Opera in the Orient: 11 Operas Set in Asia by Asian and Non-Asian Composers, Organized Chronologically

By Zoe Erickson |

Christine Goerke in the title role of Turandot (Photo: Marty Sohl)

Opera can transport us to other times and places – real and imagined. Below are 11 operas set in Asia by both Asian and non-Asian composers, all arranged chronologically.

“Teuzzone” (Vivaldi) 1719

Detail of Emperor Going to Shu by Li Zhaodao (李昭道, fl. early 8th c.), Tang Dynasty (618-907). Ink and colors on silk, 55.9 x 81 cm, National Palace Museum, Taipei

Though he composed dozens of operas, Antonio Vivaldi is known today primarily for his instrumental works, especially his dazzling concerti like the Four Seasons. One of Vivaldi’s earlier operas, Teuzzone, depicts the power struggles following the death of China’s emperor, Troncone. His son, Teuzzone, is the rightful heir to the throne, but is met with political rivalry at every turn. By the end of the opera, Teuzzone is able to gain his rightful place as emperor, and the traitors are arrested. Despite the opera’s setting, considered “exotic” at the time, we must search hard to find the influence of Chinese culture on Vivaldi’s music.

The opera’s first modern revival was in summer of 2011 under the direction of Catalan conductor Jordi Savall. Hear mezzo-soprano Raffaella Milanesi sing “Ti sento, sì, ti sento,” an early example of a composer calling for muted strings in an opera score, from Savall’s recording below.

“The Pearl Fishers” (Bizet) 1863

A scene from The Pearl Fishers in a production at Seattle Opera (Photo: Elise Bakketun)

Known as “Bizet’s other opera,” The Pearl Fishers may not be his most famous work, but it does contain one of his most adored pieces of music. The opera is set in Ceylon, what we currently know as Sri Lanka – an island nation off the southern coast of India. The story follows two friends, Nadir and Zurga, and their shared love for the priestess Leïla.  To preserve their friendship, the two agree to renounce their love for Leïla, and sing one of opera’s most popular duets, “Au fond du temple saint.” However, Nadir quickly goes back on his promise, and continues to pursue Leïla. When Zurga discovers this, he sentences both to death, only to release them in the end.

Despite its setting, The Pearl Fishers does not base its story on Ceylon culture, but rather uses the location as an aesthetic for costumes and scenery. It is also uncommon to see singers of South Asian descent in these roles. However, for the 10th anniversary gala at the Neemrana Music Foundation, the roles of Nadir and Zurga were taken by Amar Mucchala and Vikrant Subramanian.

“Lakmé” (Delibe) 1883

Lakmé at Opera Australia (Photo: Patrick Riviere)

Lakmé is a staple in the operatic repertoire, and contains one of the most popular duets in any opera (“The Flower Duet”). Léo Delibes based his Indian set opera on a Pierre Loti novel, Le Mariage de Loti. Lakmé takes place in the late nineteenth century during the British Raj, which has forced the Hindus to worship privately. The story begins with the famous “Flower Duet” between Lakmé and Mallika as they make their way to the riverbank. There she meets British officer Gérald and the two quickly fall in love. When Lakmé’s mother discovers what has happened, she swears revenge on the officer and stabs him in the second act. Lakmé nurses her lover back to health but soon senses that he intends to leave her to fulfill his duty. Heartbroken, she consumes a poisonous flower and dies in Gérald’s arms as he pledges his fidelity to her.

Aside from the famous “Flower Duet,” Lakmé nearly disappeared from American opera stages until Joan Sutherland performed the title role to great acclaim during the 1970s. Since then, more sopranos have taken on the role of Lakmé; however, there have been none of South Asian descent.

“Madama Butterfly” (Puccini) 1904

Madama Butterfly at English National Opera (Photo: Clive Barda)

On February 17, 1904, Puccini premiered one of his most popular operas at La Scala. Set in early 20th century Japan, Madama Butterfly tells of a young geisha, Butterfly, and her marriage to American sailor B.F. Pinkerton. Ultimately, Butterfly takes her own life after she is disowned by her family and abandoned by Pinkerton.

The story is based on Pierre Loti’s novel Madame Chrysantheme, which was later adapted into an opera of the same name by André Messager. However, Puccini was inspired by David Belasco’s play, Madame Butterly. After an successful premiere, Puccini revised the score, and Madama Butterfly would be one of his proudest works.

Puccini’s Madama Butterfly  was first performed for American audiences in 1907 featuring American soprano Geraldine Ferraro in the lead role of Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly). In 1915, the role was taken on by a Japanese soprano, Tamaki Miura, at the London Opera House. She would eventually perform the role in Chicago in the fall of that year, and the positive reviews she received from those performances helped increase her fame internationally. Today, the role of Madame Butterfly is rarely performed by sopranos of Asian descent.

“Turandot” (Puccini) 1924

Turandot at the Metropolitan Opera (Photo: Ken Howard)

Before Puccini’s death he composed one final opera, Turandot, which contains one of, if not the most famous tenor arias ever composed, “Nessun dorma.” Set in Peking, China, the opera opens with the execution of the Prince of Persia. Calaf, a young prince, sees Turandot carry out the execution, and falls deeply in love with her. However, Turandot will only marry the man who correctly answers her three riddles. Calaf accepts the challenge, and successfully solves each riddle. He tells her she does not have to marry him if she can guess his real name. To try to escape marrying Calaf, Turandot tortures a slave of Calaf’s, Liu, who reveals nothing and kills herself. Turandot marries Calaf and they live happily ever after.

