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East meets west: stereotyping the East-Asian female in operatic works from 1885 to 2010

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Artistic trends of the mid-nineteenth century demonstrate the popularity of incorporating Asian elements into various artistic media. This paper discusses why the stereotypical Asian female provided an attractive character for operatic librettists, composers and audiences. To support the discussion, six

Artistic trends of the mid-nineteenth century demonstrate the popularity of incorporating Asian elements into various artistic media. This paper discusses why the stereotypical Asian female provided an attractive character for operatic librettists, composers and audiences. To support the discussion, six operas from 1885 to 2010 are examined, and the dramatic and musical portrayal of representative female characters is discussed. The familiar character of Cio-cio-san from Giocamo Puccini's Madama Butterfly (1904) provides a foundation to discuss these stereotypical Asian female characteristics, specifically one archetype, that of the naïve, yet sexually desirable female. Prior to Cio-cio-san, Sir W. S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan's Yum-Yum from The Mikado (1885), Iris of Pietro Mascagni's Iris (1898) exemplify this archetype, as does Liù from Puccini's Turandot (1924). At the other extreme is the icy, cold and bloodthirsty archetype found in the title role of Puccini's Turandot and Katisha from The Mikado. Chiang Ch'ing (also known as Madame Mao) from John Adams's Nixon in China (1987), and Madame White Snake from Chinese-American composer Zhou Long's Madame White Snake (2010) feature leading characters that demonstrate elements of both of these archetypes, and this combination of the two archetypes yields more complex and richer characters. These two extremes of the female Asian stereotype and the evolution of these characteristics provide an interesting outlook on the incorporation of non-Western musical styles into these operas, and the understanding of a Western perception of foreign peoples, especially foreign females.

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2013