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Turandot Comes Home Again

Princess Turandot is arguably the best-known theatrical Chinese figure in the Western world, debuting in Puccini's opera Turandot in Italy in 1926.

After seven decades of popularity abroad, the opera is starting to become popular among Chinese artists.

In 1998, the acclaimed film director Zhang Yimou directed the opera staged both in the composer's home country and the Princess' home, the Forbidden City.

Almost at the same time, versions in Chuanju and Yueju operas, both written by Wei Minglun, were staged.

Then the Guangzhou Ballet Company produced Turandot and Chinese figure skaters Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo amazed the world with their performance to the accompaniment of Puccini's Turandot to win the gold in the 2003 World Championship of Figure Skating in March in Washington DC.

This week, China's Peking Opera Theatre is staging its own creative production of Turandot in Beijing.

The country's leading Peking Opera troupe invested more than 1 million yuan (US$120,800) to produce its version of the popular story.

Wu Jiang, president of the theatre, said he hopes to import the Western-made Chinese story, reproduce it in true Chinese style and then export it abroad.

The show premiered at Chang'an Theatre on November 22. It will run until December 5.

Audacious changes

Wu and his team focus on two tasks: revising the story itself to give it a more Chinese feel and packaging it to make it more stylish.

Although Puccini's opera is one of the most popular classic repertoires in the world, it is, from a Chinese perspective, only an Oriental story in Westerners' imagination.

Regular Chinese audiences do not like the cruel and icy Turandot. Nor do they like Calaf, Turandot's suitor and eventual husband, who is blind to the love Liu, his maid, has for him but pursues the bloodthirsty albeit beautiful princess.

Both Turandot's revenge and Calaf's love are pale and unconvincing, far from the norms and values of the ancient Chinese.

So Wu and playwright Kong Yuan drastically change the story.

In their version, Turandot is no longer the cruel, bloodthirsty princess who hates all men and determines that none shall ever win her heart because one of her ancestor princesses was brutally slain by a conquering prince.

Instead, the charming and bright princess who lives in the seclusion of the imperial palace seeks an honest man, true love and freedom for the common people.

She announces that any prince seeking to marry her must answer three riddles. If he fails, he will die, because she would consider him one of the 18 princes who are already eager for a marriage and are fighting each other while scheming for the crown of her father, King of the Yan Kingdom.

Each of the 18 princes has brought a troupe to the capital of the Kingdom, causing chaos. The whole city is on tenterhooks. Incapable officials and generals only show fear and don't know how to deal with this crucial situation.

That's when Turandot stands up, announces her three riddles and executes two of the sinister princes as a warning to the others.

More acceptable for a Chinese audience, the story highlights Turandot's intelligence and bravery. Both are sought after traits in traditional Chinese lore.

The controversial change is that Liu, Calaf's maid and the most important supporting role in the opera, has been written out.

Instead, Wu and his team created Lu Ling, who turns out to be more than Turandot's wet nurse.

In fact, the playwrights have developed a complicated background for Lu, a role who only appears secondhand through Turandot's words in Puccini's original.

Wu and his team unveil an entangled story of love and hatred among Lu Ling, who was once a herds girl, and Timur, Calaf's father.

Lu falls in love with Timur, but Timur's father, then King of a small kingdom, can't accept a herds girl as his daughter-in-law and forces her to leave his son and marries her to King Yan as a gift.

Turandot is born from that marriage.

But Lu cannot forget Timur and enrages King Yan.

He punishes her by forcing her to serve Turandot as a maid and forbids her from telling the princess she is her mother.

Thus, two love stories from two generations are interwoven into the play, which makes it more complicated and dramatic than any former version.

Wu says cancelling Liu "makes the love between Turandot and Calaf more pure."

He said Liu is a lovely and touching character willing to give up anything, including her life, to protect Calaf, but weakens the personality of the prince who neglects Liu's true love and pursues the cruel princess only because of her charming looks.

"Even when he succeeds and finally marries Turandot, their love is not so beautiful as far as the Chinese are concerned," said Wu.

Besides, he said the tragic affair between Turandot's mother and Calaf's father provides a more convincing reason for the love between Turandot and Calaf and their hate for the insulated life of the imperial family.

The younger generation's rebellion gene comes from their parents.

In order to make the production appealing to audiences besides the regular Peking Opera fans, the crew and cast try to change the traditional style and borrow the best from other art forms to enhance the production.


Since its premiere, Turandot has evoked heated discussions among fans and critics.

Some insiders support the reform and praise Wu's courage.

Mei Baojiu, a renowned Peking Opera artist, son of the late renowned Peking Opera actor Mei Lanfang (1894-1961), said the new production is "very different from those classic Peking Opera repertoires as it is adapted from a Western opera. It is hard to measure it strictly against the traditional standard.

"Every theatrical genre needs development," Mei Baojiu said. "For example, the Mei School has developed for nearly a century and today's style has been different from the very beginning.

"So I praise their exploration in developing Peking Opera performance," he said.

However, some fans have had harsher words to say about some of the "improvements."

Liu Naicong, former chief editor of China Drama, said he does not like Lu's spoken parts which are not in the classical Peking Opera recitative style.

"It sounds strange that all the other performers speak in the classical style, but only Lu speaks in the style of a modern conversation. Besides, one of the theme arias sung by Lu is neither folk song, nor a Peking Opera aria. The aria sounds too pale to express her love and longing for Timur," he said.

Many fans have shown dissatisfaction with the score composed by Zhu Shaoyu. They say the veteran Peking Opera composer, who has won wide acclaim for his scores of Peking Opera plays, including Hunchbacked Minister (Zaixiang Liu Luoguo), Cai Wenji and Poem of Fairy Luoshen (Luoshen Fu), did not do so well in Turandot.

He weaves the famous Chinese folk song Jasmine which features in Puccini's score and the most well-known aria Nessum dorma into his score for the play.

In some scenes, it sounds natural, while in others, it fails to achieve the effect.

"Some arias are similar to folk songs or pop songs in style, and they are not Peking Opera," said Li Shuo, a retired worker and a Peking Opera fan. "We did not fully enjoy the whole show."

The colourful costumes, high-tech dazzling lighting, song-like tunes and contemporary choreography have been the new elements the production crew adopt to try to lure younger theatre-goers.

But things are not that simple.

Chang Jie, 23, who works in an IT company, said: "The most important element of a play is not its visual or audio attraction. I came to see the story and feel the love, but I was disappointed. The story is far from convincing and the love fails to touch me."

Zhang Xinyu, a 19-year-old student from a hairdressing training school, said: "Although I am not a fan of Peking Opera, there are a few familiar tunes that my grandfather always sings which impressed me and I even learned some of them.

"But after seeing the play, I could not remember any aria and the lyrics are not as elegant and literary as those in traditional plays," Zhang said.

Besides the tunes and performing style, many viewers also criticize the two dream scenes that the team designed to highlight the play.

They say the crew has made a clumsy copy of the famous dream scene in a classical opera play. The two dreams do not fit the plot.

In one, Turandot dreams of meeting Calaf. The two Peking Opera artists, Deng Min as Turandot and Huang Bingqiang as Calaf, perform a ballet pas de deux choreographed by Wu Bei from Beijing Academy of Dance.

Both Deng and Huang have tried their best but only put in so-so performances in those scenes.

But Wu said he is very satisfied with the dances and is considering bringing the production to the Western market.

(China Daily December 2, 2003)

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