Opera is rich in works that construct visions of the non-Western world and its inhabitants: Rameau's Les Indes galantes, Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Bizet's Les Pêcheurs de perles, Verdi's Aida, Strauss's Salome, Puccini's Turandot. In these operas the representation of what recent critical theory calls ‘the Other’ is most clearly announced in the basic plot, in characters' names, and in costumes, sets and props. But to what extent do the libretto and the music also participate in this project?
The question easily lends itself to a narrower formulation: to what extent do these operas signal Otherness – Turkishness, Indianness, Chineseness and so on – through musical materials that depart from Western stylistic norms or even reflect specific musical practices of the region in question? Scholars and critics have repeatedly posed the problem in these terms, only to find themselves frustrated by three limitations: general stylistic aberrations are often applied indiscriminately by composers to vastly different geographical settings; borrowed tunes and the like tend to lose distinctive features by being uprooted and transplanted; and whole stretches of these operas are written in an entirely Western idiom.