Fresh as paint: Bringing Turandot to the stage
How Puccini’s oriental fantasy is re-created in one of The Royal Opera’s largest and impressive productions.
The Royal Opera’s spectacular production of Puccini’s Turandot was presented in 1984 as part of the Cultural Olympics in Los Angeles. It is now a signature production of The Royal Opera: performed almost a hundred times at the Royal Opera House as well as around the world. For this new revival, writer, lecturer and broadcaster Sarah Lenton has been finding out about the immense amount of work behind the scenes to bring it to the stage.
It’s July 2013, and the Royal Opera Chorus are already being fitted for their Turandot costumes before the summer break. Colin Maxwell (the Production Manager) has been down to the scenery store in Wales to check out the Emperor’s throne, and Kate Flatt (the Turandot choreographer) is wondering whether anyone’s told the singer playing Turandot that she’s going to be carried in on a litter. ‘That’s how Gwyneth Jones [in Los Angeles] did it, and it looks incredible – a great icon being carried in. Incredible and imposing.’ Which rather sums up the Royal Opera House production of the opera itself.
‘Imposing’ is obvious. Terry Fitton (Stage Props) knows this production well: ‘The thing about Turandot is that there are not a lot of props compared to, say, La bohème, but they are big. I mean they are big. The dragon cart is very large, very awkward to manoeuvre, but quite magnificent to look at. We have to build it and put it together with that huge grind-wheel, and then manipulate it into position. It’s tricky because you have such a narrow entrance – but it is a magnificent beast.’
But ‘incredible’? Well, this production has been performed over ninety times since it was first seen at the Royal Opera House in 1984, it’s been played at Wembley Arena, and toured the world (Los Angeles, Seoul, Tokyo, Parma, Cagliari, Lisbon, Madrid and Washington) yet it always appears on the main stage looking as fresh as paint. One of the reasons for this must be the omnipresence of the original designer and choreographic team: Colin Maxwell checked out the Emperor’s throne because: ‘Sally Jacobs (the designer for Turandot) is always concerned about it – it has its own crate, but every trip it gets damaged. Sally’s been coming back for 30 years. Which is brilliant and largely why the show keeps so fresh. Her eye is always on it.’
Terry Fitton knows that Sally will be glancing in his direction as well. The great Turandot masks slung from the balcony with their grotesque streamers of blood, are obviously difficult to manoeuvre, but that’s all in a day’s work – the real problem is the streamers: ‘The stage crew have to put the masks on the set – they’re on five-metre poles and top heavy. So there you are at the bottom trying to pass one up to someone and if you lose control it will all come crashing down (but that’s never happened!); the big job is to make sure that those red ribbons are nice and loose and not tangled in knots. The hair is made of raffia, fire-proofed of course, and it all has to be tidy.’
This extract is taken from Sarah Lenton’s article ‘Fresh as Paint’. The full article can be found in the Turandot programme book, available in the theatre at performance times and from the ROH Shop.
The Royal Opera’s production of Turandot runs from 9–28 September 2013 and 17 February–10 March 2014, with the production relayed live into cinemas around the world on 17 September.
The production is staged with generous philanthropic support from the Royal Opera House Endowment Fund.