April 24, 2017

In which I trash "Mr. Holland's Opus"

WARNING: if you're a fan of "Mr. Holland's Opus" and are prone to high blood pressure, this post may not be for you...

A few months ago I wrote about the recent film Whiplash  I'm not a film critic, and that post was not a review; it was more of a description of my personal reaction to the music-school traumas the movie depicted.
Typical student orchestra, though that's not Mr. Holland.
photo by Anthony B.

This post is also about a movie, though in this case one from 1995: the Richard Dreyfuss vehicle Mr. Holland's Opus. Again, my purpose is to convey my personal reaction to a movie that won wide acclaim back in the day. Roger Ebert gave it 3.5 stars out of 4 and called it "very moving".

My wife liked it. My circle of friends at that time liked it. Maybe you like it.


As I sat in the theater watching it upon its release, my hopes buoyed by strong reviews, I alternated between squirming impatiently and slumping in disappointment. I shall explain.

This film, by the way, was not Dreyfuss's first venture in the realm of movies with a classical music theme. In 1980, he and Amy Irving starred in a feature called The Competition about two pianists trying to make their mark in an international piano competition. I remember the artificiality of the crisis facing Dreyfuss's character: having failed to take the top prize in two previous contests, this one was his "last chance"; if he didn't come in first, he would be condemned to teaching beginning piano to inner-city children. This, of course, ignores the reality that, quite often, the 2nd and 3rd place winners in major competitions go on to careers far outstripping the ones who take top honors. Also: 1) just why would he not be eligible to apply for college jobs, or build a prestigious private studio? and 2) what's wrong with teaching inner-city kids, anyway?

But enough of that one: my sharpest rebukes I save for good ol' Mr. Holland. If you never saw it, the brief synopsis is this: Mr. Holland is a brilliant young composer who is sure to become the next Leonard Bernstein. Faced with a family to support and bills to pay, he takes a job as a high school music teacher, certain that it's only temporary until he achieves Lennie-status. The years roll by, he becomes dedicated to the job in spite of himself, all the while spending his spare time working on the big orchestral masterpiece he dreams of completing. As he nears retirement, his dreams unrealized, many of his grateful former students return to present him with a gift of appreciation: they perform the aforementioned orchestral masterpiece. Tears of joy flood Mr. Holland's wrinkled cheeks. The end. Sounds heartfelt and inspiring, right?

Big giant MEH over here.

Here are my problems with this stupid, stupid movie.

Movies and TV shows always exaggerate EVERYTHING. In medical dramas, diseases that take months to develop in real life reach the critical stage in days or even hours. In cop shows,bad guys fire an armory's worth of ammo at the hero without ever hitting him, yet he kills his enemy with a single shot from across a parking lot. Makes a better story, I get that.

The equivalent in Mr. Holland is the completely ridiculous transformation he brings about in the student orchestra. His first rehearsal on Day 1 of his new job is mind-bendingly awful. It's cacophony. Are they students or chimpanzees? They certainly sound as if none of them have ever attempted to play their instruments before. Cut to a scene in the not-distant future. The level of playing now approaches the Berlin Philharmonic. It's not just improved; it's completely professional, at least as I remember the scene. Give me a break.

It would have been perfectly possible - and reasonable! - to document an improvement in the students' playing without having them play at an insanely polished level of artistry. We would still have gotten the point that he's a really good teacher.

Midway through his career as an educator, Mr. Holland develops a close relationship with a talented student; a student who (we are to understand) is "going places". Her name is Rowena. Rowena knocks 'em dead at a student concert singing Gershwin, as I recall. Of course, the student band backing her up sounds like it could open at the Bellagio in Vegas because that Mr. Holland really knows his stuff! What follows is an episode meant to tug at our heartstrings. Rowena and her teacher have a powerful mutual attraction, despite Mr. Holland having a wife and special-needs child at home. Unspoken yet deep, deep feelings are conveyed through meaningful glances and sighs and so on. Eventually, Rowena bids her hometown goodbye, heading off to the big city to take Broadway by storm. A bittersweet moment of farewell passes between the young star-to-be and the sensitive instructor who molded her gifts. Farewell!

STOP IT! JUST STOP IT! MR. HOLLAND SHOULD BE FIRED. SHE WAS A STUDENT AND HE WAS 10-15 YEARS OLDER THAN HER. It wasn't romantic - it was CREEPY. It was PEDOPHILIA. The trouble with the movie was that this longing was glorified in a patently false and unrealistic way. Shame on Mr. Holland, and shame on Mr. Holland's Opus.

The film required Mr. Holland to have a best friend-slash-confidante on the faculty, someone to share his ups and downs with. That fell to the varsity football coach, played by Jay Thomas. I recall also seeing Mr. Thomas, a perfectly fine character actor, on an episode of Law and Order SVU, in which he played a weasel of a shyster attorney involved in shady business deals. In THAT role he was perfectly cast. He was about as convincing as a football coach as, say, Woody Allen would have been.

