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Opera Colorado reckons with a history of yellowface ahead of its staging of ‘Turandot’

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Five panelists joined Rocky Mountain Public Media's Amber Coté for a community conversation about "Turandot," the famous opera from Italian composer Giacomo Puccini.
Five panelists joined Rocky Mountain Public Media's Amber Coté (right) for a community conversation about "Turandot," the famous opera from Italian composer Giacomo Puccini.

DENVER — Giacomo Puccini, one of the most successful opera composers in history, is most often associated with the “verismo” movement, meaning “realism” or “truth.”

As Opera Colorado prepares for its staging of one of Puccini’s most famous operas, “Turandot,” the company is reckoning with a hard truth indeed: this opera is problematic.

“My personal view is that there’s no two ways about it: there will be some version of yellowface on stage during this production,” said Aria Umezawa, a Japanese-Canadian stage director who will be at the helm of Opera Colorado’s performance of “Turandot.”

Umezawa participated in a panel Monday at the Buell Public Media Center in downtown Denver to discuss the history of Puccini’s classic as well as the contemporary criticisms of the opera, which Opera Colorado will stage in May.

Rocky Mountain PBS

The Riddle of "Turandot": A Community Conversation

Puccini started working on “Turandot” in the early 1920s. He had completed all but the final duet by 1924, but died from a heart attack before he could finish the opera. Fellow Italian composer Franco Alfano completed the composition in 1926.

The opera is set in a fantastical, fictitious version of ancient China. The titular character is Princess Turandot, who puts out a condition that anyone who wants to marry her must answer three questions correctly or else they’ll be beheaded. The male lead, Prince Calàf, answers the questions correctly but Turandot — who has sworn off men — refuses to marry him. In an effort to win Turandot’s affection, Calàf issues a challenge of his own: if Turandot can guess his name by sunrise, he will sacrifice himself. Turandot does not figure out Calàf’s name, but in an act of love he concedes and reveals his true identity to her: Love.

Umezawa said Puccini, who never visited China, started on the opera during a time when orientalism was sweeping Europe.

“He reduced an entire culture to its aesthetic value,” Umezawa explained.

For nearly a century, this appropriation has continued through performances of “Turandot,” which rarely include Asian performers in the lead roles. The result is yellowface, which Umezawa said she would define as “anything that would allow a person not of Asian descent to portray an Asian person.” This could be through makeup, costumes or even physical movement.

Opera Colorado’s performance of “Turandot” features just one Asian cast member and they are in a supporting role. This is why Umezawa said there will undoubtedly be some version of yellowface in the performance: non-Asian actors will be playing Chinese characters. (Greg Carpenter, the general and artistic director of Opera Colorado who was also on Monday’s panel, said two other Asian artists were offered roles in the performance but that they declined. He did not say if they were offered the lead roles.)

Panelist Deborah Yim, an attorney and president-elect of the Asian Pacific American Bar Association, said it was “a little jarring” that an opera set in China does not have any Asian performers in a lead role.

“But I think it’s important that we’re having this dialogue, we’re having this discussion and addressing some of the stereotypes and the generalizations,” Yim said. “I think it’s interesting that Puccini wrote this in the 1920s and now, more than 100 years later, we’re still dealing with a lot of the same issues.”

Speaking to the audience, Asian Pacific Development Center’s executive director Harry Budisidharta said, “You can definitely enjoy great works of art; we’re not saying that you are terrible people. But I think if you enjoy it without critical examination, or critical pushback of what kind of harm the art is causing, then you are doing yourself a disservice and also doing the art a disservice as well.”

Meg Ozaki Graves, a soprano, educator and activist, was also on the panel. She said the opera world is lagging behind the film and television industry when it comes to offensive practices like black face or yellowface.

“In our industry, even grappling with the idea of leaving these traditions behind is contentious,” Graves said. “So I think that it’s really important to recognize that this conversation even happening here today is a step forward. We may be many steps behind others in this work — as an industry — but having been someone working in opera, I can honestly say this is the first time I’ve been invited to speak on a panel about my experience as an Asian identifying artist. I think that that is a small step into the community, and I hope that we continue that forward progress.”

[Related: American soprano withdraws from Italian festival that used blackface]

Carpenter — who has performed in “Turandot” in the past — gave some insight into the casting process during the panel discussion. When Opera Colorado travels to New York City to hear auditions, Carpenter and his colleagues listen for four main criteria: quality of voice, style (e.g., do they understand Puccini’s style?), language (are they best at singing in Italian, German, etc.?) and language comprehension (do they know what is being communicated?). Notably absent from that list is physical appearance.

Carpenter said when the company puts out a casting call for a production, agents don’t often put forward people of color for traditionally “white” roles, making it harder for minorities to break into the opera industry. Instead, Carpenter explained, the agents often push BIPOC performers into roles where they play a person of color. Not many of those roles exist.

This kind of typecasting affects not only performers but behind-the-scenes artists as well. Artists like Umezawa, who said she is almost exclusively hired to direct performances of “Turandot” and “Madama Butterfly,” another Puccini opera that takes place in Japan. 

“I think there’s some systematic things that need to be addressed in our industry that we can start pushing towards as a company, but we can’t do it ourselves. It has to come from much deeper [in] the industry. I’ve spoken to a lot of Black singers who say ‘I had no idea you had auditions in New York, my agent never told me.’ Things of that nature. So we have to deal with things at that level, too,” Carpenter said.

Mary Lee Chin wasn’t totally satisfied with that answer.

Chin, a prominent Denver dietician who once chaired the diversity and inclusion committee with the Denver Botanic Gardens, said she was in attendance at Monday’s event because she was concerned about the outdated, persisting stereotypes against Asian cultures. She felt as though Carpenter wasn’t taking full responsibility when he said the performers’ agents were partly responsible for the lack of representation on stage.

“There is a term called intentionality. There [are] partnerships,” she said. “So you don’t say, ‘Oh, well, you know, nobody brought me an artist who is Asian that can fill one of the roles.’ The term recruitment is a very active verb. And you can do that.”

During an audience Q&A, Chin asked the panel about some of the minor characters in “Turandot.”

“When I asked for the names of those three characters and they (the panelists) said they were Ping, Pang and Pong — there was laughter in the audience,” Chin said. “And that was the exact example of what I was talking against. That to make fun from a language perspective is so reminiscent of the language taunting that Asians face.”

Chin noted that tensions between the U.S. and China, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, has led to a surge in anti-Asian hate. “I’m going to fight it every single way that I can,” Chin said. That fight includes speaking up at events like the Opera Colorado panels discussion.

But will she see the opera?

“Maybe, Chin said. “I’ll think about it.”

Kyle Cooke is the digital media manager at Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach him at

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