Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre brings Puccini’s classic ‘Turandot’ to the stage this weekend

Cast of ‘Turandot’ — photo by Rob Merritt

To celebrate its 20th anniversary season, Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre will be staging Giacomo Puccini’s final opera Turandot this weekend at the Paramount Theatre.

“This is often done by companies at a celebratory time,” said Daniel Kleinknecht, Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre’s founder and conductor. “Our board was interested in tackling a piece that was bigger than we’ve done before, a piece that stretched us a little bit.”

The drama takes place in a mythical, loosely Chinese setting, and since it’s a Puccini opera, it’s sung in Italian, making it like a bit of an operatic Epcot mashup. The plotline, too, sounds a bit like a Disney princess movie turned bloody. Princess Turandot, who has no desire to marry, and her aging father have come to a compromise: Any suitor must correctly answer three riddles or risk losing his head. Heads have already rolled by the time Prince Calaf shows up on the scene, and Turandot has become viewed as a “princess of death.”

“It takes place in a mythical China, a place that never existed. It uses China, which was at the time a far-off place, like we would use science fiction,” said stage director William Ferrara during a Thursday Forum at Coe College, where attendees got a sneak peek of the elaborate costumes, props and set design for the production.

For some, that central element hasn’t aged well. From the sets and costumes to the characters named Ping, Pang and Pong, recent productions of Turandot have been criticized as examples of cultural appropriation and stereotypes.

“We are sensitive to the cultural stereotypes in Puccini’s opera, but Turandot is an essential work in the operatic repertoire, and should be viewed within the context of the time in which it was written,” Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre representatives said in an email to Little Village.

Attendees of a Thursday Forum at Coe College, got a sneak peek of the elaborate costumes, props and set design for the production. — photo by Lauren Shotwell

The opera was written in the wake of World War I, a time in which Benito Mussolini was rising to power in Italy (he became prime minister in 1922 and named himself dictator in 1925). Ferrara, who has directed plays, musicals and operas across the country, in Italy and South America, said the opera is in many ways a response to the brutal war and political chaos of the time.

“Fear causes violence,” Ferrara said. “And lack of control, lack of power, causes that fear.”

The work was first performed in 1926 in Milan, Italy, two years after Puccini died with the opera still unfinished. Italian composer Franco Alfano completed the work.

In staging the opera for a modern audience, Ferrara said they worked to emphasize Turandot’s humanity and make the love story between Turandot and the prince more believable by using elements such as costuming and increasing the amount of time Turandot spends physically present on the stage.

Australian soprano Rebecca Nash will perform in the titular role as Princess Turandot alongside Ta’u Pupu’a, a former NFL defensive end-turned opera singer, as the Prince Calaf — putting his stamp on the song “Nessun Dorma.” (You’ve probably heard it at least once. It makes an appearance in Bend it Like Beckham and the BBC used it during its coverage of the 1990 FIFA World Cup.)

Performances will be on Friday, Jan. 19 at 7:30 p.m. and on Sunday, Jan. 21 at 2 p.m. Tickets start at $19.

Additional Coe College Thursday Forums will take place throughout the year on topics ranging from American Art during WWI to Songs of Protest and Resistance. The sessions began in 1989 and have included previous collaborations with the Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre.

“Some of Thursday Forum’s founders and long-time supporters were great opera enthusiasts who helped to bring these types of presentations and collaborations with Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre to Coe’s Thursday Forum audiences,” said Brie Swenson Arnold, Coe College associate professor of History and director of the forums. “Similar ‘behind the scenes’-style presentations were offered in 2014 and 2016, in connection with the Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre’s performances of Carmen and La Traviata. Those wonderful presentations were very popular; thus, today’s presentation on Turandot came about from popular demand.”

Tickets for the forums are $12 for individual lectures and $35 for a full four-week course.

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