And finally, most importantly,

The film makes a big deal out of the masterpiece-in-progress to which our hero remains devoted. When other men use evenings to watch TV and weekends to play golf, Mr. Holland is at his desk, poring over sheaves of manuscript paper, scribbling notes with what amounts to a good case of OC disorder. So, in other words, the build-up to the climactic performance in the movie's finale is immense. My god, the effort he put into this thing approaches what Wagner went through in creating the damn Ring cycle. This better be one heck of a piece! I want majesty! I want eloquence! I want substance!

Didn't get it.

This "opus" turned out to be about 5 minutes (or less) of unimaginably puerile elevator music. It sounded more like something one of his high school students might have written than "the world's most tragically undiscovered genius".

Now, it would be one thing if the movie had been acknowledged the awfulness of the music; if its low quality had forced Mr. Holland into an epiphany of self-awareness, causing him to realize that his true talent was that of a teacher; that all these years he'd been under delusions about his talent as an artist.

But no - this performance was his moment of REDEMPTIVE TRIUMPH! The world finally got to hear his magnificent music in all its.... uh... magnificence!

Mr. Holland, you aren't who you think you are. Sorry, brother, but each of us must face the realities of our limitations at some point.

I've never met anyone who was not inclined to give this movie a pass because it celebrated music education and made a hero of a devoted teacher and drew attention to the arts and..... You get the idea.

But I give it no pass. The actual music Mr. Holland composed seemed to me to carry the message that "this kind of music is for the birds. Take a crack at a rock band - at least you might make some coin instead of ending up an old man with nothing to show for it except the world's most lame symphony."

That concludes this rant! And really, if you loved kindly Mr. Holland, I regret any annoyance I may have caused.

April 2, 2017

Turandot in Rome: a fond, if blurry, memory.

The year was 1999.

I spent the month of July in Italy as a guest artist at the Operafestival di Roma, where I'd been invited to sing the role of Don Alfonso in a production of Così fan tutte and serve as Chorus Master. (I would return to the festival eleven years later, an experience I chronicled at length in my book The Opera Zoo: Singers, Composers and Other Primates.) With the food, the friends, the food, the sights, the food, the music, and the food, ....it was a great month. But I digress.
The Stadio Olimpico, Rome, Italy

The Rome Opera had their own production in the works: Puccini's Turandot. I remember that tickets were pretty inexpensive; was it ten lire? Fifteen? I can't recall, nor do I remember the conversion rate, though I know it favored the dollar. Anyway, a bunch of us decided to go on one of our rare evenings off.

This was an outdoor production; the venue was the Stadio Olimpico, a giant structure dating from the 1930's that had been rebuilt nine years earlier to be a modern soccer palace with a capacity of some 75,000. It's located north and slightly west of the city on the Viale dei Gladiatori, which seems appropriate for both sports: calcio and opera

A bus carried us the three and a half miles (5.8 KM if you want to get all European about it) from the hotel Domus Pacis, later known as the Hotel Torre Rosso and now, it seems as the Church Village. We forked over lire notes and climbed into the stadium, scrambling for seats with the best view.

Now, granted: Turandot was created to be opera on an epic scale - a genuine spectacle. But what greeted us at the Stadio was a sight I'd never seen before and don't expect to see again.

One stage? Nope.

Two stages? Try again.

Amazingly, there were THREE FULL-SIZED STAGES BACK-TO-BACK-TO-BACK, filling the length of the playing field. Pardon my lack of artistic talent, but something like this:

This allowed the director to work with an amazing number of human bodies comprising chorus and extras. During the big crowd scenes, I had the sense that if they'd all jumped up and landed simultaneously, the resulting tremor could have brought down the Coliseum.

And yes, the principals were miked. In other words, this was not going to be a performance focused on the subtle nuances of interpersonal relationships and the evolution of character development.

But then, when has Turandot ever been about that?

At the top of the show, you'll recall, Timur is knocked down and Liu calls out for help, attracting the attention of Calaf, who rushes over for a joyful reunion. In this staging, our Prince was on the outisde edge of the stage-right stage, while Liu and Timur were on the outside edge of the OPPOSITE STAGE. The poor tenor had to sprint the length of all three full-sized platforms to make his way over to Papa while the crazed populace of Peking cleared a path for him.

"Excuse me. Coming through. Scusi, scusi".

There really should have been a shuttle bus to get him there, and don't ask me how he was able to sing after that.

And who was in the cast? I have a vague memory that the tenor was named Massimo, which suggests it could have been the noted tenor Massimo Giordano. Giordano would have been 28 at the time and had not yet appeared outside his native Italy, which makes it possible.

As for the rest of the cast, I have no clue. Those names have long since evaporated from memory. Not surprising, since I no longer remember what I had for lunch yesteday. Don't get old, kids.

