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Turandot in Beijing
October, 1997. I'm standing on the steps of The Hall of Supreme Harmony, one of the magnificent Imperial buildings in Beijing's Forbidden City. In front of me is an area so vast and grand that it almost takes one's breath away.
The Forbidden City, into which entry was blocked for all but those on Imperial business until 1911, occupies 720,000 square meters. It contains buildings that are a signpost to former grandeur -- The Palace of Celestial Tranquility, The Hall of Mental Cultivation, The Gate of Imperial Prosperity, The Tower of Enhanced Righteousness, The Palace of Peaceful Old Age, The Hall of Martial Valor and The Hall of Preserving Harmony being just some of the 9,999 rooms that make up this city-within-a-city.
With me is Joanna Cameron, head of a US-based boutique-tour company that focuses on high-quality special-interest tours. Her eyes are aglow with excitement. "Just imagine it," she says. "What a setting for Turandot! And with some of the world's greatest stars from the musical scene, backed by a huge cast of Chinese musicians, actors and singers. It will be sensational!"
And no setting could be better. Anyone who has seen the movie "The Last Emperor" will have an idea of the grandeur that comes naturally to this marvelous venue, and the sense of history here that is so strong that one can almost feel and touch it.
Could any piece of music performed here be more suited to this atmosphere than Giacomo Puccini's Turandot? This Italian composer had an ongoing love affair with the romance of the Orient. Anyone who has seen "Madame Butterfly" flutter by will have been delighted by the wonderful music and storyline that Puccini conjured up about Japan. And, over 75 years ago in Turandot, he did the same with China. Turandot follows the life of a cold-hearted Chinese princess who lived in Beijing's Forbidden City. In order to avoid marriage she declared that any suitor must answer three riddles correctly -- or die.
The opera opens after a Persian Prince is executed for being unable to answer the beautiful icy princess's riddles. An unknown, Prince Calaf, upon seeing Princess Turandot for the first time, is smitten and announces that he will try and solve the riddles and win her hand in marriage. His father's young female servant, the slave Liu, expresses her love for Calaf in a moving solo. And so the classic format is set -- the eternal triangle comprising the Prince, the cold-hearted princess and the faithful servant-girl.
Princess Turandot is a contrast to Puccini's other heroines who were sweet and obedient young women, powerless and doomed to suffer and then die for love. Turandot is the manipulator, a powerful figure exerting control even over her father, the Emperor of China, who is alarmed by the executions of would-be suitors. However, he feels that he cannot break his promise to this willful daughter that he will endorse her cruel plan to make the finding of a husband as difficult as possible.
Turandot has entered the standard repertoire of every major opera company and has been enjoyed by countless audiences since its first performance just over seventy years ago.
Puccini had almost completed the work with only the final duet to be completed, when he was rushed to a Brussels clinic to be treated for a throat tumor, dying of heart failure just a few days after an unsuccessful operation.
Fortunately he had left fragments and concepts for the final duet in which Princess Turandot is transformed by the unknown Prince's kiss into a warm-hearted woman capable of love.
A former pupil of Puccini's, Franco Alfano was commissioned by the conductor Arturo Toscanini to complete the opera using the master's final sketches. Toscanini conducted the premiere of Turandot at La Scala in Milan in April 1926. However the new section by Alfani was not performed on this opening night.
Following Liu's death scene, which precedes the final duet between Calaf and Turandot, Toscanini, a sentimental Italian, put his baton down, turned to the audience and simply announced "Here the Maestro died." The cynic might suggest he was also a savvy marketing man, because after the drama and majesty of the opera to that point, very few people could resist returning to any of the following performances to see the happy ending written by a favored student of Puccini.
Although Turandot has been a popular favorite in the repertoire of Western opera companies, it has fared much harder in China, the country of its setting. Since the early days of the People's Republic, Western opera had not been readily tolerated and traditional Chinese opera was the only medium encouraged. Any Western operas, on the few occasions where these were allowed, had to be translated into, and sung in, Chinese. At this point two remarkable Japanese, Yoichiro Omachi, one of Japan's leading conductors and Yasuhiko Sata, a opera-loving industrialist and philanthropist came into the picture.
Omachi and his long-time friend Herbert von Karajan had often talked about their dream of staging Turandot at Beijing's Forbidden City where Puccini had intended the opera to be performed in the first place. One day he mentioned this to Yasuhiko Sata, a Tokyo doctor with a formidable reputation for producing superb operating-theater equipment.
Sata, a handsome, debonair man of the world who also owns a luxury chateau and golf course in Burgundy, and who heads the Japanese chapter of the French-based Chevaliers du Tastevin, has a reputation for not accepting "no" for an answer. He decided that his company should financially sponsor Turandot in Beijing and threw his formidable efforts behind the project. And this was not an easy task. The Beijing opera had not performed in foreign languages for many decades, and it was extremely difficult to get permission to do so.
But once the Chinese realized the benefits of staging Turandot in Beijing for the first time and with an Asian cast, the stage was set. Omachi came to Beijing in August and October 1995 to direct the cast in training and the event, opening at Beijing's Central Opera Theater, proved extremely popular. Full-house crowds loved the performances -- so much so that even the late Deng Xiaoping's daughter had to wait two weeks before she could get seats to attend Beijing's Turandot. The Chinese-Japanese co-production had not only been most successful, but had lifted the status and morale of the Chinese Opera Company enormously. So much so that performances were repeated -- again as successfully -- in 1997.
