Turandot story notes, part 2: Recommended reading

In Part One of these story notes I mentioned that I did a lot of research when I was writing “Variations on a Theme from Turandot“. So here’s where I show my receipts.

I made extensive use of my university library account and the privileges attached to it. I will link to my sources where I can, but many of them will be behind paywalls. I can do nothing about this. Sorry. This post will also be shorter than what I originally intended, because although I still have several of the papers themselves, I appear to have lost my original notes on them.

One of the first things I read was a musicological biography of Puccini whose title has now been lost to the mists of 5 years ago. The specific details of Puccini’s life aren’t necessarily relevant, but I read enough to get an idea of what Puccini’s experiences with women had been and the kind of conflicts that typified them, as well as the role that Turandot had played in (the end of) his professional life.

J.M. Balkin’s 1990 paper, “Turandot’s Victory,” was particularly helpful to me. Balkin’s thesis is that Turandot is not an opera about women, but an opera about how men trying to figure out how to treat women. Calaf does all sorts of things to try to win Turandot’s affection, but none of them succeed until he chooses to tell her his name and surrender. “Turandot’s Victory” helped me to solidify an idea I already halfway had, which is that this moment, and this relinquishing of male power, is the key moment that solves the opera’s problems. Balkin points to several lines from the original libretto, never put to music in the opera’s final score, which underscore this moment’s importance both thematically and to Turandot as a character.

Alexandra Wilson’s “Modernism and the Machine Woman in Puccini’s ‘Turandot'” and “Torrefranca vs Puccini: embodying a decadent Italy” helped me to situate Puccini’s work, and particularly his treatment of women, within the artistic standards and movements that were relevant at the time Turandot was composed. It is an evasion to say that misogynist artists were “products of their time”, but it is useful to be aware of what the prevailing standards of their time actually were.

Speaking of which, Puccini was hardly the only late Romantic opera composer to have killed off his soprano characters left and right; he probably learned it from Verdi, his mentor. Freudian theorists contend that Puccini hated women and wrote tragedies about them because of an Oedipus complex, but this doesn’t quite square with my reading of Puccini’s biography or of his work. Apparently it doesn’t square with many other people either, as I found several writers attempting to rescue Puccini from Freud, and sometimes from accusations of misogyny altogether. The most comprehensive attempt at this task is Iris J. Arnesen’s The Romantic World of Puccini: A New Critical Appraisal of the Operas. I was never quite convinced by Arnesen’s central contention – that the women in Puccini’s operas are consistently strong and powerful, not weak – but I found the book useful reading anyway, if only to help stir me up about the questions that we often find lurking under feminist media today. What is a “strong” woman, anyway? What do we mean by strength?

(I hope that readers of “Variations” will see both Liù and the Princess as strong characters, but in two very different, individual ways.)

Many of the writers I encountered had their own ideas for how to fix the dramaturgical problems with Turandot. One idea I encountered more than once is the idea that Lo-u-Ling, the murdered ancestress Turandot admires, is an evil ghost who has somehow possessed her, and that the real Turandot is a nice person and compliant wife who would never kill anybody. I find this idea disrespectful both to Turandot’s strength and self-possession and to the trauma with which Lo-u-Ling is explicitly linked, though I was very attracted to the idea of making Lo-u-Ling, in some sense, a real entity. An essay I read years ago about the importance of respecting ghosts, in non-Western cultures, helped me avoid the worst temptations here. I am dismayed to discover I can no longer find the link. I think it was by Jaymee Goh. (It was definitely not Rebecca F. Kuang’s “How to Talk to Ghosts,” which is powerful and important, but which didn’t appear until “Variations on a Theme from Turandot” had already been accepted for publication. I might have written the story differently, in yet another way, if I had encountered Kuang’s essay earlier.)

Finally, “Variations on a Theme from Turandot” does not go deeply into the issue of race and Orientalism in Turandot. That issue is very important, but although I was careful to note that the stage China is unlike the real China and that the Asian-American Soprano is unimpressed with it, I did not feel it was my issue to try to dive into and play with as I did with the opera’s sexism. I would love one day to read a Chinese author’s take on it. In the meantime, if you are wondering about that aspect of Turandot, Jindong Cai’s “Turandot in China” might be a reasonable place to start.