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Tea Leaves

The remarkable ability of opera to defy cultural appropriation

Chinese soprano He Hui highlights the art's focus on ability, not nationality

Soprano He Hui, right, performs in Opera Hong Kong's "Tosca" in October 2015 with tenor Warren Mok. (Courtesy of Opera Hong Kong)

Opera Hong Kong's new production of "Aida" in October will feature a Chinese soprano playing an African princess singing in Italian.

At a time when cultural appropriation, whitewashing and other actual or perceived artistic infractions are topics of often heated discussion, opera has largely been given a pass. "Madama Butterfly" endures the occasional charge of being Orientalist, yet remains a favorite in Asia as well as with Asian sopranos. Western opera, or rather its audiences, have long been largely blind to color and ethnicity, something all the more remarkable since opera singers are not musicians but also actors, playing parts in a drama with settings usually explicitly defined in time and place.

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