In the 2021/2022 Season, TDO Connections™ explores representation in opera through Madame Butterfly and The Pearl Fishers in partnership with the Asian Opera Alliance. While Asian Opera Alliance was not part of the original process in choosing these productions for the stage, they have been working behind the scenes with our stage directors to make these pieces more respectful. The public-facing component begins in February with a pre-recorded panel discussion with Dallas Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation, the Asian Opera Alliance, and the Black Opera Alliance. We will continue to share our learnings and engage with our communities throughout the season, concluding with a panel discussion with the stage directors, Asian Opera Alliance, and The Dallas Opera team. We invite you to join us in these conversations.
Behind the Scenes:
Behind the scenes, and in advance of the rehearsal process, The Dallas Opera is investing in additional resources for our creative and design teams. These resources—primarily alliance groups or special consultants—help us reexamine and thoughtfully rethink stage movement, choreography, make-up, wigs, costumes, and set design with a heightened sensitivity to their effects on our communities. We will continue our long history of diversity on the stage and, along with that, be more mindful and deliberate in addressing appropriation, Orientalism, and colonialism inherent in some of opera’s most popular works.
Through this work and learning, Dallas Opera has altered the upcoming production of The Pearl Fishers by:
- Eliminating the use of head dresses, bindis, non-essential stylized jewelry, cages, and spears.
- Utilizing natural makeup and hair whenever possible.
- Revising the costumes in collaboration with the original costume designer, Zandra Rhodes.
- Recasting the location of Sri Lanka to a fictionalized land.
Engaging with our Communities:
Panel Discussion 1: Exploring Representation in Opera
The opera field is facing the challenges of presenting “problematic” works with respectful representation. The Dallas Opera is not exempt. Stephanie Drenka, Nicholas Phan, and Zuly Inirio kick off the new TDO Connections™ series with an honest and open conversation about representation, the impact of casting decisions, and correcting harmful practices in the opera field. This conversation is in partnership with Dallas Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation, Asian Opera Alliance, and the Black Opera Alliance, hosted by Quodesia D. Johnson of Taking the Stage with Kristian and Quo.
Panel Discussion 2: Our Learning Journey
The season concludes with a panel discussion with The Pearl Fishers stage directors, Shawna Lucey and James Smith and choreographer Eboni Adams, Madame Butterfly stage director, Laurie Feldman, Asian Opera Alliance, and The Dallas Opera team to discuss their experiences, lessons from the season, and changes that will be made to support TDO’s commitment to respectful, human-centered storytelling.
The Pearl Fishers Connections
The issues of Orientalism and appropriation are at the forefront of many inherited works. Join The Dallas Opera in our learning journey as we engage in more human-centered storytelling practices for The Pearl Fishers. Placing things into context for the time in which a piece was written and its implications in the 21st century, Director of Education Kristian Roberts developed an approach to learning the nuance and progression of opera settings in a manner similar to attending a museum. Audiences have in-person and online opportunities to learn more about the works, artists, and social context of the stories being told on our stages as The Dallas Opera works to redefine and re-center how these stories are told.
Imagination and Storytelling
Opera uses imagination to tell stories through words, music, wardrobe, set, lights, and props. People gather to watch operas while connecting to the stories about the human condition. Sometimes the stories are set in imaginary places, and sometimes they are set in real locations.
Different Perspectives and Orientalism
As European composers and librettists considered settings and stories for their operas, they sometimes used their imaginations to express their appreciation and build on limited information about faraway places. These places, like South Asia, were seen as “exotic” in a cultural trend of telling stories set in places often accessed through trade, colonialism, or imperialism. This resulted in misinterpretation and appropriation as stories were being told about people, places, and cultures instead of being told by the people from those places and cultures. Examples include:
- Use of tonal language (music)
- Stage makeup that alters skin tone
- Wardrobe (costumes) that may not honor cultural significance
- Misinformation and misrepresentation of cultural practices and body movement
- Western perspectives valued as “correct” more than the perspectives and experiences of other cultures
- Lack of separation and value of the diversity in Asian cultures, often dismissing the nuances in ethnic and cultural identities of Asia (creating room for only one or two Asian cultures)
Expanding Perspectives and Decolonization
We have many amazing opera stories. However, most stories about Asian communities are told from a small number of Western European perspectives, often influenced by colonialism. Decolonization (or decentering colonial interpretations and perspectives) allows for more respectful storytelling and gives everyone the opportunity to learn more. Actively prioritizing the voices, experiences, and perspectives of the cultures represented is ongoing work.
