The Princess and the ‘Piece ─ Turandot

My first Puccini opera… what a thrill ! Posthumously premiering in 1926, Turandot feels more like a Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale than an Italian opera ─ a haughty princess, arduous riddles, and a mysterious suitor sheltering a life-or-death secret all lead to a storybook outcome. Having heard the praises of Puccini (and the exulting melody of “Nessun dorma”), I was more than ready to attend the encore of Turandot in early 2016. I even unfurled my reproduction poster for the occasion !

Thanks, 303 !

Only Franco Zeffirelli could create the spectacular setting of Turandot. Still a Met favorite from when it debuted in 1987, the sets and choreography shine as brightly as the music itself. When the stage darkens during the scene change in Act II, the resulting lapse rewards the spectator with a breathtaking display of an ancient Chinese palace.

A scene from Turandot / Metropolitan Opera

Even more exhilarating was the famed Riddle Scene. Although I had read the synopsis and knew the correct answers to the enigmatic questions posed by the tyrannical princess, I still suffered from a classic case of head-to-toe goosebumps as Calàf won the hand of the hitherto unattainable Turandot. The victor’s salivating looks of desire and the fingering of the princess’s silky mantle were too seductive for words. My heart was aflutter !

Nina Stemme and Marco Berti in Turandot / Metropolitan Opera

Here I must opine… As the audience anticipates the much beloved “Nessun dorma” in Act III, I couldn’t help but wish for a supplemental scene prior to the big aria of a frazzled Turandot, pacing in her bedchamber with her servants while racking her brain as to what the stranger’s name could be… I think it would have added another dimension to the desperate drama.

Nevertheless, I adored the opera and everything about it: the treacherous secret (which cost Liù her life), the surrender to love, the happy ending ─ what’s not to like about Turandot ?

Alexander Tsymbalyuk as Timur, Anita Hartig as Liù, Dwayne Croft as Ping, and Nina Stemme as Turandot / Metropolitan Opera

“Chinese” is not a style typically engendered by my closets. However, there was something I could manufacture in order to convey the right amount of dynastic imperialism… While Zeffirelli’s sets are extraordinary, the costumes in Turandot are just as jaw-dropping, especially the ostentatious headpieces worn by the titular character. My goal was to create my own unique headpiece that was as visually stunning as it was logistically sound. Browsing ideas for Turandot headpieces, Birgit Nilsson’s ornate costume from 1961 was my favorite and became the inspiration for my own creation.

Birgit Nilsson as Turandot in 1961 / Metropolitan Opera

Before creation could begin, some engineering chicanery needed to occur since there were many obstacles in the way of the perfect head accessory. Just imagine ─ wearing the headpiece in the car on the way to the opera, leaning back on the headrest of the seat in the theater, potentially blocking someone’s view of the screen, etc. Using a basic headband as the foundation for the headpiece, I took measurements of height and width from the top and sides of my head in order to avoid any damages to the headpiece (and theater patrons) while realistically evaluating how tall and wide I could reasonably fashion the accessory.
There was also the ‘weight’ component to contemplate: when the entire superstructure is built off a cheap headband, the overall weight of the headpiece needed to be kept to a minimum. Keeping this in mind, I used bamboo skewers for the tall, emanating stakes and was careful to select materials that doubled as both fashionable and functional.

Decorated in sequins, rhinestones, and beads, a healthy spray painting of gold helped turn an ordinary cereal box and plain wooden skewers into a dazzling work of art.

The Turandot headpiece up close

Although my closets lacked chinoise appeal, I still tried my best to create a Chinese-themed outfit: a monochromatic red turtleneck and pants proved a reliable choice for the chilly February evening while the vibrant scarf I bought at the Port Authority in New York was just the right pop of color to match the headpiece’s prismatic brilliance.

The pre-work engineering paid off: I was able to ride to the theater with the finial just barely clearing the headliner of the car. And even though I accidentally bumped into the dark corridor on the way to my seat, no one was injured in the process, including the headpiece.

From Birgit Nilsson to Franco Zeffirelli, Puccini’s final opera is a fountain for artistic pleasure. Turandot may have been my first Puccini opera, but it certainly won’t be my last !

