Controversial cultural depictions of China in USC Thornton School of Music’s production of “Le Rossignol” frustrated some audience members, orchestra members and performers after the show’s run at the Bing Theatre last weekend.
Some accused the department of incorporating yellowface and cultural appropriation into the opera, which is set in imperial China.
“The costuming and the staging could have been done a lot more tastefully … it felt offensive to me,” said Tiffany Chung, a first-year Korean American graduate student who played violin for the production.
The production featured a multi-ethnic cast of actors, some of whom wore caps with long braids hanging from the back — mimicking the queue hairstyle worn by men during the Qing Dynasty. Some female cast members also utilized chopsticks as hair accessories.
Several attendees accused the opera department of exoticizing Chinese culture with culturally ambiguous choreography and costumes that inaccurately mimicked traditional Chinese garb. One attendee cited the prevalence of the color yellow in costumes as an example.
“Only emperors were allowed to wear yellow … that makes me feel like they did zero research,” said a Chinese American audience member and USC graduate who wished to remain anonymous due to employment concerns in the field of opera.
“Le Rossignol,” or “The Nightingale,” premiered in 1918 and was based on the 1844 Hans Christian Andersen fairytale of the same name. The opera tells the story of a Chinese emperor who, after trying and failing to control a coveted nightingale, learns the limitations of his power. The one-act opera was performed as part of a double bill with “L’Enfant et les Sortilèges,” which took up the second act of the production.
Director Ken Cazan said “Le Rossignol” was intended to match the similar themes of the second opera, which was chosen first. Cazan said he did not see any issues with the production’s casting or costume design.
“We made no pretense that they were Asian for a second,” Cazan said. “There were clearly a lot of European-based people up on that stage.”
He said it was fine that the traditional Chinese garb may have given that impression.
“Well sure they do, but that’s how you costume a show, I do believe,” he said.
The show’s costume designer did not respond to requests for comment.
This is not the first time “The Nightingale” has sparked controversy. In 2012, a musical adaptation of the opera at the La Jolla Playhouse received backlash for casting only two actors of Asian descent in a cast of 12, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The second opera, “L’Enfant et les Sortilèges,” or, “The Child and the Spells,” which told the story of a young child whose room of inanimate objects comes to life, was tied to the first act by one of the child characters who appeared in both acts. The child from “L’Enfant et les Sortilèges” appeared in the cast of “Le Rossignol,” observing the story through a large picture book to contextualize Le Rossignol as a figment of the child’s imagination.
Allen Pearcy Galeana, a Mexican American student who played one of the Japanese emissaries in “Le Rossignol,” said he didn’t see an issue with the production because of the change in context.
“Once it’s contextualized in that way, it’s surrealism,” said Pearcy Galeana, a senior majoring in vocal arts. “When you dream, you dream of faces of people that you randomly see on the street, so it’s that.”
However, he said he would not have the same opinion for a professional production of “Le Rossignol.”
“For a piece like this, given that we’re in an educational institution, we have a pretty diverse class of opera singers,” Pearcy Galeana said. “I don’t see the absolute need for [an all-Asian cast], because, given the context, I think it’s fine.”
Chung said the opera’s costume design was not justified by the change in context.
“I don’t really care what they think is a child’s idea of China,” Chung said. “Quite frankly, I think that’s a load of B.S.”
Cazan said none of the cast members raised any concerns about the opera’s casting or artistic design, but speaking out isn’t always easy in the small world of opera.
Several audience members with experience in opera said they were offended by “Le Rossignol,” but wished to remain anonymous out of concern that their comments might adversely affect their careers in the operatic field.
“I understand why people didn’t say anything,” said one audience member who recently graduated from UCLA’s undergraduate music performance program. “These singers are hoping to have a career in opera. It’s hard to do that if you get a reputation for talking shit about the shows that you’re in.”
In opera, an art form that has only recently begun to address systemic issues, the dialogue surrounding race is relatively unprecedented. There are no readily available statistics on Asian American representation in classical voice, but a report by the Asian American Performers Action Coalition found that Asian American actors were cast in only 4 percent of New York City stage roles for the 2015-16 theater season. The report also noted that only one Asian American actor was cast in a Broadway play in an ensemble role that year.
“[Opera is] like any other art form in that it has certain things that are problematic because it’s been around for hundreds of years,” said the Chinese American audience member. “Those things don’t disqualify it as a valuable art form, but they do need to be addressed delicately.”
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