2020 May Kirsten Flagstad -1206
icon-twitter icon-facebook

A Princess Comes Home


Ken Smith explores how ‘Turandot’ became China’s national opera


Back in 2008, when China was flushed with Olympic fervour and looking to trumpet its presence on the world stage, Beijing’s state-of-the-art National Centre for the Performing Arts boldly announced its first new production: a Turandot not just by an all-Chinese design team but also with a new ending by a Chinese composer. A year later, in the midst of an Olympic hangover and desperate for something to fill an underutilised 80,000-seat stadium, China turned to the film-maker (and Olympic ceremony director) Zhang Yimou for a tribute to mark the 60th anniversary of the country’s Communist Revolution. Zhang offered a high-tech, near-total reinvention of his lavish 1998 production in the Forbidden City that made his original seem positively intimate. In 2010, as Zaha Hadid’s US$202 million Guangzhou Opera House was nearing completion, local officials thought immediately of Zhang’s fellow film-maker Chen Kaige, whose more subtle rendering of Puccini’s final opera for the Palau de les Arts de Valencia seemed supremely well suited to the spirit and dimensions of Hadid’s venue.

The irony abounds on so many levels it’s hard to know where to begin. Chinese presenters—who evidently run in packs just as predictably as Western ones—have made their bid for grand opera’s international ranks with the very piece that marks the end of that tradition. In the country where Chinese singers have the greatest advantage, these productions have featured a preponderance of Western principals. And perhaps the ultimate irony: a piece which had been conspicuously absent from the country where it purportedly takes place has wound up becoming for all practical purposes China’s national opera.

Of course, one could make the point that Turandot was never really about China in the first place. The story was, rather, a French translation of a Persian folk tale, adapted by an Italian playwright and later reinvented by a German writer who had inspired a several of Italian composers, including, in this case, Puccini. Nor had China ever been the intended audience. But to detractors both Asian and Western this didn’t really help the matter. Western critics of orientalism have long disparaged Puccini’s final, unfinished opera as an ‘unconscious manifestation of racial arrogance’. Chinese saw the piece as laughably inaccurate both historically—the Forbidden City, where the opera is set, was built hundreds of years after the events supposedly take place—and culturally, since no Chinese regime would reduce an imperial wedding to the level of a game show, or treat people so savagely. Small wonder, then, that in the years since Turandot’s premiere, China—having endured Japanese occupation, a brutal civil war, the Great Leap Forward’s disastrous famines, and the Cultural Revolution’s violent eschewal of tradition both Chinese and Western—had little time for Puccini.

Not that Turandot was ever actually banned. Regulation in China is rarely that straightforward. Rather, applications to perform particular works come through on a case-by-case basis, and in the case of Turandot they were serially rejected for a variety of reasons. ‘Things like this are rarely a matter of national policy,’ says Qian Shijin, the artistic director of the Shanghai Grand Theatre. ‘It’s more like, this particular leader doesn’t like it, or that person might object. Particularly in the early years of reform [after 1978], some people were still very leftist in their thinking.’

In 1990, two separate productions had been proposed by the Shanghai Opera House and the Central Opera House in Beijing, Qian recalls. The Ministry of Culture expressed official displeasure, but essentially left the companies to deal with the problem themselves. The Beijing production was eventually downgraded to an abridged concert performance, but Shanghai moved forward with the opera’s first performance in China, at Shanghai City Hall (as with all Western operas at the time, in Chinese translation). Five years later, when the Central Opera House finally got the piece on the stage, the company performed it in Italian, making it the first time in the People’s Republic that foreign opera had been sung in the original language. The production, however, shifted the setting from China to an unidentified land in Central Asia, effectively removing the political sting.

By the end of the 1990s, Zhang Yimou achieved near Marco Polo-like status in the arts world for bringing this Western opera to China with his US$15 million production staged in the Forbidden City—or to be more precise, on the terrace of the Imperial Ancestral Temple, a public park that was formerly part of the imperial palace. Essentially a high-profile augmentation of Zhang’s cosier conception for the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino the previous year, the production had also been notable for bringing China to the West, with vivid visuals from traditional opera, many of which still resonate in modern Chinese society. Costumes consciously mixed motifs from various dynasties and ethnic minorities to create a legendary past with few direct connections to China’s actual history.

Zhang’s production may have garnered international headlines—and generated the definitive opera DVD recording of its era—but it hardly existed in a vacuum. It was, in fact, merely the chief manifestation of a growing trend. Although Turandot really picked up steam only after Pavarotti’s recording of ‘Nessun dorma’ became the theme song of the 1990 World Cup, several key opera houses in the West had already flirted with the idea of Chinese ‘authenticity’. In the late 1980s, the Metropolitan Opera had enlisted the Beijing-born dancer Chiang Ching to choreograph Franco Zeffirelli’s production, while Covent Garden had approached the Hong Kong-born, London-based dancer Carolyn Choa with the same idea in mind.

So too has the move towards ‘authenticity’ affected casting. ‘For Chinese singers, Turandot has become our Porgy and Bess,’ says Warren Mok, the New York-trained Chinese tenor who started his singing career in Berlin (see this month’s ‘People’, pp. 1460-8). Since relocating to Asia in the mid 1990s, Mok has sung Turandot around the world, making his debut with Calaf in dozens of companies from the Rome Opera to Opera Ireland. The Beijing-born bass Hao Jiang Tian first performed Timur at the Met in 1995 and by now has sung that role there more than any other singer since Bonaldo Giaiotti, who stepped down in 1970. A number of former Butterflies, including Zhang Liping and Nancy Yuen, have found Liù gaining prominence in their repertory.

