Arts and Entertainment

Turandot: A Western Appreciation of Eastern Culture

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By Albert Shen

In 1924, the final year of the great opera composer’s life, Giacomo Puccini visited his friend, Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini, begging him not to lbert“let my Turandot die.” Puccini passed away before he could finish his last opera, Turandot (1926). Though Turandot’s original creator could not see the work through, the third act of the opera would be completed by fellow composer Tito Ricordi II, and it would live on forever. Turandot is one of the most performed operas of all time and is among the last operas being performed in the Met Opera’s 2023-2024 season.

Turandot is considered “[Puccini’s] latest and most ambitious project… the last great Italian opera,” according to the Met Opera. The opera tells the story of Prince Calàf, a Tartarian prince, who falls in love with the Chinese princess Turandot when he goes to Beijing with his father, Timur, and his servant, Liù. He expresses his desire to marry Turandot, but he is warned by three ministers that in order to do so, he must answer three riddles correctly, or he will be sentenced to death. Prince Calàf’s fear of death does not overwhelm his lust for Turandot, however; he steps up and bangs the gong three times, signifying his taking up of Turandot’s challenge. The next day, he is brought to the Imperial Palace, where he correctly answers all three of Turandot’s riddles. Still, Turandot has no intentions of marrying him and begs her father, the emperor, not to marry her off. Calàf proceeds to offer a challenge of his own: if she learns his name by dawn, he will withdraw the marriage and offer his own life. Turandot accepts, commanding the crowd and the ministers to use whatever method to learn his real name. They manage to capture Timur and Liù and plan on torturing them, but Liù claims to be the only one who knows Calàf’s identity and kills herself, burying the secret away. Turandot realizes what she has done and is in deep distress, while Calàf sees it as an opportunity to win Turandot’s heart. The two converse, and the scene ends with a kiss from Calàf that changes her mind. At dawn, Turandot proclaims in front of a crowd that she has learned the prince’s name: it is “Love.” 

The Met Opera’s program describes Turandot as “A Western projection of the East, rife with contradictions, distortions, and racial stereotypes(…)”. It is apparent that the opera is inspired by East Asian themes, but it bears very little resemblance to the cultural tropes of ancient China. For instance, the names given to the three ministers are Ping, Pang, and Pong, and the name, Turandot, was borrowed from the Persian term for princess: Turandokht. The opera is a product of Western fantasies of the mystified and exotified Eastern culture; however, it nonetheless fully showcases the composer’s admiration for the elusive East. Puccini incorporated several Chinese themes—introduced to him through a music box gifted from a diplomat—throughout the composition, with the most notable being Turandot’s leitmotif (a motif that represents a character or an event), which came from a Chinese folk melody Mò lí hūa (jasmine flower).

It is always exhilarating to watch a Turandot performance, and the Met Opera excellently showcases how impressive this experience can be. One of the best moments in the Met’s performance takes place between the first and second scenes of Act II. As the three ministers finish their conversation and get ready to welcome Prince Calàf into the Imperial Palace to face his challenge, the light in the theater darkens while the music goes on. The set and background from the previous scene—which consist of three houses and some furniture—are lifted entirely under the cover of darkness. The audience anxiously awaits the revealing of the new scene as a wave of actors rush onto the stage. Suddenly, the orchestra plays an inspiring and majestic tune that resembles a victory march, and the stage lights up, revealing the splendid Imperial Court. The court is very intricately and beautifully decorated with an outer ring of pathways surrounding a lake. Four bridges in a cross pattern connect the outer ring to an inner platform, and the Emperor sits in the back of the court. Several Imperial officials and guards elegantly march up the stage while almost a hundred choir members dressed in fabric clothes sit at the front.

The lighting up of the scene was perfectly matched with the first notes of the march theme played by the orchestra, catching the audiences off-guard with a mood change from serene and ambiguous to utmost glory and majesty. Someone starts applauding, others follow, and soon the applause fills up the house, almost covering up the music itself. Although applauding is normal during an opera, it usually occurs after an aria; one rarely sees the audience give this much applause to a scene change.

The “Nessun Dorma (No One Shall Sleep Tonight)” aria occurs at the beginning of the third act and is the most famous aria in the opera. Tenor Seokjong Baek, with his rich voice, gave a sensational performance here. His singing contained the prideful feelings of Calàf, victorious after answering the three riddles and proposing his own challenge to the princess.

Turandot is a must-see opera as it is not only one of the most musically inspiring and emotional operas ever written but also because its setting is more grand and complicated than most Italian operas. Though Turandot might’ve fallen into stereotypical traps, the Met’s production is filled with awe and ingenuity, and it is clearly the most visually gorgeous production this season. If you are an opera enjoyer or someone who wishes to learn more about operas, make sure to see Turandot when it returns to the Met.