The opera was banned in China until the end of the 20th century because of how China and the Chinese were portrayed. However, the ban was revoked in 1998 after an impressive performance in the Forbidden City. From 2007-2012, Turandot was the 16th most performed opera in the world.

“Yuzuru” (Ikuma Dan) 1952

Yuzuru at the New National Theatre, Tokyo

Known also as Twilight Crane, Yuzuru is a single act Japanese opera composed by Ikuma Dan in 1951. The story surrounds the lives of peasant Yohyō and his wife Tsū during the winter months in their mountain village. Unbeknownst to him, the couple’s love goes further back than Yohyō is aware. Years before their marriage, Yohyō rescued a crane by removing an arrow from its chest. The crane secretly takes human form and the two become husband and wife.

Tsū’s love and devotion towards her husband inspires her to weave cloth made from her own plumage. Discovering the precious cloth, the villagers encourage Yohyō to convince his wife to weave more cloth to sell in the city. Saddened by her husband’s new found greed and discontent, she agrees to weave another cloth knowing it could cost her life. Before Yohyō sees the error of his ways, Tsū presents him with the completed cloth, transforms back into a crane, and flies off into the night.

“The Last Savage” (Menotti) 1963

Kathleen Kim stars in The Last Savage (Photo: Ken Howard)

Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Last Savage may be one of the more controversial operas set southern Asia. In the opera, an anthropology major named Kitty travels to India in order to complete her thesis by discovering the “last savage”. She makes a deal with the Crown Prince of Rajaputana, agreeing to marry him once he finds her a savage. The prince convinces Abdul, a peasant, to play the role of a savage and the easily deceived Kitty returns to America with her “savage”.   After ruining a cocktail party, Abdul runs away. Months later, Kitty finds him hiding in a cave. She professes her love for him, and the two live happily ever after in the cave.

The Last Savage premiered at the Opéra-Comique in 1963 and debuted in America at the Metropolitan Opera the following year. However, with the recent assassination of John F. Kennedy and changing attitudes about race and ethnicity during the birth of civil-rights movement, the opera was unable to achieve success. The opera is rarely revived today.

“The Savage Land” (Cao Yu) 1987

The Savage Land in a performance at the 2015 Huayi Chinese Festival of Arts

The play The Wilderness, written in 1936 by Cao Yu, would become the inspiration for his son’s western style opera The Savage Land. The opera premiered in Beijing at the China Opera and Dance Theatre in 1987, then made its US debut in 1992 at the John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington. This would mark the first time a Western-style opera by a Chinese composer was staged by a major Western opera company. The original all-Chinese cast featured bass-baritone Sun Yu, tenor Jianyi Zhang, soprano Ying Yeh, and mezzo-soprano Yun Deng.

The story is set in rural China in the early 1900s and tells of Chou Hu, a young farmer who has been wrongly imprisoned. Upon his escape, he seeks revenge on the landlord, Jiao, who murdered his father and sister, and framed him. However, when he returns, he discovers that Jiao is dead, and his deceased son’s best friend is now living with his wife and the landlord’s blind widow, Jiao Mu. The remainder of the opera is filled with violence and death and ends with Chou and his wife escaping pursued by their ghosts – and the authorities.

“A Flowering Tree” (John Adams) 2006

A Flowering Tree at the Göteborg Opera in 2015

Based on a 2000-year-old South Indian folk tale, John Adams’s A Flowering Tree follows a girl named Kumudha as she attempts to save her family from poverty, and transforms into a tree in order to do so. She catches the eye of a prince, who marries her, and insists she transform into a tree. After being caught in the act by her sister-in-law, she is forced to perform the ritual once more but this time she is stopped from transforming back. The prince becomes devastated by his wife’s disappearance, and travels the country as a beggar. He eventually hears his wife’s voice and performs the ritual, and she returns to her human form once again. The opera was commissioned in honor of Mozart’s 250th  birthday, and the composer has suggested parallels between his own work and Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

“The First Emperor” (Tan Dun) 2006

The First Emperor (Photo: tandun.com)

Tan Dun’s 2006 opera The First Emperor incorporates many musical and theatrical styles from Chinese and Western operatic traditions. The story examines the life of emperor Qin Shi Huang (once the actual emperor of China) and his success in the unification of China and creation of the Great Wall. In doing this, however, the emperor loses his sense of humanity.

The original cast featured such names as Paul Groves (Gao Jianli), Elizabeth Futral (Princess Yueyang), and Plácido Domingo in the lead role of Emperor Qin. The production made its world premiere at the Met – a rare occurrence – and the performance cost around $2 million. All nine performances quickly sold out.

“Matsukaze” (Toshio Hosokawa) 2011

Toshio Hosokawa’s haunting Noh-inspired opera, Matsukaze (Photo: sashawaltz.de)

Noh is one of the oldest forms of operatic entertainment in Japan. For his opera Matuskaze, composer Toshio Hosokawa was inspired by a Noh drama of the same name that was originally created in the early 15th century by the master Zeami.  (He likely adapted a dance performance by his father, Kan’ami Kiyotsugu.)

As with many Noh dramas, the central characters in Matsukaze come from beyond the grave. Hosokawa’s opera follows two sisters, Matsukaze (which means Wind in the Pines) and Murasame (Autumn Rain), who died from grief after a man loved them and left them. They are discovered by a monk who listens to their story, and in doing so, allows them to finally rest.

Hosokawa’s Matuskaze, like traditional Noh, incorporates both music and dance as essential elements to tell the story. Hosokawa’s score cleverly creates some sounds you might hear from traditional Japanese instruments in a Noh performance, but using instruments you would find in a modern opera orchestra.