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Turandot in China: Rejected, Reinterpreted, Reclaimed
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When Giacomo Puccini set out to compose Turandot in March of 1920, he joined an illustrious succession of artists who felt compelled to create their own versions of the mythical tale of a marriage-hating Chinese princess. Inspiration for Puccini's opera came from a 1762 commedia dell'arte play of the same name written by the Venetian dramatist Carlo Gozzi, who was himself apparently inspired by "The Story of Prince Calaf and the Princess of China" contained in a collection of Persian fairy tales called The Thousand and One Days. The collection had been published in several European languages in the early 1700s, and the French translation by François Pétis de la Croix was likely Gozzi's source. Gozzi's work then became the inspiration for the 1801 "Turandot, Prinzessin von China" by the great German philosopher and writer Friedrich von Schiller. Both Gozzi's and Schiller's versions of Turandot were set to music by a number of contemporary composers, among them Carl Maria von Weber, who wrote incidental music for the story in 1809, and Carl Gottlieb Reissiger, who wrote a two-act tragiccomic opera that was performed in 1835.

By the time Puccini tackled the story, there were already more than a dozen versions, including an opera written by one of his professors at the Milan Conservatory that was performed at La Scala in 1867, and a play by one of his librettists, Renato Simoni. However, it is Puccini's Turandot that became the seminal one. Left unfinished at his death in 1924, it was completed by Franco Alfano and premiered at La Scala on April 25, 1926 under the baton of Arturo Toscanini. It was soon mounted by opera companies the world over and became a staple of the standard repertoire around the world—except in China, where it is set.

Indeed, though arias from other Puccini operas were played by the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra at least as early as the 1930s and into the late 1950s, when Madame Butterfly was performed in Beijing by the Central Philharmonic and the China Central Opera House, there were no performances of Turandot. This lacuna has led some writers to assert that the opera was banned after the People's Republic of China was established in 1949. In fact, there is no record of any explicit ban. Instead, it is likely that opera houses and orchestras themselves determined that it would be impolitic or simply unpalatable to stage the opera under prevailing political conditions. Turandot, after all, has been criticized by many Westerners for its "orientalist" portrayal of Chinese women as either servile (Liu) or cruel and capricious (Turandot). In the charged political atmosphere of China in the 1950s and 1960s, culminating in the Cultural Revolution, such sensitivities would have been significantly amplified, with additional political critiques added to the mix. Indeed, after the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra performed arias from Madame Butterfly, it came under criticism for allegedly promoting imperialist culture. Moreover, the few Western operas that were performed in China during this period were sung in Chinese translation and generally came from Russia or the Soviet Union where some Chinese musicians and singers trained during the 1950s. Turandot was not Russian and had not been translated into Chinese.

During the Cultural Revolution, China's own model operas became virtually the only theatrical performances permitted. In the years that followed, the nation's few Western opera companies had a particularly difficult time rebuilding as their base had never been strong, and funding was very tight. It was not until 1990 that both the China Central Opera House in Beijing and the Shanghai Opera House determined that the musical, economic, and political environments in their respective cities were ripe for the performance of Turandot, and each independently scheduled a production. When word got out, however, somebody with clout reportedly wrote to the Ministry of Culture and complained that the planned performances "would hurt the feelings of the Chinese people." The Ministry thus sent out word to music and media circles that "Turandot fever" should be avoided. The China Central Opera House, which operated closer to the seat of power, scrapped its plans to stage the opera and...