If I had to guess about my first real introduction to opera, it was back in the Napster days. I was in high school, and like many other kids who knew how to use the internet at that time, I was frequently solicited with musical requests once my parents got wind that there was a tool that could let you download all the Roberta Flack, Anita Baker and Stevie Ray Vaughan songs you could possibly want—and for free.
It’s how I learned about Edith Piaf, Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” and Luciano Pavarotti’s rendition of “Nessun Dorma.”
In an episode of the podcast Still Processing, New York Times writers Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham pay tribute to Whitney Houston. Morris, gushing about “I Will Always Love You,” says that there is a sort of chemical reaction that happens in your brain when you hear Houston hit those high notes. It’s the perfect way to describe how I felt about hearing Pavarotti hit that final chord change at the end of “Nessun Dorma,” and what’s kept me coming back to that aria ever since.
It’s been said that the sublime quality of Aretha Franklin’s voice comes from its ability to be many things at once: rich and earthy, clear and light. I feel the same way about Pavarotti’s tenor; it’s instantly recognizable. A voice that has both grace and power, heft and brightness. I didn’t know a damn thing about opera and can’t speak Italian, but by sheer repetition, I learned all the words to “Nessun Dorma.” And I know I’m far from the only one who’s experienced this.
When I saw that Turandot, the opera in which “Nessun Dorma” is featured, was playing at the Metropolitan Opera House, I knew I had found the perfect entry point into an art form that always felt a bit beyond my reach. I haven’t done a whole lot of fine-artsy things in New York City, and had resolved that I should do better with my time than sit in my apartment and scroll through Netflix. New York City is one of the places in the world where great opera is so accessible: It wasn’t difficult to find a ticket for a weekday performance for about $40.
It wasn’t until just before the night of the show that, prompted by a reminder email from the Met, I decided to review Turandot’s synopsis. As I scanned the plot points, my heart sank. Giacomo Puccini had set the opera in China; the story was about a foreigner in Beijing determined to win the heart of a Chinese princess who had a nasty habit of killing her suitors.
The story was about a China of the Western imagination—a fact that I could live with because, as an Asian American in her 30s, I have lived with it; I’m used to being forced to see Asia through that lens. What stung was that I knew this work of art based on a Chinese city, centered on Chinese characters, would be played by white opera singers.
Asians are frequently erased in Hollywood, even in stories that take place in their cities and communities, and that originate with Asian or Asian-American characters. While some operatic performances have drawn criticism for leaning too far into caricature, for the most part the world of opera has been insulated from the sort of widespread criticism that’s dogged film and television—primarily because it’s not as accessible to the American public in general, and people of color in particular.
There are places that instantly make me feel as though I’m part of something much greater and grander than myself: cathedrals, mountains, the cheese section at Whole Foods. The Metropolitan Opera House instantly became one of those places.
There is a grand staircase that leads you to each level of the opera house, from the orchestra section to the “family” section—aka the nosebleeds—where I sat. It’s easy to forget you’re in the cheap seats because nothing about the Met feels cheap: The floors and walls are covered in red velvet. Chandeliers set the light off in a million directions. And from the top floor, you can look down upon the Grand Tier restaurant, where the clinking of silver forks and champagne flutes reminds you that there are people who go to opera houses just to eat.
Before the opera even began, I was in awe.
And then Turandot delivered.
What I didn’t know before that night is that operas are marathon affairs: The show began at 7:30 p.m. but wasn’t scheduled to end until after 10 p.m. I was grateful for the two intermissions, but the time in between flew by. The set design was stunning, alternating between dark outdoor scenes and lavish palatial displays.
Up top where I sat, some of the audience peered through binoculars at the singers below, who seemed like mere figurines to me. The truth is, I was grateful for the distance: It allowed me to focus on the music, the athletic leaps and runs of the singers’ voices, without having to look at Eastern European faces peering out of imperial-Chinese costumes.
(During the second intermission, I winced as I heard a couple behind me, speaking in a European accent I couldn’t place, tell each other that the actors “really looked Chinese!”)
When “Nessun Dorma” came, at the beginning of the third act, you could hear the entire house hold its breath—for most of the audience, this is the song they came to hear. It didn’t disappoint. I would liken it to when you’re watching a basketball game and a crucial 3-point shot hangs in the air, just milliseconds before it reaches the net. There is that collective hush when you know everyone’s eyes are anticipating the same thing, when your hearts are all in the same place (somewhere in your throat). Listening to “Nessun Dorma” with hundreds of other operagoers felt like that.
I left the Met that night thinking I had just experienced one of the most beautiful pieces of art I had ever encountered. I felt immensely lucky and privileged to have witnessed it. It was also true that I felt uncomfortable, not just for the unease I felt as Europeans portrayed Asian characters, but also because I was reminded of the sort of compromises that people of color are frequently forced to make when engaging with fine art. I fell in love with opera that night, and I hope to go to another show at the Met, but there are two aspects of the experience that have stayed with me.
I didn’t have a full view of the stage from where I sat. There was a panel at the top of the stage that partially obscured my view: Anything placed at the top, toward the back of the stage, was hidden from me. It didn’t stop me from enjoying the show, although I periodically wondered what I was missing, how my view was different from what one saw from the seats in other parts of the house.
I thought about whether being a person of color and engaging with fine art in the West wasn’t a bit like this, to always be relegated to a back seat, someone whose view of the work is forever compromised by your position, your designation as a secondary audience.
I also remember my relief at those blurred faces, how the absence of their lips, eyes and mouths allowed me to focus on the art. I knew that seeing a white woman, her eyes painted and arched to resemble a Chinese princess, would break my heart—not because it was so singularly awful, but because the offense was so persistent as to become banal.
And I felt the isolation of that heartbreak, because I also knew that most of the audience wouldn’t notice. I wondered, then, if being a person of color trying to engage with Western fine art wasn’t a matter of having the art obscured but of seeing too much. Of being forced to see the granular details and blemishes that escaped other eyes.