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Where is the Chinese Princess?

November 1, 2019


        Recently, I was wrapping up my "Intro to Opera" presentation with the final scene from Puccini's Turandot, in which the Chinese Princess accepts Calaf as her consort and everyone lives happily ever after. The lights went off, the video began. Franco Zeffirelli's lavish spectacle burst in front of our eyes, and the venerable soprano, Maria Guleghina, handed a scepter to her Calaf. "Where is the Chinese Princess?" I heard in the darkness. "She's so old! This is no Chinese Princess!" continued the perplexed whispers. No, not really. She is Ukrainian and in her late fifties, I said as the lights came back on. 

        An almost desperate "Why?" came back at me. "Why did they pick her?" And I explained again about voices, about the prowess needed to sing Turandot, about Ms. Guleghina being one of the best-suited sopranos for the role. It's called "suspension of disbelief" and we all need to practice it when we see an opera, I told them. After all, another Puccini character, Madama Butterfly, is only fifteen, yet the part has to be sung by an experienced soprano. So she sings that she's fifteen but she might look middle-aged, and that's because she is middle-aged. "That's messed up," someone blurted out.

       "Suspension of disbelief... is that like when you're a size 14 and you still pretend you're an 8?" asked a student. "Or like when this guy you have a crush on says he'll text you tomorrow, and a week later, you're still checking your phone a million times?" "I know," said another student, "it's like putting what's real to the side so it doesn't get in your way when you're trying to go into an artistic moment, and you know you're doing it but you wanna do it because you wanna feel something different. Something more than what's real, more than what you see."

       What could I possibly add to that?