- Ensuring people of the respective culture(s) are leading and advising the storytelling
- Making changes to wardrobe and makeup
- Making changes to stage movement
- Learning the full narrative about an event or engagement to learn from multiple perspectives and sharing the full narrative for greater awareness and informed action, such as Land and People Acknowledgements
- Practicing Name-Keeping which uses the names given by the original inhabitants rather than the colonial names (such as ancient Sri Lanka instead of Ceylon)
- Learning the importance of attire and cultural practices from primary sources
Future of Opera Stories
The once faraway places represented in inherited opera repertoire are not so far away in the 21st Century. Our communities are made of many different cultures, experiences, and identities from all parts of the world and walks of life. Opera is a big artform and will tell more stories!
What stories would you like to tell? What stories would you like to see?
Panel Discussion 2: Our Learning Journey
The season concludes with a panel discussion with The Pearl Fishers stage directors, Shawna Lucey and James Smith, Madame Butterfly stage director, Laurie Feldman, Asian Opera Alliance, and The Dallas Opera team to discuss their experiences, what they have learned this season, and the changes that will be made going forward as a result of TDO’s commitment to respectful, human-centered storytelling. Please check back for the mid-April release date.
- Read the full program book for Madame Butterfly available here.
- Read the full program book for The Pearl Fishers available here.
- Learn more about cultural appropriation in Madame Butterfly in this “Perspective” article reproduced with permission from the Seattle Opera.
Resources for The Pearl Fishers Connections:
- Arts Education-Eliminating the White Gaze by Hanna Kim Sions and Courtnie N. Wolfgang
- Pearl Fishers to Turandot-Orientalism by Joshua Kosman
- Localization, racism, and decolonisation by Smruti Patel
- Decolonization of Southeast Asia and Africa
- Western Fantasies of The East: Orientalism at the Opera from Seattle Opera
- Costumes and Cultural Appropriation by Sarah Siegel
- Our ‘Ethnic/Tribal’ Printed Clothes May Reek of Cultural Appropriation by Aastha Jani
- Desi Fashion – Cultural Appropriation or Cultural Appreciation? by Zahra Onsori
- Halloween is Coming: My Culture is Not a Costume by Susanna Barkataki
- Decentering the Appropriating Voice of Colonisers
- Cultural Appropriation: What Is It and Why Is It Problematic? by Himanshi Nagpal
- Cultural Appropriation of South Asia in Music by Balraj Sohal
- The Brown Asian American Movement
- A View on Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles as a South Asian-American Artist by Felix Jarrar
Resources from our partners and other organizations:
- Dallas Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation
- Asian Opera Alliance
- Black Opera Alliance
- Latina Women in Opera
- OPERA America: Racial Justice Opera Network
- Final Bow for Yellowface, Phil Chan
- Decolonizing Wealth, Edgar Villanueva
- The Sum of Us, Heather McGhee
Resource List for Refugee Aid
The Dallas Opera is committed to supporting its local communities here in North Texas that may be impacted by the crisis in Ukraine. While the need is not new, we acknowledge that this situation has again shined a light on the necessity for humanitarian aid and financial support for organizations doing this work.
This list is not comprehensive, but serves as a starting point for those willing to donate time or financial resources. Here are links to organizations—both local and international—that provide assistance and aid to refugees and others impacted by this conflict, as well as others.