Mehta on Turandot
By John Ardoin

Conductor Zubin Mehta.Zubin Mehta, the former music director of the New York Philharmonic, has been a man long in love with opera. He has conducted performances at the Metropolitan Opera and Italy’s La Scala. For GREAT PERFORMANCES Online, Mr. Mehta discussed how this latest production of “Turandot” came into being.

 How did this production happen?

 Well, it was a dream of mine for a long time to do “Turandot” in China, even though I knew that people like [Conductor Herbert] von Karajan and [director Franco] Zeffirelli had been turned down by the government in the 1970s. To me, this made it even more of a challenge. During my visits to China with both the Israel Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic in 1994 and 1996, I kept on talking with the Minister of Culture there about performing “Turandot” in China, and at one meeting he finally said “Yes. We trust you, and you are Asiatic. Do it!” I wanted to do it with Zhang Yimou, a well-known Chinese film director, and I invited him first to Florence in 1997 to do “Turandot” as a regular stage production. He and his immensely talented team of costume and set designers and choreographers — all in their late twenties — came and did a sumptuous production. We got acquainted with one another, and he got acquainted with opera, which he had never done before. Although he knew all about Chinese theatrical traditions, which is so important in “Turandot,” he didn’t know about fitting chorus movements with music, for example, and he was very humbled about it and anxious to learn. By the time we got to China, he really knew the opera — what he could and could not do.


 What you had in effect, however, were two completely different productions.

 Yes, because in Beijing there was no set. We used the real, 15th-century Ming pavilion in the Forbidden City, the former home of China’s ruling dynasties. In addition, Zhang added two smaller pavilions that were built on rails and moved, and he used them deftly. He employed the chorus like a Greek Chorus, because the architecture of the pavilion restricted movements. What he did with the space available to him was miraculous.


 Didn’t he also have to make new costumes?

 That’s true.  The elaborate costumes for Florence wouldn’t have worked in Beijing, because the pavilion is 100 percent Ming style, and the costumes had to be of that period to harmonize with the building. In Florence, there had been more of a mix and we used many elements from classic Chinese opera.


 You had two different casts as well, didn’t you?

 No, actually it was three different casts because we had performances every three days, and these are difficult roles. So each cast sang three times during the nine performances we gave.  


 Has “Turandot” long been a part of your repertory?

 Yes, but I’ve not done too many of them. I did it first at the Metropolitan Opera with Birgit Nilsson and then in Rome — both in the 1960s.


 Since leaving the podium of the New York Philharmonic, is it fair to say this freed you to return to your old love — opera?

 That’s certainly true, and the day after I finished “Turandot” in Beijing, I started my new job as music director of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. I am now very busy there, because the company, like Vienna, does a lot of repertory.


 What are the special rewards in conducting opera as opposed to symphonic concerts?

 Although nothing can take away my love for symphonic music, I have always enjoyed opera and wanted to do more of it. For me, it is a complete theatrical experience. It’s not just accompanying singers in arias.
“Turandot” originally premiered in 1926.Opera composers were extremely savvy when it came to creating musical drama, and this must be uppermost in your approach.


 What were the particular challenges presented by your “Turandot” performance in China?

 The first was that the singers were nearly twice as far from me as they would have been in a normal opera house. That was something I couldn’t change. The Chinese were so concerned that we not harm one single architectural detail in the Forbidden City that we had no choice but to stay within the confines we had. To get the ensemble right, we did six rehearsals of the whole opera — two with each cast — so we finally got used to the distances involved. Another problem was miking the production for the audience, as the performances, of course, were outdoors, and open-air sound is usually quite dry.


  Did the Florence orchestra and chorus go with you to Beijing?

 Yes, they did. This was advantageous because the opera was well-rehearsed from our performances in Italy the year before. In fact, I think the orchestra practically knew it by heart.


 Was it well-received?

 Oh, yes. We had sold-out audiences for all nine performances, that’s 36,000 people — 4,000 at each performance. There were a lot of foreigners paying high prices — don’t forget, this production cost about $15 million — but mostly the audiences were Chinese. It made the Chinese very proud that they were part of such a first class production. And, of course, they could easily identify with the opera because Puccini used several authentic Chinese melodies in his score. Every child in China knows them. I think in the beginning they took this Western view of ancient China with a grain of salt, but once they got used to the conventions involved and the style, they thoroughly enjoyed it. As for me, it’s an understatement if I tell you it was the experience of a lifetime.