera crowd by mounting as the opening work of the Met’s 2021–2022 season Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up In My Bones. As anyone with the most passing acquaintance of the classical music press now knows by heart, Fire is the first black-composed opera that the Met has staged in its 138-year history. Originally scheduled for the 2023-24 season, Fire was jumpstarted in response to the George Floyd riots. The performance is being treated as a phenomenon of racial justice as much as an artistic one.

That scheduling decision may give Gelb cover now, but in the post–Floyd era, a new landmine is always right around the corner. Lurking in the wings later this season is Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, starting in March 2022. Like Turandot, the opera is Orientalist, and this run’s two leading sopranos—Eleonora Buratto and Elizabeth DeShong—are white. At least Butterfly contains a loathsome white character to offset its portrayal of a submissive Asian heroine. And the late producer Anthony Minghella is less vulnerable to cancellation than the traditionalist Zeffirelli. Nevertheless, Gelb cannot be sleeping easily.

Even if the race avengers hold their tongues, this Turandot revival will likely be the last. Gelb has been blowing up Zeffirelli productions right and left; it’s puzzling why he junked Tosca before Turandot. A Regietheater production of the latter might give it a few more years’ reprieve by exposing alleged colonialist impulses behind Puccini’s masterpiece. Zeffirelli, however, was sadly lacking in all such deconstructive impulses, striving instead to realize the composer’s intentions with as much exuberance as possible.

It is a sign of our times that the opera and theater goer now looks over his shoulder with as much trepidation as any stage director or opera intendant. It is impossible not to check off violations of the new race protocols as one watches a show. A massive part of the operatic and theatrical repertoire exists under a sword of Damocles, vulnerable at any moment to denunciation for failing to conform to contemporary elite norms regarding “equity” and “social justice.” This double consciousness profoundly changes both the audience experience and the decisions that go into producing a work of art. The race enforcers would say that this is progress. In fact, such cowering before the new taboos strangles the human spirit and blocks our participation in the artistic sublime.

Photo by Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images

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