Monday, October 12, 2015

Western Fantasies of the East:

Orientalism at the Opera

The Pearl Fishers at Seattle Opera in 1994
Photo by Greg Eastman

Nowadays in the United States, the terms “Orient” and “Oriental” are well known as dated, racist labels for Asian peoples and cultures. But when we’re talking about opera and European art from the past, “Orientalism” has a much broader meaning. Orientalism referred to a white European fascination with Middle Eastern, Asian, and North African societies. Often, Orientalist operas depict friction between the dominant culture and an exotic, untamable “other.”⁣⁣ Orientalist works of art such as The Pearl Fishers, Carmen, Djamileh, Lakmé, Madame Butterfly and others helped European viewers fulfill fantasies about “exotic” people. These works also helped to justify ideas of superiority that fueled imperialism and colonialism. ⁣⁣

Historically and artistically, Orientalist operas occupy a curious position. These works were created during a period of enormous western imperial expansion, when European powers were racing each other to establish colonies all over the world. The folks back home had plenty of curiosity about the non-western world, but their access to real information was extremely limited. Thus, when we enjoy these works today, we also hold all the complexity of what they represent: Storytelling from a limited worldview. Narratives that often fail to represent non-white cultures with dignity and humanity. One can still enjoy a work of art, or beautiful musicwhile recognizing its limitations.

"I've been torn my entire life as an Indian American who conducts opera and orchestral rep," said Maestro Viswa Subbaraman, on the Seattle Opera podcast. "I see an opera like Lakmé, with its many religious themes, and I find this depiction of Hinduism to be quaint. But I'm also an advocate for not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We look at these pieces through the realm of history. The music is beautiful, and the plots are difficult to deal with now. So I think we need to find ways to contextualize these pieces for our audiences without throwing out some real masterpieces." 

With musical examples from the Seattle Opera archives, here are some basic characteristics of the Orientalist opera genre:

Breathtaking beauty.
Madama Butterfly at Seattle Opera in 2012
Photo by Alan Alabastro

Fantasy worlds tend to be prettier than the real world, and the reason these Orientalist operas are still so popular is they’re really beautiful, both in terms of the visuals and the music. Often, the stories are actually about beauty, or how we react to it. The character of Vasco da Gama, in Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine, speaks for the audience in his aria, “O Paradis”: “O paradise, emerging from the sea, sky so blue, so clear, you ravish my eyes, you belong to me!” The Pearl Fishers is about the effects of beauty: the plot begins when best friends Nadir and Zurga both fall madly in love at first sight with an incomparably lovely woman, just as Puccini’s Turandot concerns a woman so irresistible any man who sees her will eagerly lay down his life for her. Among fictional western beauties, only Helen of Troy could compete.

Here’s a famous passage from an Orientalist opera whose only raison d’être is its beauty: the duet for the priestess Lakmé and her mezzo friend Mallika, from Délibes’ Lakmé (1883). Apart from indicating that the two young women are gorgeous, this duet doesn’t advance the story of the opera one bit. Yet it’s the beauty of this duet that makes people buy tickets for Lakmé.

Huguette Tourangeau and Joan Sutherland as Mallika and Lakmé at Seattle Opera in 1967
Photo by Des Gates
The “Flower Duet” from Délibes’ Lakmé, sung by Sutherland and Tourangeau, conducted by Richard Bonynge
Heightened, fantastical religion.
Nabucco at Seattle Opera in 2015
Photo by Philip Newton

Religion is of course a loaded topic. If the composer/librettist team placed the story in Europe, religion was handled very carefully. But through Orientalist works, these European creators went wild in dreaming up highly exaggerated or laughably inaccurate scenarios. Whether the characters are worshipping Baal (as in Nabucco), Dagon (in Samson et Dalila), or Diane (in Iphigénie en Tauride), the cults in these operas are always big on superstition and human sacrifice, and led by power-hungry fanatics. In The Pearl Fishers, not only do the grim priest Nourabad and his people worship easily irritated weather gods using the names of Hindu deities, they do so with extremely Catholic music. For the big choral hymn to Brahma, Bizet recycled music he had originally written for a Te Deum. You can all but smell the incense in the aisles of Nôtre Dame as Bizet’s pearl fishers pray for the gods not to smite them with lightning.