So it was big, loud, and over-the-top to the max. The conductor was stationed so far from the stage that, in order to cue the singers, he had to leap in the air. In this case, athleticism was at least as important as baton technique. He must have been exhausted afterwards.

By the time the opera had ended, the city bus lines had shut down for the night, leaving us to snag a taxi. It was around one in the morning, so that took a little doing. Now for most of us, our knowledge of Italian was limited to A) the roles we'd sung, and B) knowing how to order meals in a restaurant. Fortunately, my dear friend Heidi Schmidt was with us. Heidi had lived in Tuscany for a year, studying on a fellowship. She chatted amiably with the cab driver and his son, who was in the front seat for some reason if memory serves.

I know what some of you, the purists among my Faithful Readers, are thinking right now. I know my description of this Turandot has you recoiling in disgust. "That's not ART!" And you're right - Art it was Not.

Listen, I have standards too, okay? And I admit that I'll get way more satisfaction from next season's company premiere of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream at Virginia Opera than I did from that bloated, amplified, vulgar exhibition.

But I wouldn't have missed it for anything. Call it a guilty pleasure - it was FUN.

March 27, 2017

What the melodies in Turandot tell us

Ah, "Nessun dorma" - the tenor showpiece in Act 3 of Turandot that, all by itself, might account for the spike in ticket sales Virginia Opera is enjoying here at season's end. What would Puccini have to say if he could know the extent to which it has invaded popular culture? Would he be gratified? Amused? Resigned? Repelled?

Erhu and bow
I used to be a fan of the "medical mystery" series "House M.D.". I recall an episode in which Dr. Gregory House sat listening to some tenor of... "limited vocal resources" (I guess they couldn't get the rights to a Pavarotti performance") blast his way through the concluding Vincerò's with rapt expression. I never quite bought that scene, as Puccini did not strike me as suiting House's tastes in music, as widely varied as they were.

Lately, though, I stumbled across a website offering detailed commentary on "House", including a highly detailed examination of the metaphorical ways in which "Nessun dorma" shed light on the episode's themes. You can read it at this link. I think Puccini would DEFINITELY have gotten a charge out of this!

But, metaphors aside, your average opera-goer is probably content just to wallow in what I must confess is an instantly memorable melodic line, impressive in its grandiosity and sweep. There is a satisfying predictability in its inevitable ascent to the climax. You don't have to be a conservatory graduate to grasp this music.

But there is an aspect to the aria that repays a more analytical approach, as well as possibly helping to explain its universal popularity. It's just this: it stands out in stark contrast to everything the other characters sing throughout the opera.

Puccini did his due diligence in tackling a story set in China. He collected a set of authentic Chinese folk melodies suitable for operatic adaptation, all in the name of exoticism and Orientalism. Looking for that kind of ambience, he studied books and borrowed a friend's music box obtained in China.

For instance, the theme used as Turandot's motif is an 18th-century tune called Mo Li Hua, or "Jasmine".Here's how it sounds played on the erhu, a native instrument..Puccini quotes it verbatim in Act 1, sung by a children's choir. The words have been changed, but not the tune.

There are eight authentic folk tunes in all, including a dancing theme with repeated notes sung by the three ministers; the anthem sung by the populace to Emperor Altoum, and Liu's plaintive aria "Signore ascolta", sung here by Renata Tebaldi.

The ministers, Liu, Turandot - all either sing or are associated with Chinese melodies. And all these melodies share the trait that distinguishes virtually all folk tunes: they are pentatonic. In other words, the complete tune may be played using a scale of just five notes - the notes corresponding to the five black keys on the piano.

Now listen carefully to "Nessun dorma", even if you know it really well. Listen analytically to the contour of the vocal line. The interesting aspect? It's not pentatonic, and it's not a Chinese tune. It's in D major, if you want to know (even though the key signature has one sharp). It's about as "exotic" and "Oriental" as Rogers and Hammerstein.

So what? The Unknown Prince is from Oklahoma? Okay, maybe not Rogers and Hammerstein. Calaf (as we discover his name to be in the last 5 minutes of the show) is not Western. But he IS an outsider. He's new to Peking - no one knows his name other than his dad and Liu. He's called a "straniero", or stranger; he doesn't belong.

He is "the other". And the smoothly western melodic style he employs not only in "Nessun dorma", but also in the earlier "Non piangere, Liu" brand him as such in his lack of Eastern characteristics.

Thus, good old "Nessun dorma" is more than a cross-over pop hit - it's a legitimate example of operatic craftsmanship, functioning as opera music should, by giving us information about the character to whom it's assigned. And as for the effect of its highly Western melodic contour in the context of continual Orientalism - perhaps this is why it strikes listeners as "popular" in nature. Perhaps this, more than its intrinsic musical merit, is why the aria has become an icon in modern culture.

March 20, 2017

Turandot: how that final duet might have been fixed

.Everyone knows why Giacomo Puccini did not complete the composition of Turandot.
Puccini in old age

He died. Complications from throat cancer - a heart attack three days following surgery to remove a tumor.

