China on the European Operatic Stage

The Enlightenment's fascination with Chinese culture extended to the operatic stage. Scores, libretti, scenery, and costumes of the European stage were littered with exoticist symbols. While often taking their cue from scholarly accounts, these operatic chinoiseries – pentatonic scales, fanciful costumes, bells and gongs – stereotyped, reduced, and simplified the complexities of Chinese musical culture to reach European audiences.


China illustrata Costume Designs of Chinese Figures The Orphan of China
China illustrata
Athanasius Kircher
Amsterdam 1667
Costume Designs of Chinese Figures
Harvard Theatre Collection
Binney Collection 32 & 36
The Orphan of China
Arthur Murphy
London, 1759


While China often served as a backdrop for exotic entertainments, Chinese topics were also employed in a way that connected them to relevant issues in Europe. Several of these operas depicted Enlightenment ideals of overcoming selfish human desires to achieve a higher purpose. Monarchs in particular were depicted as virtuous and faithful to the highest moral principles. Like Enlightenment philosophers, European composers and librettists often held up Chinese society as an alternative model for the west, focusing their own critiques of European society around this idealized perspective.


Lebensbeschreibung seinem Sohne in die Feder diktiert Les Chinois The Orphan of China
Lebensbeschreibung seinem Sohne
in die Feder diktiert
Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf
1801 (facs. Regensburg, 1940)
Les Chinois
Giuseppe Sellitto
Paris, 1759
Pietro Metastasio
Florence, 1814