Monday, November 23, 2015

A reminder: on writing

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies

-Emily Dickinson

But for me, it is not because truth is "Too bright for our infirm Delight," but because 'the art in the drawing of that circuit lies.'

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Quote on self

"I wait. I compose myself. My self is a thing I must now compose, as one composes a speech. What I must present is a made thing, not something born."

- Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

How do we solve a problem like Turandot?

Controversy surrounds Puccini’s final opus. On the one hand, Puccini fans grieve the lack of musical coherence resulted by the composer's premature death and the subsequent completion of the score that had to be carried out by Franco Alfano based on Puccini’s “sketches.” On the other hand, this opera is still esteemed as the most complex and modern of all Puccini's works. But this is only the beginning. Some profound problems inherent to the story have some critics question whether it is even okay to keep staging this opera in today's world.  

If you’re not familiar with the story, here is a summary:
Turandot, the daughter of the Emperor in China, refuses to marry. The icy princess poses three riddles for her suitors as an obstacle for them. The one who solves the riddles will marry her; those who attempt but fail will be beheaded. A young prince, who has fallen in love with her at a first sight, takes the challenge. He solves all three riddles, but Turandot, still reluctant to be his bride, asks him if he really wants to take her against her will. The young prince says no. “I want you ardent with love,” he says. He then poses his own riddle. If Turandot finds out his name by the dawn, he will die; if not, she shall marry him. Turandot has a young slave girl, named Liù, tortured in order to get the prince’s name from her. Liù, who is secretly in love with the young prince, does not give in. Instead, she tells the princess that she too will come to love him, and then kills herself to protect the prince’s secret. That night, angered by Liù's death, the prince forcefully removes Turandot’s veil, and kisses her against her will. Upon this, Turandot confesses her love toward the prince, which she says she has been fighting from the very beginning. Admitting her defeat, Turandot asks the prince to leave China with his victory. But the Prince refuses. He submits his fate to Turandot’s hands by revealing his name to her. At dawn, in the court, Turandot announces that she now knows his name. “His name is love,” she pronounces. Everyone rejoices.
Turandot is often criticized for what Ashbrook and Powers (1991) eloquently called “orientalized exoticism” and “an unconscious manifestation of racial arrogance.” Although Puccini is given much credit for his studies of Chinese music, Turandot is viewed by some as a case of “the ‘authentic’ Chinese melodies victimized by Puccini’s monster” (Ashbrook & Powers, 1991). Ultimately, it is inevitable that a depiction of one racial group by another causes anxiety and discomfort. I can sympathize with an Asian soprano who expressed to Quartz her anxiety regarding Madame Butterfly and Turandot, mentioning "Asian American’s worst Halloween nightmare." 

Interestingly though, the Chinese in general don’t seem to fret over otherization of Asia and unintended mockery of its culture seen in Turandot. Instead, the Chinese wholeheartedly embrace this opera, which does seem to reflect a certain degree of sincere respect and earnest (if slightly amiss) admiration for the Far East(See this, for example.) Given this, I may overlook this aspect of Turandot and simply focus on a more serious problem: its flawed views on women, love, and relationship, which leads to a major dramatic failure. 

In 1998, Turandot was produced at the Forbidden City of Beijing,
with the stage direction by the famed Chinese film director  Zhang Yimou.  

Let me begin by recapitulating the story of Turandot once again. Here is an alternative way that the story can be summarized:
Once upon a time, there lived an ice princess, who claimed to hate men. But our hero, the young prince Calaf, figured her out (=solved all her puzzles). Nevertheless, the castrating shrew (who beheaded her suitors) still refused to marry him. Only when our hero took her by force, and gave her a taste of his manhood, she surrendered and confessed her secret love for him. Our hero conquered her and got his victory.
The notion that a hero’s coercive “kiss” melts a cold woman's stern heart is ludicrouseven for an opera, even for a Puccini opera. Besides, there is no way we can justify the act of sexual assault  (and remember, a kiss was a big deal in the ancient Chinese court where this story is set) forced upon a defenseless party, who, by the way, happens to be under an extraordinary level of distress and out of her element at the given moment. What is worse, the whole sequence around the so-called kiss perpetuates the wishful and dangerous male fantasy that ‘no means yes.’ And here is an added insult: what the "hero"is supposed to "cure" with his sexual assault is a trauma originating from another sexual assaultthe rape of Princess Lou-ling, Turandot's ancestor. The whole idea is so hopelessly demented that it makes even Wagner look like a philosopher and feminist, for the complexity he manages to bestow upon Brunhilde (at the final act of Siegfried, where she is awakened from her long sleep by the kiss of the lustful Siegfried) and Isolde (with her denial of her feelings for Tristan in Act I).

