Chen Shi-Zheng: turning Turandot's offensive stereotypes into three-dimensional characters

For several centuries, opera audiences around the world have been fascinated with exotic works set in Asia. Madama Butterfly is consistently in the top 10 most uerformed operas, with Turandot not far behind, and The Pearlfishers is still a popular part of the repertoire.

But these European works, despite their beautiful scores, are mostly written by men who never set foot in Asia and trade in broad cultural stereotypes.

Chen Shi-Zheng has been asked consistently throughout his career to direct Puccini’s Butterfly and Turandot, and, up until now, has resisted.

“Opera companies are always asking, and I’ve always turned them down,” he says. “I’ve always thought they’re very offensive stereotypes of Asian women and very stereotyped stories, in spite of some very beautiful music.”

But the Chinese-born director, who migrated to New York in his twenties after studying traditional Chinese opera, has finally bitten the bullet and agreed to stage his first Turandot for Opera Australia’s mammoth Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour. It is the fifth in the series, following on from last year’s Aida.

At the centre of Chen’s vision for the production is a more fully-realised character in the title role. Turandot is a famously cruel, blood-thirsty Princess, but Chen wants to interrogate why she might take the choices she does.

“I thought this was a great opportunity to do something for a larger audience, and I wanted to make it relevant; a 21st century reinterpretation of this woman. A real human that the audience can understand, not a caricature; not a 19th century fairytale.”

Chen’s production will make extensive use of video projections, to create a more well-rounded dramatic experience.

“It’s not illustration, but it gives the depth of the emotions,” Chen says. “In Turandot’s first aria, we give her biography and the history of China, to make you understand why she hates men and why she hates foreigners. The images should help you to understand what she’s singing and why she is what she is.”

But it’s not just the character of Turandot that Chen wants to tackle, it’s the representation of Chinese culture more broadly. As audience members enter the site at Mrs Macquaries Chair, they’ll be greeted by a 60-metre long Chinese dragon of war and an 18-metre high pagoda.

Chen says he made a deliberate choice to use iconic Chinese images known by audiences in the production.

“I use them to give meaning,” he says, “not just as superficial elements. The dragon of war is used to activate the awakening of an old power.”

(And he promises that awakening will be executed in quite a spectacular way.)

The set and costumes have been designed by Australian Dan Porta, who has worked closely with Chen to create something that’s authentic, contemporary and eye-catching.

“Even though you’re watching classic Chinese costumes and iconic images, the feeling of the design and everything else is very up to date.”

And, as is a requirement for every year of Opera on Sydney Harbour, the production will include fireworks. But this time around, it’s more appropriate than ever.

“It’s a happy occasion for people to come and have wine and food and have a celebration,” Chen says. “It’s quite normal — even for Chinese celebrations, it always comes with food, drinks and fireworks. And, we of course invented fireworks and I personally like them.”

Turandot is at Mrs Macquaries Point from March 24 to April 24.

Featured image: Dan Porta’s (as yet incomplete) set for Turandot

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