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The Challenges Behind Staging San Diego Opera's 'Turandot'

San Diego Opera's new production of "Turandot" captures the epic scale of Puccini's work.
J. Katarzyna Woronowicz Johnson
San Diego Opera's new production of "Turandot" captures the epic scale of Puccini's work.

Puccini's opera gets some new shadings

Any opera is a challenge to produce. But the director of San Diego Opera’s "Turandot" had to cope with a heroine she didn’t initially understand as well as sets and costumes coming from two other productions. But these elements all came together to make a beautiful show.

Turandot is an alluring Chinese princess who subjects all her suitors to three riddles. If they fail to answer them correctly, they are put to death.

"Everyone has lost their lives that have pined for her before and all have failed the riddles before and Calaf is brazen enough, just stupid enough, to think that he can do this," said Carl Tanner, the tenor singing the role of Calaf in the new San Diego Opera production of Puccini’s "Turandot."

Challenges of Staging San Diego Opera’s Turandot

Bringing the title character to life is something soprano Lise Lindstrom has done many times over the years.

"I love the challenge of bringing the humanity to the character. Lots of Puccini heroines have their hearts on their sleeves all night, Turandot does not. Turandot’s heart is buried in a block of ice that has to be slowly melted throughout the night and for an actor that’s a pretty good challenge," Lindstrom said.

And each time the challenge is a little different. For this production, stage director Keturah Stickann struggled with bringing the character to life in the midst of a #MeToo movement.

"There is nothing feminist about this story, nothing at all," Stickann noted.

It’s about a woman who hates men because all she knows of them is as aggressors who have raped and pillaged. So to take revenge, she decides to kill every man who can’t answer her three riddles. But then one man answers the riddles, she refuses marriage, he forcibly kisses her and she falls in love with him.

"I don’t like this story, I don’t understand that," Stickann said. "So I had a lot of trouble with that then I started looking at it and what if I looked at it less as romantic love, what If we were looking less about sexual, corporeal love and what if we were taking a more divine love approach and looking at this as Calaf’s spiritual journey or if he were looking at Turandot more as his soul. Something that’s internal for him, that’s cut off the light that he has to crack open."

Lise Lindstrom sings the title role of Puccini's "Turandot."
J. Katarzyna Woronowicz Johnson
Lise Lindstrom sings the title role of Puccini's "Turandot."

A key factor in helping her come to terms with the story was a poem by a Persian poet named Rumi.

"I kept remembering this line: The moon says 'How long must I remain suspended without the Sun.' And what makes Rumi special is he was a Sufi poet he wrote about divine love, he wrote about finding enlightenment and yet he also wrote about sex and love and corporeal beauty. And when I found that poem ['Because I Cannot Sleep'] I thought, oh man, this is where we are going and this is what we need to do and once I started looking at it in terms of that sort of faith-based struggle and we started looking at those parameters versus simply about a woman needing a man in order to realize that love is good, it started to change the way I was able to look at the story itself. And it all made sense to me."

And Lindstrom had to blend that into her interpretation of the role.

"I think there has been more of a focus on magnetic attraction, initial attraction to Calaf from the very beginning so you might see more of that type of relationship from the beginning," Lindstrom added.

Stickann then had to figure out how to make sets from a Chicago production and costumes from a Santa Fe one fit into her vision for the opera.

"I had to take those and then put the sets in one place and the costumes in one place and sort of make a little Venn diagram out of all of it and see where they all fit in the middle but it’s a constant balancing act of this is how you want this but it’s not going to play on this set and this costume isn’t going to allow you to do it this way," Stickann explained.

Carl Tanner sings the role of Calaf in the San Diego Opera production of Puccini's "Turandot."
J. Katarzyna Woronowicz Johnson
Carl Tanner sings the role of Calaf in the San Diego Opera production of Puccini's "Turandot."

But that kind of creative challenge can lead to exciting results.

"Ultimately, you come up with something wholly unique for what you are doing in this moment," Stickann said. "This set has never seen this telling, has never seen these costume so it’s kind of an interesting box that you have to put yourself in and you have to press up against the sides and see how far you can expand it."

Lindstrom says San Diego Opera’s production brings some new shadings to "Turandot" but it also delivers on tradition for audiences.

"They can expect grand opera in the grandest of sense, some of the best tunes that Puccini ever wrote and the most beloved Tenor aria of all time, Nessun Dorma," Lindstrom said.

As Calaf awaits his fate and Princess Turandot’s answer to his question, he sings this famous aria about a sleepless night in the city for all. It is a moment when all the elements of the opera come together in beautiful harmony — music, sets, costumes and story.

The Challenges Behind Staging San Diego Opera’s ‘Turandot’
Any opera is a challenge to produce. But the director of San Diego Opera’s "Turandot" had to cope with a heroine she didn’t initially understand as well as sets and costumes coming from two other productions. But these elements all came together to make a beautiful show.

