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Chinese opera in America has several intertwined histories that have developed from the mid-19th century onward to inform performances and representations of Asian Americans on the opera stage. These histories include Chinese opera theater in North America from 1852 to 1940, Chinese opera performance in the ubiquitous Chinese villages at various World Fairs in the United States from 1890 to 1915, the famous US tour of Peking opera singer Mei Lanfang from New York to Chicago and San Francisco in 1930, a constellation of imagined “Chinese” opera and yellowface plays from 1880 to 1930, and the more recent history of contemporary opera created by Asian Americans commissioned by major opera houses. Some of these varied histories are closely intertwined, not all are well understood, and some have been simply forgotten. Since the mid-19th century, Chinese opera theater has become part of US urban history and has left a significant imprint on the collective cultural and historical memory of Chinese America. Outside of Chinese American communities arose well-known instances of imagined “Chinese” opera, yellowface works that employ the “Chinese opera trope” as a source of inspiration, or Western-style theatrical works based on Chinese themes or plotlines. These histories are interrelated, and have also significantly shaped the reception and understanding of contemporary operas created by Asian American composers and writers. While these operatic works of the late 20th and early 21st centuries are significantly different from those of earlier moments in history, their production and interpretation cannot escape this influence.

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Allusions to ancient Greece and Rome are pervasive in Victorian culture, in literary texts and material artifacts, on the popular stage, and in political discourse. Authors such as Matthew Arnold, Thackeray, Tennyson, Clough, Pater, Wilde, and Swinburne studied Latin and Greek for years at school or university and exploited their classical learning for creative purposes. The sheer familiarity of classical culture, based on years of studying Homer and Virgil at school, made it possible for intellectuals to draw parallels between contemporary political reforms and the democratic context of Greek tragedy, or to insist, like Arnold, that Periclean Athens should be a model for 19th-century Britain. At a time when the predominance of Latin and Greek in formal education was beginning to be questioned, there was increasing demand for translations and adaptations of classical literature, history, and myth, so that a wider readership could share in the richness of the classical inheritance. Outsiders were particularly eager to learn Greek or read Greek texts in translation, and authors such as Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and George Eliot achieved a remarkable degree of proficiency with little assistance. Greek epic and tragedy were appropriated by the authors of dramatic monologues, novels, and theatrical burlesques to engage with contemporary concerns about marriage and divorce, the role of women, and the apparent impossibility of heroism in the modern world. Toward the end of the period, classical literature was increasingly scrutinized from new perspectives: approaches based on anthropology, archaeology, and sociology presented familiar texts in new ways and opened up possibilities for redefining aspects of gender and sexuality in the contemporary world.