My daughter Saara and I went to see Turandot tonight. While the opera was lovely, and the singers and musicians wonderful, the costumes left me wondering.
Some of the characters were dressed in something resembling the loincloths of Sumo wrestlers. Others wore armor that looked like it had been inpsired by the Mongol hordes of Disney's Mulan. The Emperor wore white robes that looked almost Middle Eastern. Quite a few of the women characters wore kimonos. A whole troupe of children were draped in red tulle, as were a group of male singers, the significance of which was totally lost on me. There were also a few amazonian women, wearing leather dominatrix bikinis exposing their tatooed bellies. Some of the characters had faces painted as in Chinese opera (not just the comic characters) and others wore partial face masks while the three of the four leads were in straight makeup. At one point despite the line, "Don't they look tempting behind their veils" four seductresses appearing in sequiined suits reminiscient of circus performers. Some of the "peasants" had elaborately styled hair, others wore traditional chinese straw hats. Perhaps the oddest thing was the sumo wrestler fellows, whose hair was spiked into a long, swirling queue that, Daliesque, swooped out behind them.
I couldn't help but wonder if this was the way Puccini had envisioned it. It seemed possible, as there is a mixing of cultures in the opera itself -- Turandot is obviously not a Chinese name (it's is in fact Persian in origin), the hero is Tartar. Even so, the entirety is supposed to be set in Peking.
If it's not what Puccini called for (and even if it is) I wondered why the eclectic choices. Was it to universalize the story, make it exotic or foreign rather than Chinese in particular? Or perhaps to make it Asian, but not Chinese per se? Was it simply ignorance of the differences between Chinese and Japanese culture, between Han China and Mongol China? (Although that still doesn't explain the amazonian biker women...) Or perhaps, it was an attempt to portray the diversity of people who visited the Forbidden City. (although that diversity consisted of visitors not people not serving as court executioners or royal guards). I really couldn't explain the choice in a manner that made sense to me.
It certainly raised issues in cultural appropriation that any writer using foreign characters would do well to think about. From naming conventions -- why make a Chinese princess have a Persian name??? (Has your african character got a Tusti last name and a Hutu first name? YIKES!) -- to mixing and matching cultures within a story. It is so easy for people to get cultures wrong. Or, if not outright wrong, to miss details that jump out at someone from that culture that make them say, "no one from my country would ever do that." When I catch those kinds of errors I find it distracting, and it really takes away from the book -- if the author hasn't done her/his research, or run it by someone from that culture to make sure it sounds authentic, then what else will be inauthentic? The character's motivations, goals, aspirations and desires? The entire culture, or just bits of it?
Perhaps that was the point of the ecclectic mix of costumes. No one could think, man, this designer nailed Chinese period costuming, except for this one detail... It was a completely defiant mishmash -- an adamant insistence upon blending. Perhaps the idea was to say, this could happen in any of these places, or even, in your home country.
I usually aim for authenticity when I write about other cultures -- I believe that it is better to try and present them as they really are -- but there is something appealing in saying, I am not going to try for authenticity, I am going to put in the things I think are interesting, in this case visually stimulating, rather than what might be real. But... I do think for that to work, it has to be done very consciously, with the reader's/audience's full knowledge. Otherwise, it too easily looks like the creator doesn't know what he/she's about.