The Chinese way
How did Hero and House of Flying Daggers director Zhang Yimou acquire his flair for the operatic? Merely mounting an actual opera wasn’t enough; Zhang had to bring his enormous, ambitious production of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot from Florence to the Forbidden City, where it’s set. It was his first time directing for the stage, and he thought it a good opportunity to say something authentically Chinese to a world audience.
The show is about a princess whose suitors must answer three riddles to win her hand in marriage. The prize for the runners-up is death. As conductor Zubin Mehta observes in the The Turandot Project, an illuminating documentary about Zhang’s effort to realize it, “Usually, Turandot is full of Chinese cliches. It looks like a big Chinese restaurant. But I think this is different.” The differences include an enormous 14th-century-replica set; 900 gorgeous costumes, handmade to exacting specifications of the Ming Dynasty style; and a cast of thousands, among them 300 Chinese soldiers who gradually train themselves to discern Puccini’s music from the moans of livestock. The company had five languages to contend with and many artistic differences.
In the eye of this hurricane is Zhang at work: often stoic, sometimes overwhelmed, but never in doubt about his vision or its significance. “We have to win credit for the Chinese. This is all I care about,” he says. “That’s why I took on this project.” Coolly, he explains to the stagehands, “If something goes wrong, it will be an international joke.” No pressure.
So, how did Zhang’s Turandot turn out? See The Turandot Project Sunday, at 2 p.m., at the Crest Theatre (1013 K Street) to find out. Tickets are at www.thecrest.com.