The San Francisco Chronicle wondered last weekend, headline: Why is aggressively racist "Orientalist" opera still a thing?
The writer here is Miki Kaneda [Email her], an ethnomusicologist at Boston University, who describes herself as an Asian American woman. She wonders why, in these enlightened times, opera companies are still allowed to stage operas like Madame Butterfly, Aida, and Carmen, which, quote, "glorify violence against, and profit from the objectification of, Asian women," end quote.
I was a bit baffled by her selection of operas there. The heroine of Aida is Ethiopian. Is Ethiopia in Asia? News to me. And Carmen is a gypsy. Do Gypsies count as Asians? I believe their remote origins are somewhere in present-day Pakistan, so I guess you could say so, but it seems like a stretch. And why no mention of Turandot, some of whose score is actually based on Chinese folk music?
That's our Cultural Revolution, though. They are killing off imagination. If you're a European male, you may only write operas—or, I guess, plays or novels—about European males. Flaubert wouldn't find a publisher for Madame Bovary nowadays, nor Tolstoy for Anna Karenina, nor, to complete the adultery set, Fontane for Effi Briest.
"Write about what you know," is the advice given to young writers—including, I suppose, opera librettists. The only thing you're supposed to know nowadays is your own precious self, your—what's the cant expression? oh, right—your "lived experience."
What a wilderness they are creating; what a dead, arid wilderness!