Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Brahma, mon dieux!

We saw one of my favorite operas on Sunday, Bizet's The Pearl Fishers, premiered in 1863 and putatively set in Ceylon. Its big tune, a duet for tenor and baritone, is apparently England's perennial number one favorite. The Opera Boston production we saw played the Orientalism up to the hilt, with shadow puppets, projections of many-handed (I'm guessing) Hindu gods, and sinuous dancing girls. I'm guessing it was no more "authentic" than the opera itself, which shamelessly indulges itself and the audience in exotica.

It made me remember a sumptuous picture book edition of Aida by Leontyne Price and the Dillons, trumpeted by the publisher as a retelling, via Verdi, as an African story. Nope, pure Italiano, based on a scenario by a French Egyptologist. And Turandot is about as Chinese as I am. These operas make me think about our own field's stern requirements for cultural authenticity and against Orientalism. Bizet, Verdi, and Puccini would be banished from the shelves. I guess I should be grateful they are operas, not books, and thus subjected to grown-up criteria that acknowledge the presence and even perniciousness of stereotyping without making it the trump card of evaluation.

12 comments:

Uma Krishnaswami said...

I wouldn't worry too much--issues of authenticity and stands against Orientalism were relevant when it was only the "other" doing the writing. But the East is starting to talk back now. Even in children's literature which tends to hold to its staples for centuries. And Bollywood has for years alternately vilified and exoticized the West, including that place called Amreeka! So I'd say enjoy the opera and know that the multi-armed gods might be laughing too.

Anonymous said...

And then there’s the flip side, the retelling of traditionally northern European stories with let’s say low levels of concern about appropriation and authenticity. Red Ridin’ in the ‘Hood, etc. Mein Gott!

Roger Sutton said...

Well, I never thought "authenticity" was the genuine concern of most of those who wield that cudgel. I hate to go all Jack Zipes here, but I think it's all about power. Different groups, at different times, use it to get a larger piece of the pie. That can be useful and helpful to the literature as a whole, but it's never as disinterested as the advocates would like it to seem to be.

Andy Laties said...

Yesterday at Smith College the Dalai Lama took a question from the audience: essentially: "What happens if you are accepting toward other religious traditions but they aren't accepting towards you?" He answered that different people needed religions that offer different things. If you need a religion with a Creator God, then you can have that. If your religion proposes Causality (that's Buddhism): then that's the religion for you. He said it was like people who have different illnesses, and need different medicines. Or how when you go to a restaurant, you should be able to have a menu with different foods.

I thought it was a clever response, especially since Mahayana Buddhism has a key doctrine called "Expedient Means" that says the Buddha helps everyone differently and appropriately, according to each person's development and capacities.

That is: the Dalai Lama did what Uma is pointing out: he responded to a question that posited him as "The Other" with a response that brings "The West" neatly under his own umbrella.

Anonymous said...

With all respect, it was an interesting answer, but I don't know if it was really an answer to the question he was asked.

Andy Laties said...

Tibetan Buddhism -- really, all Buddhism -- has a long tradition of debate. Every technique is employed, including sidestepping the question in order to make the point you wish to make.

Uma Krishnaswami said...

It was exactly the kind of response that I meant. A deft sidestep that leaves a verbal silk scarf in the questioner's hand and yet delivers its point effectively. After all, it's only in the Western scheme of things that a question is a sort of rhetorical cup that needs to be filled by an answer.

Andy Laties said...

By the way Uma I sell your marvelous title "Monsoon" at the Eric Carle Museum. It's quite unique in depicting modern Indian life from the perspective of an urban middle class child.

Anonymous said...

Are you trying to tell me that Tony Snow is a Tibetan Buddhist?

Uma Krishnaswami said...

Thanks Andy, that's good to know. I try to do my bit to advance postcolonial views of the subcontinent :-)

Andy Laties said...

I suspect that the Dalai Lama's technical skills at the art of rhetoric are superior to Tony Snow's, and that therefore in a direct face-off the Dalai Lama could more effectively position Tony Snow under a Tibetan Buddhist contextualization than could Tony Snow position the Dalai Lama under a Hegemonic American contextualization.

Ergo: Tony Snow is a Tibetan Buddhist (whether he likes it, or thinks so, or not).

rindawriter said...

Actually, the Dali Lama answered in a manner much as Jesus would have...expertly slamming the shuttle into the other person's court...requiring he/her to make his/her own responses with his/her own choices and actions...

I grew up with badminton not tennis...

No one has to worry about a book being culturally authentic if it is the real thing in the first place..not the author nor the publisher nor the reader nor the reviewer nor the buyer... The debate and power struggles most notably arise from the suspiciously "smelly" books...although some of them manage to hide the "smell" pretty well...