But if you read Puccini's letters to his collaborators, you begin to realize that while dying was a "contributing factor" (granted, a really really big one), it was not the only explanation for his failure to finish the thing.

The truth is that Puccini struggled with the final confrontational duet between the Unknown Prince and the Ice Princess. This was a struggle that went on for months, as a few excerpts from the letters will illustrate.

I am afraid that Turandot will never be finished. (November 1920)

I am in despair as black as night. ...One thing is certain: we must inspire the ... thing with life. As it stands now, it is absolutely impossible, all wrong. ...I know that the subject is not easily convincing... (September 1921)

Turandot gives me no peace. ...I think that perhaps we are on the wrong track... ...the duet in its present form doesn't seem to me to be what is wanted. ...My life is a torture because I fail to see in this opera all the throbbing life and power which are neessary in a work for the theater if it is to endure and hold. (November, 1921)

I am in black despair about Turandot. (November 1921)

I feel that this act as it is does not convince me and cannot convince the listener. (November 1921)

ALL the above quotes (and there are more, but you get the gist) were written two years before he even began to suffer the symptoms of the cancer, and three years before his death.

So what did he find unconvincing? Whence the epic writer's block? Whence all the despair?

To answer, I'll summarize what I, Your Humble Blogger, see as the problems with the opera's final 15 minutes; that duet Puccini hoped would be like "a shining meteor". There are three issues, to wit:

Unable to stomach an opera lacking a sympathetic female character, Puccini added the slave girl Liù. Now he had a worthy successor to Mimi, Cio-Cio-san and Suor Angelica: ultra-feminine, delicate, sweet, nurturing, living for love, and (of course) doomed - in short, an Italian man's fantasy of the Ideal Woman. From the moment at the top of Act I when Liù signals her hopeless devotion to the Prince by wafting a delicately shimmering high note as she recalls the time the Prince smiled at her, Puccini's audience has her pegged. Every one of us melts into a gooey grease spot; she has seduced us. We don't just like her, we LOVE her, and from that moment until her death, she's the one we identify with.

Then, with the opera nearly over, she sacrifices herself and she's GONE.

And before we have a chance to remove the lump in our throats and wipe the tears from our eyes, a harsh reality settles in: the one we loved is gone and we're left with the strident, homicidal, unlikeable harpy.

And we're supposed to transfer all our affection to the harpy, and exult in her happy ending. This is the aspect that Puccini knew was "unconvincing".

As pointed out in an earlier post, Puccini was attempting to make a late-career shift from intimate, realistic, "truthful" (verismo) operas to a full-out fairy tale: exotic fantasy with a happy ending. The biggest contrast is that while verismo characters are complex and three-dimensional, fairy-tale characters are flat -- one-dimensional. Witches are mean, princes are brave, princesses are beautiful. Or in this case, beautiful and violent. But old habits die hard, and the insertion of Liù, the fairy-tale shallowness was compromised; Puccini could not resist engaging our emotions as in the past.

As it happens, another nearly contemporary opera about Turandot appeared in 1917, by the composer and pianist Ferruccio Busoni, took a far different approach. This Turandot is a comic piece filled with quirky irony. I don't know if Busoni's work drew Puccini's attention, but he went in the opposite direction: due north towards the humanity in all his operas.

So the idea of a "magical kiss" that instantly turns a domineering vengeful monster into a quivering, weeping, vulnerable woman now open to love...  is a Sleeping Beauty moment in an opera that has just depicted an all-too-tragic and believable scene of suicide. Now we've added another unconvincing element.

In last week's post I floated the theory that the Prince is driven more by THANATOS (the human instinct inspiring hatred, aggression and death) than EROS (the instinct to seek love and life). He never says "I love you" to Turandot; instead (at the end of the aria "Nessun dorma") he says "I will win, I will win!"

This attitude turns what one might expect to be a conventional "love duet" into something more resembling T-Rex versus King Kong - a contest of strength between two dominant beings. This adds a disturbing note when it comes to that final scene. Here's a transcript of the Prince's "seduction":

Your spirit is on high! But your body is near. With burning hands I’ll clasp the gold border of your starry cloak... My trembling mouth will be pressed on yours... 

Do not profane me! 

Ah! To feel you alive! 

Stand back! Do not profane me! 

I want you to be mine! 

TURANDOT Touch me not, it is a sacrilege! 

No, your kiss gives me eternity! 


And then, as the tympani pound repeatedly, he plants a lengthy kiss on her. See the problem? If you don't, you haven't watched NEARLY enough episodes of "Law and Order: SVU", because guess what? It's 2017, and "NO MEANS NO". Pay special attention to that line above: "Your iciness is a lie". Oh brother - that's the same lame excuse every randy high-school boy gives when he's forced his date in the back seat of his car: "She may have said 'no', but I could tell she really wanted it."