In an Orientalist opera written a few years later, a more experienced composer found a clever way around the question of how to write music for an invented religion and culture. For Aida (1871), Verdi invented a strange musical world full of pungent harmonies and curling arabesques to give the offstage chanting of his high priestess its eerie character:

Prayers to Ptah from Verdi’s Aida, Act 1 Scene 2, sung by Priti Gandhi, conducted by Riccardo Frizza
Unrestrained sensuality
Elizabeth Zharoff (Léïla) and Anthony Kalil (Nadir) in Seattle Opera's 2015 Pearl Fishers. 

While European religious culture encouraged uptight attitudes about sexuality at home, Orientalism eroticized the "ethnic" body, and these fetishistic narratives contribute to the hyper-sexualization of People of Color today. In Orientalist works, we see femme fatales who suck men dry and then toss the empties aside (see Bizet’s Carmen); enslaved young women lusting for their cruel masters (see Bizet’s Djamileh); and studly men devoting their lives to each other, eschewing the company of women (see Bizet’s Pearl Fishers). Dance, not always obligatory in opera, plays a big role in Orientalist works, because it brings sensuality so vividly onstage. Can you imagine Samson and Dalila without its orgiastic bacchanal, or Prince Igor without its provocative Dance of the Polovtsian Maidens?

We could have put together a whole playlist of famous dance sequences from French Orientalist works, but instead here’s an excerpt from a German opera, the famous Dance of the Seven Veils from Salome by Richard Strauss (1905). Based on a play by Oscar Wilde, this opera, which sweats in a sultry atmosphere of homoeroticism, nymphomania, incest, pedophilia, and necrophilia, went on to inspire generations of film composers when Orientalism continued through Hollywood.

Dance of the Seven Veils from Richard Strauss’sSalome, conducted by Gerard Schwarz
Cruel tyrants.
Aida at Seattle Opera in 2008
Photo by Rozarii Lynch

What’s an escapist fantasy without an over-the-top villain, a Darth Vader or Magneto or Wicked Witch of the West? In Orientalist opera, the bad guy tends to be a fearsome despot of legendary cruelty. The early days of the genre coincided with the vogue for “Rescue operas,” so in Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio the tenor rescues his soprano from a Turkish pasha’s harem, foiling the lust of the villainous bass, while Rossini’s Italian Girl in Algiers rescues her tenor from slavery, escaping the lust of another villainous bass. But those are both light-hearted comic operas, with bad guys who are really pretty silly. Nabucco, Attila, Turandot, and Rodgers & Hammerstein’s King of Siam are more serious threats, while stern religious fanatics like Lakmé’s father or Madama Butterfly’s uncle are just plain bad news.

Here’s a wicked tyrant from an opera predating the glory days of orientalist opera: Tolomeo, Cleopatra’s vicious little brother from Handel’s Giulio Cesare (1724), who greets Caesar upon his arrival in Egypt with the severed head of Pompey the Great. At least, here’s how Caesar describes Tolomeo, telling the audience all we need to know about this lascivious eastern villain: “I will say you are wicked. Get out of my sight! You are cruelty itself. A king is never harsh, and always knows mercy.”

”Empio, dirò, tu sei” from Handel’s Giulio Cesare, sung by Ewa Podles, conducted by Gary Thor Wedow
Incomparable splendor.
The Magic Flute at Seattle Opera in 1999
Photo by Gary Smith

Realistic art, in nineteenth-century Europe, took as its subject the everyday life of poor people. But Orientalist fantasy celebrates the opposite: lifestyles of the rich and powerful, drowning in wealth and enjoying outrageous adventures on the other side of the world. In addition to all the fun Arabian Nights stuff—lucky shipwrecks, wealthy caravans, sumptuous harems, and pirate treasure—these operas revel in scenes like Aida’s triumphal march, where the conquering army shows off all the treasures they’ve looted; or Herod’s long aria from Salome, in which the tyrant tries to tempt the girl with every item of value in his kingdom.

Here, from Puccini’s Turandot (1926), is a glorious musical processional into the sumptuous throne room at the heart of the legendary Forbidden City. Puccini had much more access to authentic Chinese music than earlier composers in this tradition; for this passage he stole some traditional tunes, invented others, and put it all together to powerful dramatic effect.

Interlude from Act Two of Puccini’s Turandot, conducted by Asher Fisch

No comments:

Post a Comment