BRATTLEBORO—As he prepares to present one of the most daunting operas in the Italian repertoire — Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot — Huge Keelan, conductor of the Windham Orchestra, reflects on the undertaking.
“We’re insane,” he says.
With its huge cast and orchestra as well as exotic locale, Turandot is grand opera at its grandest.
Set in ancient China, the opera deals with passion and vengeance. Prince Calaf loves the cold Princess Turandot. To obtain permission to marry her, a suitor has to solve three riddles; any wrong answer will result in death.
Calaf passes the test, but Turandot still refuses to marry him. He offers her a way out: if she is able to learn his name before dawn the next day, then at daybreak he will die.
Turandot is Puccini’s final opera. Unfinished at his death, it was completed by Puccini’s friend, Franco Alfano, and the great Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini conducted the premiere in 1926.
Opera 101 says that while the score is “filled with Asian touches, the percussion section in particular,packed with gongs and various tuned instruments (xylophones, glockenspiels, and the like)” it is still a genuine Italian opera “with Turandot outrageously titled henchmen Ping, Pang, and Pong providing a spin on classic Commedia dell’arte characters.”
“Turandot is an opera you can only stage when you can get the people to do it,” says Keelan, “and there are very few singers capable of singing the title role. The other roles are difficult to cast also. Both the Calaf and the slave girl Lui are formidable parts that require first-class singers.
“Beyond that, there are the surprisingly complex characters of our Tao-based commentators — who knows what these guys are really about? — Ping, Pang, and Pong.”
Keelan describes the latter as “intricate roles that require the singers to be both comic and tragic, often at the same time.”
“But we have singers who can do justice to these roles, and almost everyone in the cast is from the local area,” he says.
‘On point for the times we live in’
Windham Orchestra will present the three-act opera on Friday, Oct. 12, at 7 p.m., and Sunday, Oct. 14, at 2 p.m., at the Latchis Theatre in Brattleboro, and on Thursday, Oct. 18, at 7 p.m. at the Academy of Music in Northampton, Mass.
Many participants in this production are known and loved by the Northampton and Brattleboro communities.
The cast includes Jenna Rae as Turandot, Roseanne Ackerley as the slave girl, Lui; Alan Schneider as the Unknown Prince Calaf; Cailin Marcel Manson as Calaf’s father, Timur; Tom Gregg as Emperor Altoum; and Charlie Berrios as the Prince of Persia. Elizabeth Wohl, James Anderson, and Michael Duffin will play Ping, Pang, and Pong, respectively.
“Turandot is on point for the times we live in,” says Keelan. “There are riddles to answer, death and torture to avoid, hearts to thaw, and barriers of status, race, and gender to transcend, so that love may triumph against all odds.”
“Exile and deportation are real threats, and happening; profound family betrayal and disappointment are ‘in our face,’” he continues.
Turandot will be staged similarly to Windham Orchestra’s past opera productions at the Latchis: Tosca in 2014 and the Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci double bill in 2016.
“Like them, the orchestra will be on stage with the singers, who will be in costume and will fully perform their parts,” says Keelan. “There also will be a video screen behind the orchestra which will do many things to support the performance, from providing subtitles translating the Italian text into English for the audiences to elaborating on the action that is happening on stage.”
The title role of Turandot is one of the most taxing in the entire Italian opera repertoire, and at any time only a handful of singers are able to cope with the music of the role. An effective Turandot must sing loud and high.
Most singers find the role simply too difficult to negotiate. While Maria Callas performed it early in her career, she quickly gave it up, saying it was a voice killer.
Often Turandot is sung by singers who specialize in those big, heavy Wagnerian roles. Birgit Nilsson and Éva Marton, notable Brunnhildes and Isoldes, sang the part to great acclaim.
“We are able to put on this opera because we do have such a singer to meet its great demands: Jenna Rae, my wife,” says Keelan. “Jenna is embarking on a journey to become known as one of the great Wagnerian sopranos of our generation.”
Rae is working with Keelan to mount in the near future productions of Wagner’s most demanding works: Tristan and Isolde in August 2019, and, after that, the entire Ring of the Nibelung, a mammoth opera sequence composed of four operas.
“Jenna has the power and technique to cope with the role of Turandot,” says Keelan. “She has been probing her artistry and personality to make this striking character come alive. Jenna realizes that there is more to Turandot than being loud. Big here is not necessarily better.
“Remember that behind this ice princess there is a warm woman trying to get out. All of which is not to imply that Jenna is small-voiced. Audiences will thrill at the power of [Rae as] this Turandot.”
The Calaf will be played by Schneider, a tenor from Northampton, Mass. Local audiences will be familiar with his work in Windham Orchestra’s productions of Tosca and the Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci combo.
“Alan is a remarkable singer, and he is in his element in this piece,” says Keelan. “He’s sailing through this music with his big, expressive voice, singing such beloved melodies such as Nessun Dorma.”
Arguably the most famous tenor aria in all of opera, Nessun Dorma became Luciano Pavarotti’s signature tune, and Aretha Franklin caused a sensation when she stepped in for Pavarotti and sang it at the 1998 Grammys.
“We had to go out of the region for only one part in Turandot: Liu,” says Keelan. “This role will be sung by Roseanne Ackerley, a delightful singer who works in New York City. Roseanne has already professionally sung this character in two other productions and is quite wonderful in the role.”
One part was cast against gender. Although Ping, Pang, and Pong are men and were written for male singers, in the Windham Orchestra performances Ping will be sung by Wohl.
“We want to upset the apple cart just a little,” says Keelan. “Nonetheless, I do feel that this change is appropriate for the opera since the themes of Turandot are about race and gender oppression. Having a female play Ping gently unsettles traditional roles in society which Turandot so luridly explores.”
But Turandot has a lot more going on beyond the main singers. Puccini’s last opera contains a strikingly large amount of choral participation.
“The choral component is indeed a challenge, and we are handling it a particular way,” says Keelan. “True to the Windham Orchestra’s commitment to local participation, all the choral singers are drawn from the community.”
“Incidentally, although this is not a kid’s show, we have a lot of children participating in this production,” he adds.
Keelan has developed a two-tiered approach to Turandot’s choral singers.
“We will have our community-based SWAT-team Chorus which will be onstage the whole of the performance,” says Keelan. “This chorus is composed of highly trained singer/actors who will be able to convey the incredible emotion Puccini asks for in his music.
“At certain moments in the opera, this chorus will be augmented with our Rabble Chorus, a group of less-seasoned singers able to handle simpler music.”
If it sounds unusual for a small community to put on a mammoth endeavor like Turandot, well, it is.
“We’re good at breaking precedent,” says Keelan. “What would life be without challenges? We have learned to take it all in stride. Tackling these great things is all in our day’s work.”