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

Cast and Credits:

Turandot ─ Giacomo Puccini (1926)
Live in HD air date: January 30, 2016
(Encore seen: February 3, 2016)

Cast:
Turandot ─ Nina Stemme
Calàf ─ Marco Berti
Liù ─ Anita Hartig
Timur ─ Alexander Tsymbalyuk

Credits:
Conductor ─Paolo Carignani
Production ─ Franco Zeffirelli
Set Designer ─ Franco Zeffirelli
Costume Designers ─ Anna Anni, Dada Saligeri
Lighting Designer ─ Gil Wechsler
Choreographer ─ Chiang Ching
Live in HD Director ─ Barbara Willis Sweete
Host ─ Renée Fleming

Turandot (2019)

Hope. Blood. Turandot ! If my first brush with opera in 2015 hadn’t of been so life-altering, Puccini’s grandest spectacle (and final opera) would be the undisputed favorite of my heart. I remember when I first saw the opera in theaters in early 2016: it was the encore showing the following Wednesday evening since I was out of town for the live Saturday matinee broadcast. So monumental was the feeling I had while witnessing the story unfold on stage that when the Met announced that Turandot would be returning to theaters in 2019, I jumped on the affirmative decision faster than a Ferrari at top speed.

Turandot has everything. There’s drama, romance, passion, mystery, sacrifice, joy, and best of all, some of the most heart-pounding, resplendent music your ears will ever hear. The emotional power behind the fearless and triumphant aria, “Nessun dorma”, sends me to the brink of tears while elevating me from my terrestrial state. There are many renditions on the web, but I am especially moved by the English/Italian translation of the Pavarotti performance below. Divine !


Luciano Pavarotti singing “Nessun dorma” (video: MeastroPava4Ever)

As much as I adore the greatest tenor aria ever written (and that is not an exaggeration), my favorite moment in the opera comes during the high-stakes Riddle Scene showdown. Regardless of how many times I’ve seen the opera and know its plot inside and out, I can’t help but think I’ve missed something and fear a fatal slip-up by Calàf. Thankfully, my trepidation is always unfounded.

Christine Goerke and Yusif Eyvazov in Turandot / Metropolitan Opera

While this performance of Turandot had its plusses (Eleonora Buratto’s Liù) and minuses (an overly sensitive Calàf), the reigning winner is still Franco Zeffirelli’s magnificent production. Everything from the sets and costumes to the choreography of the chorus is perfectly enacted for an otherworldly experience. The feeling is magical. Your breath is taken away.

Yusif Eyvazov and Christine Goerke in Turandot / Metropolitan Opera

Heavily influenced by traditional Beijing Opera, the characters in Zeffirelli’s extant 1987 staging of Turandot are loaded with symbolic make-up, ornate robes, symmetrical cloud collars, and other brightly colored embellishments. As I contemplated the design of my costume for the 2019 Turandot, I had one prerequisite: whatever I wished to make HAD to coordinate with the headpiece I created for my 2016 outing since I was pressed for time (ahem, Manon) and didn’t want to fiddle with the engineering logistics of building a new headpiece from scratch.

The headpiece worn to Turandot in 2016

With guidelines established, I fashioned my outfit entirely around the color scheme of the headpiece: predominantly gold with LOTS of colorful jewels ! My friend, Judy, snapped this picture during the intermission at the theater:

The Turandot “death stare”… Thank you, Judy !

The brocade robe was self-drafted using only the measurements of the shoulder width and hem diameter. The sleeves were long rectangles folded in half out of the pillowy metallic material and sewn together at the bottom edge.

Creating the cloud collar was not as straightforward. Studying the specimen from the opera, I fiddled with drawing a quartered pattern using a compass as well as freehand curves.

Drafting the cloud collar

With just a few tweaks, the finalized pattern, which I copied onto newspaper, turned out great ! The full 4 quadrant newspaper replica was then taped to a sheet of thin foam, leftover from my Valkyrie days, and cut from its pliable surface as well as two layers of mustard colored stretch taffeta.

Pattern cut from newspaper

Through trial and error, the separate pattern for the pop-up mandarin collar was finally completed to my satisfaction and applied the foam and taffeta in the same manner.

Finalized Mandarin collar pattern

All that was left was the decoration ! The hot glue gun and I have an on again/off again relationship, but for Turandot, we were most definitely on !

Thank you for the fan, Faith !

My Chinese robe on the cheap made me feel like a citizen of Peking attending the riddle ceremony ! Careful, Calàf !

