Puccini’s opera Turandot challenges even the biggest opera companies. But if the singers have the dramatic heft required and the orchestral and choral forces are on board, outsize sets and costumes hardly matter.
Fortunately, UC’s College-Conservatory of Music has the musical resources to mount a concert performance of Turandot, presented in collaboration with Beijing’s Central Opera Troupe and the Greater Cincinnati Chinese Music Society. The forces include CCM’s Philharmonia Orchestra, Brass Choir, Chamber Choir, Cincinnati Children’s Chorale, a CCM alum in the title role, a tenor from Central Opera and CCM opera students in supporting roles.
The massive project is a first for CCM, but for Maestro Mark Gibson Turandot is another mile-marker in a partnership with Chinese music institutions that spans a dozen years.
Gibson, professor of music and director of CCM’s Orchestral Studies program, was invited to teach at Beijing’s Central Conservatory in 1999 by Yu Feng, head of the conducting department.
“After that, I brought him here to conduct and we sent four students to play in his professional orchestra,” Gibson says. “So the relationship is strong and keeps expanding.”
Yu Feng moved on to the artistic directorship of Central Opera and invited Gibson to conduct an opera gala “with two days notice!” But, Gibson adds, “I worked with a tenor named Wang Feng, who will be singing Prince Calaf in Turandot.”
Gibson’s relationship with Central Opera (where he now serves as a vocal coach) prompted him to turn to the Greater Cincinnati Chinese Music Society last year to support a larger project.
“We’ve been collaborating with them on Chinese New Year’s concerts for the past decade and they were totally supportive,” Gibson says, grinning.
Turandot is an Italian grand opera that tells the story of a mythical Chinese princess who beheads would-be suitors if they fail to answer three questions. The long line of victims doesn’t deter Prince Calaf, who ultimately thaws the ice princess. The opera wasn’t staged in China until 1998, in the Forbidden City itself with a cast of thousands including soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army.
“I told my orchestra that it’s not a nice story, not at all enlightened,” Gibson says, “but after our first rehearsal, they were enthralled.”
CCM’s concert version is minus the elaborate production elements but, as Gibson points out, the drama is in Puccini’s score. Turandot will be sung by “a wonderful alumna, Helen Lyons who is Turandot in my book,” Gibson says.
Two “brilliant sopranos,” Xi Wang and Amanda Woodbury, will share the role of the slave girl Liu. Also, Gibson adds, “I have a great orchestra that happens to have a lot of Chinese musicians.”
Puccini began composing Turandot in 1921 and died in 1924 before completing the final act, although he did leave 36 pages of musical sketches. His family appointed composer Franco Alfano to complete the opera. As with Puccini’s earlier opera Madama Butterfly, he aimed for musical authenticity. Many of the themes are based on Chinese Folk tunes, but the opera is best known for “Nessun Dorma,” the grandiose Italian aria that became synonymous with the late tenor Luciano Pavarotti and World Cup soccer.
Maestro Gibson is confident that tenor Wang Feng will make the aria his own.
“We need to move on to the next generation of great singers and, curiously, that’s happening in China,” he says, adding that the need to train Chinese students presents unique opportunities for CCM and especially its opera department, which he calls “the greatest opera faculty in the world.”
“There are seven Chinese conservatories and there is a fast-growing interest in opera training,” Gibson says. “What they don’t have are coaches; they learn everything from recordings. They don’t know what the words mean or how to move. They want to learn but they’ve never had the opportunity. I would like to bring some of our CCM infrastructure to the conservatories I work with.
“The whole thing is about building relationships that are mutually beneficial,” he says. “We have approaches to orchestral and vocal training that the Chinese don’t know. The Chinese have a disciplinary approach to work that we don’t have. And we’re in on the ground floor.”
Gibson has a five-year contract with Central Opera that guarantees future collaborations, no doubt on a similarly grand scale.
TURANDOT is presented as part of CCM’s Orchestra Series 7:30 p.m. Friday at Corbett Auditorium. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.