It's lucky for the Prince he lives in fabled times, because these days he could be arrested for assault. Even cutting him all possible slack on the theory that "hey, it's just a fairy tale", no one who finds the dialogue above creepy and inappropriate can be blamed.

Three problems, at least two of which were driving Puccini into frustrated depression. (I doubt that the Prince's sexual aggression bothered him, given the patriarchal culture in which he lived.)

AND NOW: MY SOLUTION. Yes, yes, no one asked me, but it's fun to apply oneself to FIXING A MASTERPIECE.

 In her post-kiss daze, Turandot sings her final aria "Del primo pianto" in which she explores her new state of mind. Pay special attention to this portion of the text:

How many I’ve seen die for me! 
And I scorned them; but you, I feared!
In your eyes there was the light of heroes! 
In your eyes there was haughty certainty... 
And for that I hated you... And I loved you for that, 

This is really important - it finally explains why Turandot could respond to this Prince and not the ones she killed. Calaf has caused a flare-up in the battle of opposite instincts. "For that I hated you" - Thanatos! "For that I loved you" - Eros! As I pointed out in my previous post, this single line indicates that each character sees a reflection of themselves in the other. The trouble is, this crucial revelation comes literally in the last ten minutes of the opera. It feels tacked on, like the tail in a game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey.

Perhaps, had Puccini lived, it might have occurred to him to introduce Turandot's duality of Eros and Thanatos earlier in the opera instead of the "tail" end (pardon the pun.) He might have realized that Ping Pang and Pong get an inordinate of time onstage for supporting characters.

With that in mind, he could have decided to trim some of their material in Act 2 or Act 3 to make room for a short scene of Turandot in her bed chamber. Her chamber-maid is brushing the princess's hair as Turandot confides her mixed feelings about the stranger who dares to challenge her. She describes her mixture of attraction and revulsion. Then, when she delivers the aria in the finale, it might NOT seem tacked on; it might explain everything.

Oh, and as long as we're re-writing the libretto, let's give our politically incorrect Prince a different strategy in the duet. He could, you know, charm her. He could shock her by admitting his name and saying "You have every right to have me killed now that you know my name, but I don't think you will. I think you know that our destinies are linked forever. I think you want to fall in love at last." Or some such operatic nonsense. Great music could make it work.

Oh, and he should also get over his aversion to the "L" word. C'mon, man, let's pop out a few declarations of "Io t'amo" - you can do this!

The point is, pity poor Franco Alfano. He did not have the luxury of "tweaking" the libretto; his job was to set it to music, as imperfect as he may have found it. And the ultimate point? If the final duet seems unsatisfactory to you, don't be judgemental! Puccini, had he lived, would have lived up to the ideals his perfectionist nature demanded. He knew the finale was not as effective as the rest of the opera. He would have continued his struggle to render a powerful conclusion. The finale would have been different. from the one we have today, to an extent we can, sadly, never know

March 13, 2017

Turandot: Freud weighs in on Calaf's death wish

If you're like me, there comes a moment in Puccini's Turandot when you want to stop the action and take Calaf (a.k.a. The Unknown Prince) aside and have a heart-to-heart with him; a moment when you want to grab him by the shoulders, look earnestly into his eyes and ask him:
Noted opera scholar Sigmund Freud


This moment comes in Act 2. Our hero has just defied certain death by succeeding where twenty-seven would-be suitors of Turandot failed: he has correctly answered the princess's three riddles, thereby avoiding execution and winning the right to wed her.

Everyone tried to talk him out of the ritual of the riddles, reminding him of the twenty-seven severed heads lining the streets of Pesking, but Calaf forged ahead, whether bravely or foolishly. And he beat the odds - a bigger surprise than the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series! A bigger upset than a 16-seed going to the Final Four and winning March Madness!

Then he throws it all away. When Turandot pitches a royal hissy-fit, Calaf makes a stunning proposition: if she can discover his name by dawn, he will go to his death.

Again, WHAT are you DOING? Calaf, Calaf, Calaf..... what is going on with you, brother? You think Turandot can't find out your name? Dude, she'll just Google you, or maybe ask Siri. They probably have facial recognition software in that palace. Seriously, though, even given that we're dealing with fairy-tale logic, we find ourselves wondering about Calaf's motivation for putting himself on the fast track to execution for the second time.

I believe Sigmund Freud has the answer. In his book Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), Freud advanced the theory that human behavior is driven by two opposing instincts he believed were universal, innate and constant: Eros and Thanatos.

Most of us know Eros was the Greek version of the god of love called Cupid in Roman mythology. And we're familiar with the connotations of the term "erotic" in the sense of carnal desire. For Freud, though, Eros goes beyond man's sex drive to include all behaviors that promote the preservation of life and the preservation of the species. So under the umbrella of "Eros" we find the desire for food, drink, shelter, companionship, and peaceable, cooperative social interaction.

