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Notes on Turandot by Dr. Hiro Nishikawa

By Dr. Hiro Nishikawa

Like many a longtime opera goer, I had seen Turandot on stage before. Also, I have a DVD recording of a super grand performance led by Zubin Mehta at the Forbidden City in Beijing, China in 1988, which has been viewed a couple of times. What is compelling about Turandot is the memorable music. Among visually grand performance/presentations in opera-dom, Turandot is ‘up there’ in elaborate costuming and multiple choruses entailing lots of singers and supernumeraries (on-stage extras). Opera Philadelphia did not disappoint in this.

Our vantage point in the Academy of Music was from the Balcony Circle center, second row—which gave a full view of the grand staging. However, without opera glasses, we could not discern details of facial makeup of the singers. We could see the dark faces of Timur, sung by basso Morris Robinson, as well as Handmaiden #1 sung by soprano Veronica Chapman-Smith—both African American. But we could not see details of facial makeup such as coloring, eye-shadow, mustache, etc.

From our seats, sopranos Christine Goerke (Turandot) and Joyce El-Khoury (Liu), as well as tenor Marco Berti (Calaf) had facial lightness, but any eye makeup to suggest ‘Asian-ness’ was not discernable. With the three commedia dell’arte characters: Ping, Pang, and Pong, we could not discern who was Asian (Pang, Julius Ahn) or not (Ping, Daniel Belcher and Pong, Joseph Gaines). Except for their distinctive and colorful costumes and different singing lyrics, one could not tell them apart with respect to the ethnicity of the singers. The music knitted them together.

As opera story plots go, the tragedy that befalls character Liu is not unknown. In Turandot, Liu happens to be Asian. Floria (in Tosca) who also has a comparable tragic ending happens to be Italian. Regardless of ethnic and setting context, opera plots abound with tragic male and female characters.

Operas are fantasies. The music is what draws audiences—despite the wide, culturally diverse ears that they may bring to hear. (For several mornings after the opera, I would awake hearing ‘Nessun dorma’ in my head.) A composer’s work reflects the inspiration and imagination of their living era. Turandot by Puccini is no exception. Can its presentation reflect changes in keeping with the times of the audience? Yes. It will be limited only by the sensitivity of the performing artists and producers, as well as their imagination and creativity to produce art of wider appeal and relevance—and resonance.

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