In China, however, Turandot has stepped well beyond the Western opera house. In 2001, the Guangzhou Ballet developed a new dance piece based on the same story, and since that time the source material has been adapted in a broad range of traditional stage forms, from Peking opera to Cantonese opera—a move that also manages to emphasize the story’s European stage roots in commedia dell’arte. Traditional productions often play fast and loose with the narrative, eliminating some characters or adding others, but they all tend to keep some version of ‘Mo Li Hua’ (‘Jasmine Flower’), the Chinese tune that Puccini adapted in his score.

Even before the NCPA raised the stakes, though, Turandot had been gaining visibility in China on its original operatic terms. In 2005, Opera Hong Kong put a particularly local spin on the story, commissioning a production from the film-maker Ng See Yuen (whose biggest claim to fame internationally is discovering Jackie Chan) and casting a prominent local financier as the Emperor. Two years later, the Shanghai Grand Theatre took a more international approach, presenting Giancarlo Del Monaco’s futuristic production for the Zurich Opera House, featuring José Cura as a leather-clad Calaf solving Turandot’s riddles by logging onto the Internet.

By the time the NCPA had committed itself to presenting Western opera, there had been much debate—but very little question—about which piece would inaugurate the Centre’s newly-formed production department. ‘We thought carefully about how best to connect with the rest of the world,’ admits the NCPA’s president, Chen Ping. ‘First of all, we needed an opera that was a well-known classic. Second, it should have a Chinese theme, or at least some connection to Chinese culture. And third, it should also leave room for Chinese participation. Turandot answered all these points, and, frankly, Zhang Yimou’s production had done most of our marketing outreach already.’

Even Zhang, though, didn’t dare to rewrite the ending. Chen, on the other hand, having already enlisted the Puccini Festival Foundation as advisers and ingratiated the NCPA as part of the international celebrations for the composer’s 150th birthday, felt empowered to make as Chinese a production as possible. For a new ending, Chen called upon the services of Hao Weiya, a 36-year-old composer with proven stage experience (albeit of commercial extravaganzas like The Terracotta Warriors and Tang Concubines) and, more importantly, Italian academic credentials. Hao went back to Puccini’s original sketches and, with the Puccini Foundation looking over one shoulder and Chinese officials peering over the other, composed roughly 18 minutes of new music, which was revised several times over a period of eight months. ‘My goal,’ he said at a public forum the day after his music’s unveiling, ‘was to write something that the audience wouldn’t recognize as not being part of the opera as a whole.’

The key question, though, is which audience. Hao brings Turandot to a close by repeating ‘Jasmine Flower’, the one tune that Chinese and Westerners alike can hum leaving the theatre. But, before that, he offers a new aria for Turandot to explain Liù’s death as the reason for her psychological thaw from chilly ice princess to romantic love-interest. For Western listeners who find Franco Alfano’s conclusion to the opera relatively prosaic, Hao’s ending was hardly more satisfying. ‘It was Hollywood all the way,’ said one prominent critic upon leaving the hall. But, truth be told, the ending held to the conventions of Chinese opera as well. The NCPA’s Chen, who was, after all, the piece’s primary audience, was clearly happy with the results. ‘Hao’s new aria, “The First Tear”, was particularly effective,’ Chen claims. ‘Overseas versions of Turandot never portray the princess as changing her mind, but ours does. We have a happy ending and a sense of completion that perfectly fits Chinese culture.’

If Hao’s intent was to blend into the background, then the director Chen Xinyi, who made her opera debut with the NCPA’s Turandot after a distinguished career in spoken drama and Peking Opera, took her mission as quite the opposite. Her Turandot was, on one hand, an excuse to show off the NCPA’s formidable technical resources (for example, a hydraulic system that lifted the chorus as part of a stage-wide tableau). Rather than looking backward like Zhang Yimou, Chen’s designer Gao Guangjian spun a visual world that successfully negotiated a fine line between modernist fantasy and Chinatown kitsch. As part of Chen’s requisite happy ending, Timur was inexplicably cured of blindness and led the happy couple up the imperial stairway for their nuptials. ‘I’ve played this role in dozens of productions,’ a bemused Hao Jiang Tian exclaimed at the time; ‘Never before have I been able to see.’

Just how much impact these developments will have on the opera world at large is still unclear. Chen’s NCPA production has begun to tour other countries (though only in Asia), as has Zhang’s Olympic Stadium conception (though only in cities that have hosted the Olympics—a performance planned for London’s Wembley Stadium for summer 2012 mysteriously failed to materialize). The track record of hiring Chinese directors in the West, however, is at best mixed. The film-maker Allan Miller’s 1999 documentary The Turandot Project notes that the Florentine design team was almost unanimously scathing about Zhang’s aesthetic sense and patent lack of familiarity with the material. Zhang’s 2009 Olympic stadium production, which high-definition projections had already rendered beyond taste, was more problematic in acoustical terms. Amplified to the pain threshold, with little regard for echo, Susan Foster’s Turandot at one point sang a duet with herself.

What Chinese productions lack by being very well versed neither in Puccinian tradition in particular, nor in the Western operatic tradition in general, is usually compensated by their intuitive understanding of local audiences. Puccini has been steadily finding his way in China, and given that it took stagings of Turandot the better part of a century to understand or, frankly, care about the real China, then China has a few more years to catch up.

Cabbells April 2020 rectangle
2019-20 IOA