Thanatos, on the other hand, signifies (but is not limited to) what we commonly think of as a "death wish"; when your crazy brother-in-law insists on riding his motorcycle without a helmet, that's a manifestation of the Thanatos in his nature. Freud put it this way:

"The aim of all life is death... inanimate things existed before living ones."

Beyond seeking death, Thanatos drives all behaviors of aggression, hate, fear, and acts of violence such as murder.

Now we have a rationale for analyzing the twenty-seven dead princes, Calaf, and even..........

...........Turandot herself!

Consider: as Turandot makes her brief (and silent) appearance in Act I, Calaf glances at her, observers her "divine beauty" (divina bellezza) and is instantly besotted with her. As he announces his feelings to his father, his words are notable for expressing both Eros and Thanatos. Observe:
  • This is life, Father! (Eros)
  • I'm suffering, Father. (Thanatos)
  • I want to conquer her in her beauty! (Thanatos - "conquer" - aggression)
  • Only I love her! (Eros)
Moments later, he refers to himself as "one who smiles no more." Isn't love supposed to make a guy happy? "Wings on your heels" and all that? Not this Prince, evidently. The very act of recklessly ringing the gong, thus declaring his intention to win her hand, is pure Thanatos; the very definition of a death-wish. But that's nothing compared to the lunacy of cheating death and then placing himself in purely unnecessary jeopardy by daring the Princess to learn his name. 

As for "Nessun dorma", his big third-act aria so beloved as to turn up regularly at talent shows and beauty pageants, it's not really a love-song. The word "love" appears only once, and in a poetically abstract manner. Speculating that Turandot herself, like the people of Peking, will not sleep, he muses that the stars she's looking at "tremble with love and hope".

But he does NOT say that he loves her. Instead, famously, he says "Vincerò!"; (I will win!). That's aggression. That's Thanatos. This attitude begs the question: what is the basis of Calaf's interest in Turandot? It's an opera, so we assume he loves her. Does he? The sum of his knowledge about her is that A) She's very beautiful; and B) she is hostile to men and likes to kill them. I, for one, suspect that it's the latter point that motivates him more than her beauty. After all, immediately following "Nessun dorma", the three ministers try to bribe him with an entire harem of beautiful women, to no avail. It's the challenge of Turandot's domination of the male sex that "pushes his buttons", so to speak.

Now we need to wrap up this bit of <COUGH COUGH> amateur psychoanalysis by taking a look at the final duet between King Kong (Calaf) and his amorous "opponent", the T-Rex (Turandot). This is an opera, he's a tenor, she's a soprano, he kisses her, it all leads to a happy ending.

So that makes it a love duet, right?  Hmmmmm...... Maybe not so much.

Again, look at the libretto. Not once does Calaf say ANY of the multitude of ways tenors have said "I love you" to sopranos: t'amo; te adoro; and so on. As in his aria, Calaf mentions the word "amore" once, in this context: "It is dawn, and love is born with the sun." That's kind of generic; it's not a personal declaration of his love, which would be the Eros in his attitude.

Instead, we get highly aggressive, purely Thanatic declarations of his dominance overpowering hers:

  • "With burning hands I’ll clasp the gold border of your starry cloak...
    My trembling mouth will be pressed on yours." (But do you love her?)
  • "I want you to be mine!" (...because you love her dearly?)
  • "You are mine! You who tremble if I touch you!" (Because she knows you love her?)
Over her protestations, he siezes her and plants a hard kiss on her, the way Rhett did to Scarlett in Gone With The Wind. King Kong just grabbed T-Rex by the tail, swung it around over his head and sent it crashing into a cliff. 

So: why does Turandot respond by falling in love with him? Why does that hoary old trope of "the magical kiss of the prince" (see Sleeping Beauty and Snow White) work on her? Why should we find it convincing, given her animus for men, a trait lacking in Sleeping B and Snow W??

I believe it's because they are peas in a pod. It turns out that Turandot is the same hot mess of Eros and Thanatos as her new boyfriend. The Thanatos part? Yeah, we all get that part: she executed twenty-seven potential husbands. Check. But the Eros instinct surprises us when it emerges in her final post-kiss aria "Del primo pianto". Key moments in this passage reveal that Freud's two opposing instincts are at war in her nature as well.

"In your eyes there was
the light of heroes!
In your eyes there was
haughty certainty...
And for that I hated you...
And I loved you for that,

tormented and torn 
between two equal fears..."

And there it is: the reluctant acknowledgement of the co-existence of Eros and Thanatos, the former as repressed as the latter was overt. This is why they can have a happy ending: each one saw a mirror of the self in the other. Each was driven to attain conquest in spite of attraction. One might say that Calaf's ultimate dominance is dictated by the patriarchal world-view of fables and, coincidentally, Italian society in Puccini's lifetime.

Next week we'll examine why Puccini struggled to complete that final duet and why his failure to complete it is only partly attributable to his death. AND, Faithful Readers, I'll also explain why

  • No composer, much less Franco Alfano, could have rendered a completely successful reconstruction of Puccini's intended finale; and
  • how I, Glenn Winters, would have fixed the opera had anyone asked me...

