Friday, May 05, 2006
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.
Interesting reflection on cultural identification! But as to the opera, Pamela--if YOU didn't get it, who could? I think whoever designed the production blew it.

I once saw an absolutely incomprehensible Wagner opera done in modern dress with random bits of medieval armor thrown over business suits. It was an utter failure! Just because they pay them a lot doesn't mean they are always successful. And oh, it's awful to have to wear bad costumes.
I wondered about that too! I felt so bad for one skinny fellow in his black diaper costume. The four other sumo characters were rotund, looking appropriate for the part, but he just looked scrawny and uncomfortable. And then one other character had what looked like a round, felt table runner tied beneath his belt. I suppose it was intended to be an apron of sorts, but it looked more like a blue and white yak fur target. I wondered if he hated having to wear it!

Now we know, yup, he probably hated it.
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Progressive Muslim, feminist, mom, writer, mystic, lover of the universe and Doug Schmidt, cellist, theologian and imam.

What I'm reading now

Cane River
An interesting exploration of the gradual whiting of a family through slavery to modern days.

To see an archive of all the books I've read (well the ones I've read and review since I started the blog) with comments, please click here

Causes Worth Supporting

This is just a short list -- a few of my favorites.

English Language Islamic Fiction. We need more of it. Lots more.
Pay a Teacher's Salary in Afghanistan. The Hunger site actually has a lot of worthwhile programs. You can find them all here .
Muslims for Progressive Values. My organization. We can always use donations, of time or money!
Human Rights Campaign for the glbt community
National Religious Campaign Against Torture
The ACLU I'm a card carrying member. Hope you'll become one too. The organization that has done the most, as far as I can tell, to pull the countries progressive side together.
Network of Spiritual Progressives. Working to reclaim religion and morality for the religious left.

Blogs Worth Reading

Wanda Campbell also known as Nochipa A very gifted poet and a gentle, compassionate soul. Nochipa and I are on the same page on sooooo many things
Writeous Sister Aminah Hernandez, she's got some excellent latino pieces and always has good writing info on her blog.
Sister Scorpion aka Leila Montour - Leila is a fount of energy, quirky humor, and bad attitude. She's also a talented poet.
Muhajabah Very interesting commentary here. I don't always agree with her, but her pieces are always thought-provoking.
Georgie Dowdell Georgie is a great writer and a good friend.
Louise Marley Another great writer. I think Louise is one of the best sf writers exploring faith themes.
Ink in My Coffee Devon Ellington (who has numerous aliases) who is also the editor of Circadian Poems. A truly inspiring woman with a seemingly endless supply of energy.
Ethnically Incorrect With a name like that, isn't a given I'm going to enjoy this writer?
Freedom from the Mundane Colin Galbraith, another excellent writer, from Scotland.
The Scruffy Dog Review This is a new e-zine with an ecclectic mix of fiction, poetry, and non-fic, some really enjoyable pieces here.
Ramblings of a Suburban Soccer Mom Lara, another gentle soul, very thoughtful.
Circadian Poems A journal of poetry, new stuff up all the time.
Ye Olde Inkwell Michelle writes romance and is one of my writing buddies.
Muhammad Michael Knight The original punk Muslim writer. Like him or love him, Mike is always coming up with the unexpected.

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