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Thursday, December 22, 2011

Chinese Bureaucracy

A short reflection on Puccini's birthday.
Your yuan at work: Eduardo Valdes (Pong) Joshua Hopkins (Ping) and Tony Stevenson (Pang)
in Act II of Turandot. Photo by Marty Sohl © 2009 The Metropolitan Opera.
Today we celebrate the 153rd birthday of composer Giacomo Puccini, the last of an iconic line of Italian opera composers. And I'm celebrating by focusing on an opera he never finished: (my first opera ever) Turandot.

It all started with Puccini for me. My parents took me to see Turandot at the New York City Opera when I was just nine years old. I don't remember everything about it, but I did like it enough to want to see La bohème a few weeks later. This was back when City Opera had their performances in the summer, so my parents had the time to take me.

Although Puccini's last opera, a blood-thirsty mixture of fairy-tale and Asian exoticism, is not the ideal starter opera, the story appealed to me. It was about riddles and solving problems, and the guy got the girl in the end. Of course, it's a little different when you're grown up, but I was hooked, and hooked early.

Two things stuck with me about that Turandot. First, the riddles. I spent hours poring over them in the libretto, trying to fathom why the answers were "fire," "blood," and "Turandot." The second was the three "masque" characters of Ping, Pang and Pong, who serve as a miniature Greek chorus, commenting on the action and presenting the face of Chinese government bureaucracy.

I know that everybody waits with baited breath for "In questa reggia," the Riddle Scene or the famous "Nessun dorma." But for me, Turandot is all about "Ho una casa nell'Honan", a moment of relative peace in the lives of three bureaucrats stuck in the middle of the Chinese court. Here, Ping (the Grand Chancellor), Pang (the General Purveyor) and Pong (the Chief Cook) long for the simple pleasures of country life.

This is their featured scene from Act II, Scene 1 of the Met's Franco Zeffirelli production, filmed on April 4, 1987. Brian Schexnayder is Ping. Alan Glassman is Pang. Anthony Lanciura is Pong. 


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