February 28, 2017

Turandot: when a composer's opera echoes his personal issues

I probably should have majored in Psych. When I lecture about opera, I always seem to spend a disproportionate amount of time focusing on the ways in which music drama manifests human psychology. One such aspect is the way in which issues of a composer's personal life can be reflected, consciously or otherwise, in the operas he creates.
Giacomo Puccini - he had issues!

Take Verdi as an example. As a young married man with two infant children, he suffered an unimaginable tragedy. Within a couple of years, he lost his entire family to encephalitis, leaving him with a crushing case of survivor's guilt. Not coincidentally, many of his greatest operas (Rigoletto, Trovatore, Aida, and several others) deal with parents who directly or indirectly cause the death of their children.

Puccini's Turandot provides two fascinating examples of this phenomenon. The first involves the composer's distaste for big cities; the other involves a scandalous episode in his marriage.

For a man whose career called on him to make frequent trips to Milan, Rome, Vienna, Berlin, Paris, London and New York, it's ironic that Puccini was only at peace at his villa in Torre del Lago, a coastal village in Northern Italy. There, at least until 1921, when the installation of a factory ruined the environment for him, he could indulge his passion for bird-hunting.

Puccini's letters are rife with complaints about city life. Some examples:

"In a few days I shall be back home - and I can hardly wait: I am so sick of Paris..."
"How it bores me to stay here (in Paris) so long! I should like to be at Torre or Chiatri, in solitude and peace."

"The thought of going to (New York) is getting on my nerves. Why did I ever accept? How glad I'd feel to be back in Torre del Lago with my free life and the fresh air!"

Peruse his letters, and such comments flow in a continual stream of wistful resignation.

So in this context, I'm especially interested in the first scene of Act 2 in Turandot, the twelve minutes given over to the three ministers Ping, Pang and Pong as they gossip and ruminate prior to the scene of the three riddles. After a brief conference ironing out the logistics of the Unknown Prince's impending trial, they pause for a trio of infinitely nostalgic, utterly beautiful music beginning with Ping's "Ho una casa nell'Honan". (Listen to it here.) Here's the English text:

I have a little house in Honan with a little blue lake all surrounded with bamboo. And here I am, wasting my life, wearing out my brain over sacred books, when I could go back there to my little blue lake.

I have forests near Tsiang of which none are lovelier, but their shade is not for me.

I have a garden near Kiu that I left to come here, that I'll never see again.

Can there be any doubt that the longing in the music of this trio is Puccini's own? Remember: at one point the libretto had omitted the ministers, a version of whom is found in Carlo Gozzi's play (the basis for the opera); Puccini suggested inserting them. They are his personal touch and, in this scene, they are speaking directly for him. It's the composer sharing his greatest desire to us, his audience.

The slave girl Liù was another invention of Puccini's, this time with no parallel in earlier versions of the fable. (His motivation for doing so will be the topic for a future post...) Liù claims to be the only person in Peking to know the name of the prince, information Turandot is desperate to obtain to escape having to marry him. As the prince is restrained, the hard-hearted "princess of ice" has her guards try to beat the name out of the slave, but Liù's lips are sealed to protect the man she loves. It's important for our purpose here to remember that the prince does not return her love; he's obsessed with Turandot. At last, to escape the torment lest she lose her will, the slave girl grabs a weapon and kills herself.

Anyone who has read Puccini's biography should recognize this scene as eerily similar to events in Puccini's life in 1909.

Puccini's married his wife Elvira because he had gotten her pregnant. She was married to another man at the time, but she and the composer bided their time until her husband's death enabled Puccini to "do the right thing" and give their son Antonio a respectable name.

Elvira was a difficult woman, and their relationship was not close. The Catholic prohibition against divorce accounted for the longevity of their union more than any real intimacy. It has been said that Puccini, like Pygmalion loving the statue he sculpted, fell in love with the delicate, ultra-feminine characters he created, like Mimi and Cio-Cio-San, to find the ideal mate lacking in his marriage.

That said, Puccini was attracted to other women, many of whom returned his interest. He once described himself as a "mighty hunter of wild birds, opera librettos and beautiful women". He was, after all, handsome, wealthy and famous. Elvira, naturally, endured this inescapable reality with little grace, a situation that came to a head in 1909.

The Puccinis employed a young woman named Doria Manfredi as household maid. Elvira became convinced that Puccini was having an affair with her, in spite of denials from both parties. She made life misereable for Doria, harrassing her, berating her, and making hysterical scenes in public. Doria, evidently not in a position to defend herself, ultimately committed suicide by poison.

The girl's outraged family demanded an autopsy; it revealed that Doria had died a virgin. In retrospect, the idea that the glamorous Puccini, who undoubtedly was admired by any number of fascinating women, would canoodle with the help was absurd. The Manfredi family brought charges against Elvira, who was convicted and sentenced to prison!

