Exoticism and Racism and the Whole Damn Thing

Writing for the Atlantic group online (initially Quartz, “a digitally native news outlet launched by Atlantic Media in September 2012—it provides a 24/7 digital guide to the new global economy designed to serve business professionals who travel the world, are focused on international markets, and value critical thinking,” later on the Atlantic website itself), Far East Specialist Gwynn Guilford takes on musical exoticism in “It’s Time to Stop Using ‘Exoticism’ as an Excuse for Opera’s Racism” (July 23, 2014). My suspicion is that Guilford did not provide this title herself, because the article is more nuanced than that. For this I give her credit, and I also give her credit for consulting with and quoting authentic jan-yew-wine musicologists. Still, I can’t help but wonder where someone with no stated musical or theatrical background gets off writing so ambitiously about what ought to be happening in opera. I may have opinions about (say) the Chinese government’s approaches to environmental and food safety, but I’d be setting myself up a pretty thorough drubbing were I to go public with such thoughts, given my lack of background. As usual, an expectation of disciplinary preparation doesn’t seem to apply to the arts.

Guildford’s starting point was worse, far worse. The columnist Sharon Pian Chan had written a July 13 article in the Seattle Times about a forthcoming production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado, titled “Yellowface in Your Face,” which observes that “The opera is a fossil from an era when America was as homogeneous as milk, planes did not depart daily for other continents and immigrants did not fuel the economy,” continues with the dark and highly problematic observation that “the caricature of Japanese people as strange and barbarous was used to justify the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II,” and concludes “But this production? This is the wrong show—wrong for Seattle, wrong for this country, and wrong for this century.” And suddenly becoming a dramaturge, she counsels, “The Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society could, for instance, partner with the Asian-American theater group Pork Filled Players to reinterpret the opera.”

Yes, the art world should be grateful for her informed advice. Briefly:

Gilbert & Sullivan were English, and that the entire purpose of the high-camp invented “Japanese” was to satirize English politics and mores. Nothing at all to do with the U.S. So, the stuff about the homogenous U.S. and the internments? Entirely irrelevant—it was potential disloyalty and working as a fifth column in case of a Japanese ground attack on the west coast—not at all what she is claiming—but thanks for feeling the need to spew it and blame a country and culture entirely uninvolved. When the character Yum Yum says

Yes, I am indeed beautiful! Sometimes I sit and wonder, in my artless Japanese way, why it is that I am so much more attractive than anybody else in the whole world. Can this be vanity? No! Nature is lovely and rejoices in her loveliness. I am a child of Nature, and take after my mother.

…she is satirizing any number of things, none of them being actual Japanese. It is true that opera is an artistic artifact that touches on myriad aspects of its own culture, but it is likewise true that two-dimensional, anachronistic critique of operas a century and a half old makes the critic look stupid, not the opera.

I might point out, for those who remember the old National Lampoon satire magazine, that they used to excel at this. Anything having to do with Black people was a ludicrous send-up of urban white fears. “Help! Negroes!” characters would say, when Black people so much as appeared, and the satire got far subtler—ridiculous, outsized takes on sexual mythology, etc. It would be easy to criticize the magazine for its use of stereotypes, but the stereotypes were the entire point: this is what you, reader, might be thinking, so we’ll blow it out of proportion and make you sob with laughter. At yourself!

Sharon Pian Chan wanted an excuse to write about “Yellowface,” and so she did. Awkwardly enough, her closing suggestion about teaming up with an Asian theater group seem to echo the Miss Saigon kerfuffle, where demands were made about Asian actors being cast in the American production of that musical—including lead Lea Salonga, who as a Filipina was apparently the wrong sort of Asian. It ended up going nowhere, after a lot of press, and looked like little more than a hiring shakedown: our people could use the work, so here is a windy, self-righteous argument that on closer inspection looks like a defense of/insistence upon stereotyped casting, as long as lead roles were involved. It seems awfully close to a demand for racially “appropriate” casting when many directors are abandoning such two-dimensional approaches, and indeed when many artists of Asian descent seek to go beyond such roles—not comfortable ideological position, it seems to me, to stake out

Guilford’s main point about traditional “Asian” roles is stated toward the beginning:

The funny thing is, many more serious operas—Madame Butterfly and Turandot come to mind—do exactly the same thing. And it’s always been done that way. This is peculiar behavior for an industry said to be “dying.” When directors preserve cultural cliches simply because they were exotic a century ago, there’s an opportunity cost to those choices: the chance to move audiences anew. The tighter they cling to tradition for tradition’s sake, the more they rob the world’s most powerful art form of its relevance.

