While opera began in Europe, the revered art form has made its way all over the globe. Due to its popularity, the opera has been created to depict many other cultures than the composers have experienced.

We would like to take a look at some operas that have a setting in an Asian culture.


1. Il corsaro

Created by celebrated Italian opera composer Giuseppe Verdi, this opera title means The Corsair, which is a pirate. Francesco Maria Piave penned the libretto of this poem with the help of the Lord Byron poem The Corsair and the setting is a Turkish city called Corone and some Aegean islands ruled by the corsairs.

Corrado is the leader and living in exile from Turkey. Yet, when a letter is sent to him revealing military secrets about Seid, the Pasha of Turkey, Corrado gathers his men to head for Turkey. In the meantime, Medora, who loves Corrado, misses him and sings about visions of darkness in the future. Corrado arrives and the duo proclaims their love together in song.

Meanwhile, in Turkey, Gulnara is a harem girl for the Pasha Seid, and he has proclaimed her to be his favorite of all the girls. Gulnara is not happy with her situation though. She may have the Pasha’s attention and the service of all the other harem girls but she yearns to find true love.

When the Pasha sends his troops to meet the corsairs for battle, he hosts a celebration for his expected win. That is until a Dervish appears claiming to have been held captive by the corsairs. Yet, when they look out to sea they see the Pasha’s ships are in flames.

Corrado reveals himself as the Dervish and the corsairs annex the party. Just when the corsairs and Corrado are on the winning side, he sees that the harem room is in flames and the captain of corsairs decides to rescue the women. To his error, Corrado does not see the Pasha and his Turkish men regain power and take over the corsairs.


2. Marco Polo

This opera in Asia, with an Asian set and environment, was created by Asian composer Tan Dun. Paul Griffiths wrote the libretto in English, and, although the writer and the setting are Asian the premiered was in Munich in May of 1996. The plot is constructed around the travels of Marco Polo that led him to China. Yet it has been called an “opera within an opera” and is considered a “multi-layered” tale.

The title character is split into two roles, one named Marco, who is the real man, and Polo, who embodies his recollections. The music is created by contemporary instruments, instruments derived from medieval Europe, and instruments like the sitar, the sheng, table, and pipa, which represent the cultures Marco Polo crossed on his journey. This Asian opera was presented with the Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition in 1998.

While this Asian work was premiered in 1995, it was contracted to the composer by the Edinburgh International Festival nearly a decade earlier. Dun and Griffiths didn’t complete until the last decade of the 20th century. It premiered at on May 7th at the Munich Biennale with Martha Clarke in the director’s chair.

Two years later Marco Polo debuted in the United States on November 8th performed by the New York City Opera. In 1998 a concert of the music was given at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, located in West Yorkshire, England. And in November of 2008 there was a revival given in Amsterdam at De Nederlandse Opera.


3. Amelia

Daron Hagen, who is an American from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, composed our next opera with an Asian setting, placing his story in Vietnam. Told in two acts, the narrative written in libretto by Gardner McFall, was inspired by a tale written by Stephen Wadsworth. It was commissioned by the Seattle Opera in 2007, something the company had not done for a quarter of a century.

A grant of $500,000 from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation was allotted for the underwriting of two revivals. Placed in the United States and Vietnam for three decades beginning in the mid 1960s, Amelia is the story of woman who is pregnant and finds herself thinking of her father who died in the war.

Amelia’s father was a pilot for the United States Navy and during the opera time fluctuates back and forth while intertwining fantasy, reality, historical figures, and creatures of legend. A review in the Wall Street Journal called Amelia “highly original and gripping” that exemplifies traditional values in a contemporary piece.


4. Ashig Garib

Our next opera in Asia is placed in Azerbaijan, which is located west of the Caspian Sea, located in the South Caucasus, near the Caucasus Mountains, partially located in Western Asia, as well as Eastern Europe. Composed by Azerbaijani native Zulfugar Hajibeyov the premiere of this opera was set in this Asian country’s capital Baku. It premiered in 1916 at the theater of Haji Zeynalabdin Taghiyev named after a national industrial magnate and philanthropist.  

Local vocalists played the roles including Huseyngulu Sarabski, Hueynagha Hajibababeyov, Ahmad Badalbayli, and Rubaba Muradova.


5. Les pêcheurs de perles

Meaning The Pearl Fishers, this opera was written by Georges Bizet, who is a famous French composer. Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré penned the libretto and it opened in Paris at the Théâtre Lyrique on September 30, 1863. The story is set in Ceylon, which is now known as Sri Lanka.

The tale follows two men who make a vow to be friends until the end of time. That is, until they both fall in love with the same woman. Yet, this isn’t the biggest conflict in the tale. The woman has taken an oath to serve the Lord as a priestess and she also longs for love that religion cannot give her.

“Au fond du temple saint” is a song sung by the two friends and is a duet that is highly recognizable in the Western opera world. The composer had not even reach his twenty-fifth birthday when he was offered the commission to compose this piece. Bizet had just won the Prix de Rome, a French scholarship for art students.

When it premiered, the reception was primarily positive from the audience but the critics in print, they were unreceptive and trivializing to Bizet’s creation. Other composers of the day including Hector Berlioz, stood by the composition and recognized the talent involved in creating the piece, the premiere is the only time Bizet would ever see it performed. Yet, after a few decades had passed, Les pêcheurs de perles was rediscovered and has gone on to become a regular piece performed by opera houses worldwide.

The only score with Bizet’s signature had vanished after productions in the late 19th century, and future productions took a turn musically as it was adapted by directors. Since the late 20th century there has been a greater focus on returning the piece to the way Bizet wrote it. At times, it was called uneven yet contemporary historians feel is shows Bizet’s talent in creating melody.


Check out these fabulous ballet and opera theaters around the Asian continent!

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