The opera 'Turandot' by Giacomo Puccini has been made into a film and is also being staged in New York. This photo was taken of an earlier recital in Austria. Photo: AFP / Dietmar Stiplovsek / APA

The Curse of Turandot, loosely based on Giacomo Puccini’s 1926 opera, opened in 64,000 Chinese cinemas with box office receipts of RMB 15 million (US$2.3 million), a disappointing result for a film with a RMB 300 million budget.

Directed by Xiaolong Zheng, the film preserves little of the original plot except for the East-West romance between the mythical Chinese Princess Turandot and the Persian Prince Calaf, played by Disney Channel regular Dylan Sprouse.

One Chinese movie critic praised it as “a popcorn movie” and warned viewers not to expect too much, while others were less charitable. Nowhere in the Chinese media, though, was a voice raised against alleged stereotyping, cultural appropriation or so-called Orientalism.

Meanwhile, in New York, the Metropolitan Opera revived Franco Zeffirelli’s opulent staging of the Puccini opera, to the virtuous outrage of the politically correct media.

New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini, for one, inveighed: “Much has changed since the pandemic forced the closure of cultural institutions around the world, including a wave of anti-Asian hostility that has compelled the arts to re-examine lingering prejudices and racist stereotypes.

“For some, Turandot – not just Zeffirelli’s extravagant production, but the opera itself, set in the fantastical Peking of legend – is an example of the problem. As much as I love the music, and as often as I’ve seen (or put up with) this staging, it was impossible not to view it this time in this context.”

Grumblings about Asian stereotypes in the opera have been around for years. In fact, Turandot never had anything to do with China – not, that is, until the Chinese adopted it as their “de facto national opera,” as the UK Opera News wrote in 2012.

Based on a 12th-century story by the Persian poet Nizami, it became a staple of Western theater thanks to Carlo Gozzi’s Venetian version of 1762, translated and adapted in 1801 by Friedrich Schiller.

Turandot is so beautiful that every man who sees her falls hopelessly in love with her, but so cruel that she demands the head of every suitor who fails to answer her three riddles. Her heart is conquered by Calaf whose aria Nessun Dorma has become a popular standard.

Puccini wove Chinese music into his score including the folksong Mò Li Hūa (茉莉花), introduced by a children’s chorus in the first act. He had adopted the French composer Claude Debussy’s predilection for static harmonies, a Western musical technique that smoothly incorporated China’s traditional pentatonic music.

The extremely slow pace of harmonic movement through much of the opera establishes its fairy-tale character, its sense of “once upon a time” rather than the directional, teleological time of Western drama and music.

Composer Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924). Photo: AFP / © Harlingue / Roger-Viollet

That is why Puccini’s use of Chinese musical elements sounds unforced and appropriate; his Chinese borrowings became partners in his artistic purposes, rather than cultural window-dressing. He used a similar technique to heighten the suspense of a life-or-death poker game in his earlier opera The Girl of the Golden West.

In 1998, the distinguished Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou staged the opera inside Beijing’s Forbidden City, with an enormous corps of Chinese dancers and traditional Chinese sets and costumes, as well as Italian musicians.

Conducted by Zubin Mehta, Zhang’s production is an auditory and visual feast. The complete film version is available on YouTube. For a sample of Chinese dance, listen to the choral hymn to the moon at 12:20, concluding with the children’s chorus at 15:40.

Turandot was always an amusement. Gozzi staged in the style of Venetian Commedia dell’Arte, with the stock clown characters whose origins trace back to the Roman arena. Puccini preserves something of this spirit with the three buffo courtiers Ping, Pang and Pong.

They first appear to dissuade Prince Calaf from attempting the three deadly riddles. Their roots are Italian, but Zhang naturalizes them brilliantly. As the three courtiers mock the love-stricken Calaf and implore him to flee, the severed heads of Turandot’s suitors – “we who love her though we are dead” – beg him to challenge Turandot so the beautiful princess will appear. 

Puccini died before completing the opera. The last scenes were filled out by Franco Alfano. It bogs down in places, and I can’t help thinking that the maestro would have tightened it up if he had lived longer.

Nonetheless, it’s a delight. It’s a funny, spooky mish-mash of Italian sentimentalism and Chinese circus, suitable for children of all ages. I saw it for the first time at the Metropolitan Opera with the then-reigning Italian lirico-spinto tenor Franco Corelli as Calaf and the incomparable Birgit Nillson in the eponymous role, and have seen it many times since.

There’s nothing like live opera, but Zhang’s film is a unique experience.

Turandot is firmly embedded in Chinese popular culture, with kung-fu sequences in the Curse film replacing the grand processions mounted by Zhang in the Forbidden City.

Maria Callas in ‘Turandot’ in 1948. Photo: AFP / Leemage

Meanwhile, it is abominated in the United States, with the Wokerati fulminating against its supposed anti-Asian bias. After all, the Chinese are the world’s most practical and pragmatic people, while the Americans are the most ideological.

United by great rivers tamed by gigantic collective efforts, the Chinese Empire came together out of need, not ideology. There is a national culture in the form of classics and common history, but the Empire never presumed to impose a popular culture on the variegated languages and dialects spoken by China’s myriad of peoples.

The Chinese absorb, adapt and assimilate what they find useful or beautiful, as they have done for thousands of years. Somewhere between 50 and 100 million Chinese now study classical music, while Americans neglect it.

An American will never become a Chinese, but then again, a Sichuanese will never become a Cantonese. But millions of Chinese become Americans. This is possible because America conceived itself from the outset as a quasi-religious entity with a superhuman mission.

The Protestant missionaries of the 19th and early 20th centuries looked at the Chinese as prospective Christian converts. Their descendants, today’s woke mob, have twisted America’s original Christian impulse into a secular pseudo-religion where salvation arises from protecting the fragile identities of the oppressed.

They have become clowns. It’s too bad Puccini didn’t write a comic opera about them.