>>> ANY OPERA IS A CHALLENGE TO PRODUCE. BUT THE DIRECTOR OF SAN DIEGO OPERAS TURNED OUT HAD TO COPE WITH THE HEROINE SHE DID NOT INITIALLY UNDERSTAND, AS WELL AS SETS AND COSTUMES COMING FROM TWO OTHER PRODUCTIONS. WE TAKE A LOOK AT HOW ALL OF THESE ELEMENTS CAME TOGETHER TO MAKE A BEAUTIFUL SHOW. >> SHE'S AN ALLURING CHINESE PRINCESS WHO SUBJECTS ALL OF HER SUITORS TO THREE RIDDLES. IF THEY FAIL TO ANSWER THEM CORRECTLY THEY ARE PUT TO DEATH. >> ALL HAVE FAILED THE RIDDLES BEFORE. AND CALIPH IS JUST BRAZEN ENOUGH OR JUST STUPID ENOUGH TO THINK THAT HE CAN DO THIS. >> CARL TANNER IS THE TENOR SINGING THE ROLE OF CALIPH IN THE NEW SAN DIEGO OPERA PRODUCTION. BRINGING THE TITLE CHARACTER TO LIFE IS SOMETHING LISA LINDSTROM HAS DONE MANY TIMES OVER THE YEARS. >> I LOVE THE CHALLENGE RELATED TO THE CHARACTER. TRAN DOTS HEART WAS BOLD BURIED IN A BLOCK OF ICE THAT HAS TO SLOWLY MELT THROUGHOUT THE NIGHT. >> FOR THIS PRODUCTION STAGE. IT'S ABOUT A WOMAN WHO HATES MEN, BECAUSE ALL SHE KNOWS OF THEM IS AS AGGRESSORS, HAVE RAPED AND PILLAGE. SO TO TAKE REVENGE, SHE DECIDES TO KILL EVERY MAN WHO CANNOT ANSWER HER RIDDLES. BUT THEY ONE MAN ANSWERS THE RIDDLE. SHE REFUSES MARRIAGE, HE FORCIBLY KISSES HER AND SHE FALLS IN LOVE WITH HIM. >> I DON'T LIKE THE STORY, I HAVE TROUBLE WITH THAT. SO I STARTED LOOKING AT IT AND THOUGHT, WHAT IF WE WERE LOOKING AT IT LESS ABOUT ROMANTIC LOVE. WHAT IF WE'RE LOOKING ABOUT LESS ABOUT SEXUAL CORPORATE LOVE AND WERE TAKING A MORE DIVINE LOVE APPROACH OR IF WERE LOOKING AT TRIM.MORE AS SOMETHING THAT'S INTERNAL FOR HIM. IT'S CUT OFF THE LIGHT THAT HE HAS TO CRACK OPEN. >> A KEY FACTOR IN HELPING HER COME TO TERMS WITH THE STORY IS A POEM BY A PERSIAN POET. >> THE MOON SAYS HOW LONG MUST I REMAIN SUSPENDED WITHOUT THE SUN? AND WHAT MAKES IT SO SPECIAL IS THAT HE WROTE ABOUT DIVINE LOVE AND ABOUT FINDING ENLIGHTENMENT. YET HE ALSO WROTE ABOUT SEX, LOVE AND CORPORAL. BEAUTY. WHEN I FOUND THAT POEM, I THOUGHT MAN, THIS IS WHERE WE ARE GOING. ONCE I STARTED LOOKING AT IT IN TERMS OF THAT FAITH-BASED STRUGGLE, AND I STARTED LOOKING AT THOSE PARAMETERS VERSUS SIMPLY IT BEING ABOUT A WOMAN WHO NEEDED A MAN IN ORDER TO REALIZE THAT LOVE IS GOOD IT STARTED TO CHANGE THE WAY I WAS ABLE TO LOOK AT THE STORY ITSELF. >> AND LINDSTROM HAD TO BLEND THAT INTER-PERFORMANCE OF THE ROLE. >> I THINK THERE'S BEEN MORE OF A FOCUS ON THE MAGNETIC ATTRACTION FROM THE VERY BEGINNING. SO YOU MIGHT SEE MORE OF THAT TYPE OF RELATIONSHIP FROM THE BEGINNING. >> HE THEN HAD TO FIGURE HOW TO MAKE SENSE FROM A CHICAGO PRODUCTION AND COSTUMES FROM A SANTA FE PRODUCTION FIT INTO HER RENDITION OF THE OPERA >> I HAD TO TAKE THOSE AND PUT THE SETS IN ONE PLACE ON THE COSTUMES IN ONE PLACE AND DIAGRAM ABOUT ALL OF IT AND SEE WHAT FIT IN THE MIDDLE. IT'S A CONSTANT BALANCING ACT OF YOU KNOW THIS IS HOW YOU WANT TO PLAY THIS. IN THIS COST AND ONE ALLOWED TO DO IT THIS WAY. >> THAT KIND OF CREATIVE CHALLENGE CAN LEAD TO EXCITING RESULTS. >> THIS SET HAS NEVER SEEN THESE COSTUMES. THESE COSTUMES HAVE NEVER BEEN ON THE SET. SO IN THAT WAY IT'S ACTUALLY KIND OF AN INTERESTING BOX YOU PUT YOURSELF IN. HE KIND OF HAVE TO PRESS AGAINST THE SIDES AND CFR YOU CAN EXPAND. >> LINDSTROM SAYS SAN DIEGO'S PRODUCTION BRINGS NEW CHANGES BUT ALSO DELIVERS ON TRADITION FOR AUDIENCES. >> THEY CAN EXPECT GRAND OPERA IN THE GRANDEST OF SENSE. AND THE MOST BELOVED TENOR AREA ARIA. >> IS CALLING AWAITS HIS FATE HE SINGS A FAMOUS ARIA ABOUT A SLEEPLESS NIGHT, IT'S A MOMENT WHEN ALL OF THE ANIMATE OF THE NIGHT COME TOGETHER BEAUTIFUL HARMONY. MOVIE DUST -- MUSIC, SETS. >>> THERE ARE THREE MORE PERFORMANCES THROUGH SUNDAY AT THE CIVIC THEATER. JOIN US AGAIN TOMORROW FOR KPBS MIDDAY EDITION AT NOON. IF YOU EVER MISS THE SHOW, CHECK OUT THE MIDDAY ADDITION PODCAST OF KPBS.ORG/PODCAST.