One mention of my shoes… those ballet flats ? Well, they’re not really gold. They’re white. And I bought them specifically to wear with my Empire gown to Tosca in 2018… certainly not Chinese ! But dousing dollars on new shoes for a one-time occasion is not really my style. The level of the flat was right ─ the hem of my robe wouldn’t allow for any height of heel ─ and so I changed their appearance temporarily with gold colored duct tape.

Without question, Zeffirelli’s majestic Turandot is my favorite opera in which to introduce a complete newcomer. Maybe the next time Turandot returns to the Live in HD schedule, you’ll be my first-timer and the spell of Puccini’s score will bewitch you with its undeniable magic.

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

Cast and Credits:

Turandot ─ Giacomo Puccini (1926)
Live in HD air date: October 12, 2019

Cast:
Turandot ─ Christine Goerke
Calàf ─ Yusif Eyvazov
Liù ─ Eleonora Buratto
Timur ─ James Morris

Credits:
Conductor ─ Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Production ─ Franco Zeffirelli
Set Designer ─ Franco Zeffirelli
Costume Designers ─ Anna Anni, Dada Saligeri
Lighting Designer ─ Gil Wechsler
Choreographer ─ Chiang Ching
Live in HD ─ Gary Halvorson
Host ─ Angel Blue

Les Pêcheurs de Perles

Set in a modern day Ceylon, the Met’s new revival of Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles was a delightfully exotic romance of uncharacteristic story standards. Penny Woolcock’s production perfectly mingled the secular with the sacred, the grime with the gilt, and enchanted me from start to finish.
The shanty fishing village with its rickety cardboard and tin hovels added a realistic element to the production as did the mix of costumes on the chorus members: while some were dressed in filthy baseball caps and torn overshirts, others bedecked themselves in saris and turbans, just as Southeast Asian tradition dictates.

A scene from Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles / Metropolitan Opera

This opera was a beautiful escape from start to finish. The music perfumed the theater and left a trailing scent as the curtain descended. I especially loved the enchanting tenor/baritone duet, “Au fond du temple saint”.

Matthew Polenzani and Mariusz Kwiecien sing an excerpt from “Au fond du temple saint” / Metropolitan Opera

While the romance of The Pearl Fishers may have started as a typical opera love triangle, the ending was anything but conventional: the man who kept his promise and was faithful to his honor lost everything and the traitorous one, escaping death with the defiled priestess, made out like a bandit. All elements combined, I loved this opera so much that I went to see the encore showing the following Wednesday.

Diana Damrau as Leïla in Les Pêcheurs de Perles / Metropolitan Opera

My outfit is one crafted from my closet. Modeling in front of my bedroom mirror, I experimented with different scarves and skirts to come up with an Indian subcontinent look.
Layer upon layer the outfit built itself into a makeshift “sari” that was instantly recognizable by its onlookers. (Weeks after The Pearl Fishers encore, I once again stepped into the far off theater location for the encore showing of Turandot. There I was greeted with inquisitive queries from strangers of vague familiarity: “Were you the one dressed as the Indian the last time ?”)

Of course, I knew I needed to accessorize with gobs of pearls in every shape and size, but also rings of topaz and bangles of gold. The crowning touch was my matha patti headpiece, which was reworked from a cheap, broken necklace.

I think my favorite aspects of this outfit are the ones that came from far away lands ─ the teal and aqua fringed pashmina wrap was bartered at a local market in Afghanistan while the cowrie shell necklace traveled from Tanzania (thank you, Uncle Kim, for the precious gifts !). Just think ─ the shells around my neck came from the Indian Ocean, just like the pearls in the opera !

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

Cast and Credits:

Les Pêcheurs de Perles ─ Georges Bizet (1863)
Live in HD air date: January 16, 2016

Cast:
Leïla ─ Diana Damrau
Nadir ─ Matthew Polenzani
Zurga ─ Mariusz Kwiecien
Nourabad ─ Nicolas Testé

Credits:
Conductor ─ Gianandrea Noseda
Production ─ Penny Woolcock
Set Designer ─ David Bird
Costume Designer ─ Kevin Pollard
Lighting Designer ─ Jen Schriever
Projection Design ─ Fifty Nine Productions
Live in HD Director ─ Matthew Diamond
Host ─ Patricia Racette