Having seen the potential, and the way having been smoothed by the success of the Omachi-Sata production, international opera aficionados now looked for an even more grandiose and extravagant offering. This time fifteen million US dollars would be spent, the performance would combine the very best foreign and Chinese talent of opera, stage and direction, and a spectacular performance, planned for September 1998 and held in the Forbidden City was arranged. The Maggio Musicale Fiorentino of Italy, internationally renowned conductor, Zubin Mehta, famous Chinese Film and Stage Director Zhang Yimou, and the Government of the People's Republic of China teamed up to produce what many say will be the benchmark opera event of the Twentieth Century.
Zubin Mehta, whose father Mehli Mehta, is the Musical Director of the American Youth Symphony in Los Angeles, is one of the most sought-after conductors of our time. Even as a young man Zubin conducted the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics, and was Musical Director of the New York Philharmonics for some years. He has conducted the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, has a lifetime appointment with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and was Chief Conductor of the Florence Opera House/Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, among many other appointments and honors. This year he will begin a five-year appointment as Musical Director of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich.
Zhang Yimou, is a Chinese Film Director who has crossed the cultural barriers and shown the Chinese way of life to Western audiences in films with international credits including "Red Sorghum," "Ju Dou," "Raise the Red Lantern" and "Shanghai Triad." He has been awarded a Silver Lion Prize at the Venice Film Festival, three Hollywood Oscar nominations, and a Golden Bear Award at the Berlin Film Festival. And the lead voices that will ring across the Forbidden City this September will belong to some of Europe's, America's and China's greatest operatic personalities.
When Turandot is performed in the Forbidden City, from the 5th to the 13th of September, 1998, the production will be magnificent -- a combined effort between the Teatro Comunale di Firenze, the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Opera on Original Site, Inc., the People's Republic of China Ministry of Culture, the China Association for International Friendly Contact, the Zhonghui Film Co. Ltd. and the Chinese Performing Arts Agency.
The Chorus and Orchestra of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino will be conducted by Maestro Zubin Mehta, while the whole performance will be directed by Zhang Yimou and choreographed by Chen Weiya.
And the cast is equally formidable. Turandot will be played by Maria Guleghina, Audrey Stottler and Sharon Sweet. Liu will be played by Angela Maria Blasi, Barbara Frittoli and Barbara Hendricks, and Calaf will be sung by Lando Bartolini, Kristjan Johansson and Sergej Larin. The other voices will be equally impressive.
"I just can't wait to take my tour to Beijing for this performance," Joanna Cameron told me. "I know Beijing because I've taken many specialist groups there, and this one to include Turandot will be fantastic. Beijing is fabulous for sightseeing. There are now excellent places to dine in this marvelous city. And then to watch this sensational performance -- What a great mix of the best of everything! I haven't looked forward to anything as much as this for years."
Cameron is totally fascinated by the Forbidden City. "I find the romance and history of this place a knock-out. The performance will take place in the very area where China's Last Emperor, Pu Yi, held his wedding in 1922. It is in front of the People's Cultural Palace, the public recreational area next to the Meridian Gate that comes through from Tiananmen Square. The original Temple of the Imperial Ancestors was established there in 1420 and even the newer rebuilt structure goes back to 1797. Can you possibly imagine a more appropriate or historic setting?"
"The space between the Palace of Heavenly Purity and the 'People's Cultural Palace' will be the site of the Turandot production," she told me. "Red and yellow, the colors once reserved only for the Emperor, will be featured heavily and the front facade of the Palace will be incorporated into the sets. There will be only eight performances in September 1998."
The area where once only Noblemen, Court Dignitaries and the Emperor himself would receive guests, will now be the open air venue for the staging and the audience. The palatial compound in front of the People's Cultural Palace is surrounded by gardens forming a peaceful and beautiful backdrop to a dramatic love story.
Zhang Yimou, responsible for the staging of Turandot, sees himself not only as the interpreter of Puccini's intentions but also as giving full reign to time-honored Chinese traditions as he weaves the emotional language of this ancient culture through the Italian master's work. Zhang has worked with Zubin Mehta before, on an earlier production of Turandot in 1997 at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino which caused a sensation. And it is this production which forms the basis of the unique Turandot in the Forbidden City.
Costumes and decor will be breathtaking, as Zhang Yimou insists that authenticity and artistic handicraft be observed in the making of both the costumes and the decor which will fill the 82-meter (270ft) wide venue. Authentic drums from the Emperor's era will announce the start of the opera, while large-scale, hand-decorated panels covered with red and gold-leaf will take the place of a stage curtain.
The impressive space provides a challenge to sound engineers to provide the correct amplification for the large audiences expected. The weather conditions should be well nigh perfect as September in Beijing is dry and mild, making it ideal for open-air performances.
The cast in this 15-million-US-dollar production will consist of 1,000 participants -- 350 alone from Florence. The chorus and extras will be augmented by Chinese artists.
Conductor Mehta cannot wait for the opening. "Opera lovers always have wished to experience a performance of Turandot in its original setting where the genius of Puccini placed his masterwork," he says. "For years I have dreamed of conducting such an event. Now this dream comes true. This event will be remembered forever in the history of music."
For now the technical teams plan, the musicians and artists rehearse, and the Forbidden City waits, a backdrop to a story of the triumph of love, a once-in-a-century project in a setting that has witnessed some of the grandest moments of Chinese civilization.
Walter & Cherie Glaser are an international travel-writing team based down under in Melbourne, Australia.