After five months of incarceration, Puccini (perhaps feeling guilty over some actual affairs) used his financial resources to "settle the matter out of court" as they say in the papers, granting the release of his wife. She returned to him, and they remained a couple till Puccini's death in 1924.

A stern and difficult woman torturing a young woman into suicide in a case where the man involved did not love the victim. Yikes.

Was this deliberate? Or would Puccini be amazed if we could show him how Liù's death recalled his own tragedy?

THAT, my friends, is a good question.

February 27, 2017

Turandot: Puccini out of his comfort zone

Do you keep up with current movies? I'll bet you do, so you've probably heard about Fences, the adaptation of August Wilson's play with a cast including Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. It's nominated for four Academy awards. I haven't seen it yet, but I've been busy; it's on my list.
1926 poster for premiere production.

So what movies in film history are similar to Fences? Ben-Hur? Cleopatra? Lawrence of Arabia? Star Wars: The Force Awakens?

Not hardly. Fences, from all I've read, is a small-scale family drama involving mainly a father, mother and son, taking place mostly in a fenced-in back yard. Those other flicks? Big-budget Hollywood epics with huge casts, special effects, ...the whole shebang.

And this is one of the interesting things about Giacomo Puccini's final opera Turandot: after a lifetime of writing intimate operas akin to Fences, he went for giant-sized spectacle. It's a jarring change. It was a huge artistic gamble.

Consider the cast of Tosca. Like Fences, it focuses on the interactions of three people: Tosca, Cavaradossi and Scarpia. A chorus of church-goers makes a brief appearance in the Act I finale.

Madama Butterfly has a setting comparably limited as that of Fences, all the action taking place in a small house in Nagasaki. Just as the fenced-in yard of the film is a metaphor for the repressed emotions and limited perspective of Washington's character, so Cio-Cio-san's house on top of a hill represents her isolation as she's abandoned by both Pinkerton and her relatives.

And so it goes with the other works pre-dating Turandot. 

The other big departure in Turandot is Puccini's abandonment of any element of the verismo premise of the so-called Nuova Scuola of late nineteenth-century Italian opera seen in works of Mascagni and Leoncavallo.  Gone were stories of starving young artists and their love lives, a painter, a teen-aged Geisha, a saloon-keeper in the Wild West, a disgraced nun, and so on. For his last work, Puccini chose a fairy tale. Any story in which a homicidal man-hating princess is instantly transformed into a vulnerable, loving woman by a single kiss has pretty much derailed off the verismo track.

The source for Turandot is the ancient collection of stories known today as The 1001 Nights. Theses are the tales told by Scheherazade to the Sultan to avoid execution. You knew that Sinbad and Ali Baba characters in The 1001 Nights, but perhaps didn't realize it included Puccini's Ice Princess.

The collection was translated into French in 1710. In 1760, Carlo Gozzi (the author who also gave the world Pinocchio), adapted the story into a play. He added elements of Italian Commedia dell'Arte, with characters who became Ping, Pang and Pong in the opera.

TRIVIA: Gozzi's play has indirect ties to two other productions of the current Virginia Opera season. Friedrich Schiller made a German version of the play in 1802 that proved quite successful. A production at the court in Stuttgart in 1809 featured incidental music composed by Carl Maria von Weber, the composer of Der Freischütz, the subject of my last three posts.

Another link: Bertolt Brecht, who penned the text for our season-opening The Seven Deadly Sins by Kurt Weill, wrote his own version of Turandot after seeing the Gozzi play in 1932. As one might expect, his Turandot became a biting satiric comedy lampooning capitalism.

So: Puccini took a leap of faith, trusting that his skills were equal to the challenge of creating a viable fairy-tale epic with giant orchestra, chorus, and out-sized scenes of pomp and spectacle. Did he pull it off?

We'll never really know, of course, because his death from throat cancer in 1924 not only left the opera unfinished, but also left substantial challenges to be resolved in crafting a successful conclusion. The ending cobbled together by composer Franco Alfano doesn't come close to solving the difficulties that Puccini knew remained in the last scene; at best, it's a tacked-on approximation of Puccini's style whose main value is that it makes the piece sufficiently stage-worthy to allow viable performances.

In the next few posts, we'll explore the nature of those challenges as well as documenting Puccini's struggles and bouts of depression as he labored under the strain of mastering this new style. We'll see why nothing Alfano could have written, or any other composer for that matter, would have produced a completely satisfactory final scene.

And I'll tell you how I, Your Humble Blogger, would have solved at least one of the major challenges.

Whatever remains missing in his incomplete masterpiece, the beauty and variety of the material he did finish resulted in a thrilling opera that is cherished by millions, including Your Humble Blogger. This is an opera that delivers on nearly all of the pleasures of the art form. Puccini's shade can rest easy, though I doubt that it does. Perfectionist that he was, it's got to be driving him nuts that we're staging something he wasn't done with.