On ‘Turandot’

Guest post by Jon Lindgren

Here at last we have an opera with a happy ending—a love story that, despite much pain and suffering along the way, ends well while embracing a core principle of the power of love to overcome hatred. This accomplishment is revealed to us with unwavering certainty about the depth and breadth in life’s possibilities for making us better than we knew we could be. For me a key to unlocking this transforming message has been to apply the insight expounded by Umberto Eco in his 1985 essay regarding the abundance of clichés deployed in the classic movie, Casablanca. Eco states “Two clichés make us laugh. A hundred clichés move us.” Our method in attempting to absorb the power of Puccini’s Turandot consists in exploring some of the “clichés” embedded therein.


Franco Zeffirelli production of Puccini’s “Turandot,” Metropolitan Opera, Spring 2018.

Let’s get beyond thinking of them as clichés, however, because of the negative connotations of the term. How they function within the opera can instead be identified more precisely as myths, truisms, folk tales, legends, and the like: these are the common cultural inheritance of any groups of peoples, which forms the essence of our identity and values. They are not mere myths to be distrusted and thrown out; quite the reverse. To begin our inquiry let us begin with three clichés of central importance to understanding Turandot.

Love-at-first-sight. It is one of the most venerable of clichés in western culture if not all of humanity, relying as it does on an enigmatic cocktail of beauty, lust and love—intoxicating to relations between the sexes. It is a mystery of consummate profundity which writers, artists, and tabloids never tire of exploiting; from Prince Calaf and the ice Princess Turandot to D. Trump and Stormy, and who amongst us is wise enough to separate out innocent sincerity from pleasuring fraudulence? The primacy of sight is significant, too, although the opera’s libretto also brings out the presence of fragrance at work in Prince Calaf’s sensory apparatus. The connection between sensory experience and human emotion deepens the sense of mystery underlying the feelings located in love for another being. Perhaps most relevant to our approaching an understanding of both love and mutual sexual attraction—not to be confused with possessive one-way lust—is the feeling of vulnerability. It is the defining characteristic of Prince Calaf and, need we say, the mirror opposite of the invulnerable Turandot. Little wonder that in the pantheon of myth, love is represented by Cupid’s wounding of the unsuspecting victim with an arrow; and only the vulnerable are capable of receiving it (metaphorically, of course).

The three riddles. The mythical number of ‘3’ is the only predictable part of the equation of the riddles-that-must-be-answered in order to not lose everything of value—even the ultimate loss of life itself. Never mind that these are invariably trick questions whose enigmatic answers wrap themselves in metaphorically-based solutions. Life is a gamble, and so is love. But Turandot loses her gamble and flinchingly, instinctively, wants to cheat on its contractual outcome; and Prince Calaf willingly gives her that second chance being, after all, in love’s thrall.

The identity that hides its name. Prince Calaf’s name is revealed only to his blind father, Timur, by Liu, the slave girl, whom she has guided and protected in his long exile. Recognizing the Prince’s voice from the distant past, she sustains Calaf’s secret, which is baked into the cultural myth that one’s name is inextricably linked to identity and social class. The second chance at redemption he offers to Turandot comes at the risk of losing his life, a doubling down that barely hints at the depth of his love for Turandot. The terms of this gift to her is strongly reminiscent of the 4000-year-old German fairy tale, Rumpelstiltskin. But whereas Rumpelstiltskin’s secret identity is unwittingly revealed only through his own narcissistic mendacity, Calaf freely gives his secret away in a scene of stunning tension: at risk of death he is affirming that Turandot will become miraculously transformed from agent-of-death to loving partner, against her toxic background of both personal and sordid family history. Turandot could not be more terrified of failure to learn Calaf’s name were she to be subpoenaed by Robert Mueller: hence, “Nobody sleeps.”

Not that we can find a hundred examples of clichés from the opera, but many more are available to shape our understanding; a few  examples:

  1. The fickleness of crowds. The mobs are bloodthirsty for the next beheading to be decreed by Turandot, but after they see firsthand the young Prince of Persia about to be separated from his noggin, their empathy is immediately aroused and they plead to Turandot to spare him. Their failed efforts lead to the next up on-deck, Prince Calaf. Shortly thereafter they demand that Liu, the slave girl, be tortured into revealing Calaf’s name. And later, too, we observe when a “superstitious terror seizes the crowd.”
  2. The cold-hearted vengeful woman. Turandot’s misogyny is explained early on to result from her overwhelming and need to avenge ancestral suffering.
  3. Female suffering and the wayward daughter. Turandot is impervious to any demands made of her either by would-be suitors or elders, including her father, in her obsession with redeeming the cruelty suffered by a female ancestor.
  4. The blind elder generation. The failure of men to control violence extends beyond the parental level to include the goofy bureaucrats represented by Ping, Pang, and Pong, who wearily long for a life beyond ceremonies— these days mostly funerals. Each has retirement plans for a real life beyond trying to dissuade (to no avail) the foolish suitors of Turandot. With Calaf they pull out all the stops, attempting to seduce him away from folly with promises of nubile girls, gold and jewels, and empires—forget it!
  5. Unrequited love. The slave girl, Liu, has ever been in love with Prince Calaf because he once long ago smiled at her.
  6. Unrelenting loyalty and sacrifice. Liu now devotes her service to Timur, her blind exiled king and father of Calaf. Liu’s steadfastness leads her to endure torture for refusing to reveal Calaf’s name following her moving aria she sacrifices her own life out of love for them.
  7. Irrelevance of the artifices of social class. The noble slave’s humanity far outshining Turandot’s cruelty, Liu could easily mentor Turandot on the power of love to overcome hate.
  8. Sexual harassment. Depending on a given production director’s interpretation of male aggressiveness toward women, one can hardly ignore nowadays the question of whether Calaf’s inner Harvey Weinstein renders him guilty of unwanted advances in pressing his passionate embracing, kissing, and the like onto Turandot.
  9. Opening up to the power of love. Call it love or call it seduction, many have noticed over the years that men often quest to enfold women into a loving relationship.

Two points may sum it up. First, the apprehension of beauty through our physical senses creates the metaphor for love, which is the source of all morality; and second, despite the eternal verities provided by the ages, life can seem complicated as we ponder the timeless mysteries of life with modern-day sensibilities.

Jon Lindgren



One comment

  1. Anitta · April 5, 2018

    I’m not at all versed in opera, but I like this exploration of cliches and their relationship to truth. It’s an interesting point of divergence between art and science. In science, you need something to be repeatable in order to accept it as true. In art, the very notion of cliche suggests that if something is so very repeatable, it’s somehow less true. You’ve broken down the art of cliche to a science to liberate its truth. I think in the opera world you say “Maestro!”

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