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.