“Said to be dying” is not much for an outsider to build a case on: the precarious existences of opera companies have much to do with Boards, financial (mis)management, and so on. Interest in opera as an artform flourishes in universities and in many smaller companies, and before we roll our eyes about externally supported museum culture we should remember that symphonic wind ensembles do also, and their military, civic, and pedagogically entwined history is the very opposite of that of an elite museum culture. Further, a call to “make it more relevant” is a fairly naïve thing to say—“relevant” concepts of (say) Shakespeare plays are hit-and-miss, depending on the quality of the concept and how thoroughly they have been thought through. So, relevant to whom?  This one writer? There are a couple of further issues, too:

Opera itself is about nothing if not stereotypes. Cultural stereotypes, yes, like the meek, dependent Asian female. But what about gender stereotypes? Violetta in Verdi’s Traviata, Tosca in Puccini’s eponymous opera; flawed past, too much “generosity” (insert primal scream here—oh, and did I mention Grizabella in Cats?), possible chance for redemption in a harshly judgmental environment, these are hardly original, nuanced characters, yet one doesn’t hear gender representatives demanding rehabilitation…such stereotypes are the very essence of the entertainment form. Theatrical make-up is, after all, the extension of ancient Greek masks: exaggeration of features to help the audience follow the conceit. Hence, Black actors in the mid-twentieth century putting on make-up to do Blackface, manly men wearing make-up that makes them look more like pitiless tyrants (another operatic stereotype), and so on. The innocent girl, the ardent lover, the disapproving father—these are all cultural two-dimensionalities without which opera would not exist.

And for everyone taking offense at a racial depiction, I’ll raise you one disapproving father. Not that I’d know anything about that, of course.

The essential problem here is that the multiplicities of meaning in musical exoticism—a phrase that can become, in the hands of cruder composer and critic alike, something of a blunt instrument—so the layers of meaning an additional culture can provide are brushed aside in favor of surface meaning only. That’s hardly how art, even entertainment-art, works, and to her credit Guilford’s discussion moves in this direction: layers of meaning may be added by either intuitive or counter-intuitive ethnic casting, which would have lain well outside composers’ expectations. It is not that this is a recent realization; Eastman professor Ralph P. Locke, who has thought and written about exoticism for decades, has written about the various contexts and concentrations of exoticism that one finds in opera: including musical style, not including music but including text, gesture, costumes scenery, etc. The various possible combinations of exotic content make for myriad interpretive possibilities. Why, then, is it necessary take offense and proscribe this or that approach? The Seattle production followed, apparently, traditional lines (as did a stupendously good Opera à la Carte one I saw in my late teens). Why are opera’s gender stereotypes, for example, shrugged off while action is demanded on the most comic, campy, and exaggerated ethnic ones? (And yes, I’m aware that the racially insulting lyrics to “I’ve Made a Little List” have been changed. That’s a different case: they are completely non-integral to the work or even the meaning of the song…indeed, they are sufficiently dated as to dilute the song’s effect.)

Audiences are not ineducable, and my civil rights-era upbringing leads me to become especially annoyed when someone else instructs me about what I should find offensive. Often, such guardians are against innovative interpretations; in this case, by contrast, the traditional approach is to be eschewed, but a particular kind of innovation prescribed. I have difficulty understanding how this kind of pre-defined “relevance” helps the cause of any art.

To close with a fragment of a new theme: I note that popular music frequently avoids the the kind of censure that seems to be open game in opera. The Stones’ “Brown Sugar”? “A rocker so compelling that it discourages exegesis,” says Robert Christgau primly. So the almighty Mick gets a pass: the race and gender stuff in the lyrics are apparently off limits for criticism, regardless how much the original song is played on oldies stations. I mean, come on! It’s the Stones! Don’t be like that!

Especially given how problematic the “Yellowface” oversimplification is, I’m going to say that this Gilbert and Sullivan classic gets the same privilege.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
This entry was posted in Concert Culture, Criticism, Current Affairs, Ethics, Opera, Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Exoticism and Racism and the Whole Damn Thing

  1. Eh, I don’t ask for much. I ask for people to capitalize Gypsy (the Met does not) while they embarrass themselves through sexualized exoticist cliches worthy of a 14-year-old’s Facebook post. And then I laugh – this is what the “elite” buy, in 2014?

  2. Pingback: classical music news | Weekend Top 10: Art + Soul brings Pacific Mambo Orchestra to Oakland + MORE | Stars & Catz

  3. Pat says:

    Excellent article.

Comments are closed.