The opera Turandot is based on a play written by Gozzi (which is, in turn, based on a Persian folklore). In the original play, Turandot’s psychology is laid out in a more understandable, if not compelling, manner. Turandot’s hidden feelings for the young prince are revealed in an early part of the story, and she makes her confession to the young prince only to prevent him from killing himself after she solves his riddle and asks him to leave. But Puccini wanted to tell a different story. He wanted to ensure that it is “the kiss” that melts Turandot (as his letter of October, 1921 to his librettists makes clear). And he wanted this change of Turandot's heart a complete surprise to the audience.* Puccini had a great ambition to make live this impossible transformation of Turandot through the sheer power of his music

To be fair, opera often defies logic and reason; music can make an impossible story possible while its spell lasts. Many individuals continue to speculate whether Puccini would have been able to make Turandot's sudden transformation believable if he had lived long enough to complete the entire score. Some suspect it is no accident that Puccini could not finish the opera, that the task he had set up for himself was bound for a failure. According to Ashbrook and Powers (1991), Puccini’s unfinished draft continues more or less without interruption up to the point of “the kiss,” but stops there, only to be resumed at a later point, indicating a certain amount of difficulty the composer was experiencing with the crucial part. Another sign of trouble can be found in the fact that Puccini started orchestrating the earlier part of opera before finishing composing the whole piece first. This was not his usual practice (Carner, 1958). Andrew Davis (2010) quotes Carner: "Puccini’s failure to complete this particular love duet [the final Turandot-Calaf confrontation] cannot be merely ascribed to the onset his tragic illness; it seems to have sprung from something deep down in himself, from obstacles in his unconscious mind."

Regardless of speculations, what we have in our hand in the end is a highly problematic drama. Michael Tanner from the Spectator, therefore, called Turandot “a disgusting opera.” David Allen in New York Times asked, more thoughtfully: “Is it right, today, to show ‘Turandot’ so unquestioningly, and so unashamedly? And in a genre in which so many insist on focusing so strongly on works from a distant past, where do we draw the line of taste and tolerance?” Is there a way to salvage this opera for this century and make it appeal to our modern sensibility? Can Turandot be saved?

In an article published in Yale Journal of Law & the Humanities, Jack Balkin suggests that we see Turandot as an opera about “men's understanding of women and women's desires,” and as a story about “how  men create images of women and women's wants and needs in order to fulfill their own desires, whether this is true to women's actual subjectivity or not.” He goes on to say, “...the divergence between how women see themselves, and men's need to imagine them in a particular way, is what gives this opera its special poignancy.”

But is it possible to always bracket away the content of Turandot this way? Is it even desirable to try? Is it necessary? The answer to these questions, particularly to the last one, is "no."

Operas and stage plays, as art forms, take different manifestations with different productions. They are open to changes based on new interpretations. This is how they stay young and alive. 

Franco Zeffirelli production of Turandot at the Metropolitan Opera
is famous for its gilded extravagance and unapologetic exoticism.
San Francisco Opera Production of Turandot,
with the exquisite stage designed by David Hockney.
Lise Lindstrom's Turandot, in a British Royal Opera production,
is evocative of a samurai sword sharpened to perfection. 

Even some of the earliest sopranos who played Turandot tried to add complexity to the cardboard character. Eva Turner, according to the music reporter and blogger Peter Gutmann, believed that Turandot’s main trait should be fear, and projected "just a hint of vulnerability, as her imperious instincts battle against her sense of foreboding and vulnerability.” In a San Francisco Opera production of Turandot (directed on stage by Peter McClintock), the soprano Eva Marton effectively expresses Turandot’s conflicting feelings for the young prince: as he struggles with the final riddle, she appears to both desire and fear his success, wanting her own freedom and dreading his death at the same time. In a much bolder attempt, a Seattle production (reported here) has its Turandot take on a more active role in the events leading to her transformation. This Turandot reportedly touches the young prince as he struggles with the final riddle, as if to giving him a hint. What's more, she initiates "the kiss" herself. Although not everyone seems to have been convinced by the Turandot of Seattle, I have to commend the effort. 

Eva Maton's Turandot, in the 1994 San Francisco Opera production
looks nervous and conflicted as Calaf seemingly falters with her thrid riddle.  

Personally, I also wonder if the way the Italian libretto is translated into English can aggravate or alleviate the problem, at least for the English-speaking audience. I wonder if it is necessary to translate the Italian verb “vincere” to “to conquer” (and its passive construction to “to surrender”). It makes me wince when Turandot asks the prince, after the kiss, “How did you conquer me?” Instead, some translate the part as "How did you win me?" which sounds better.

New interpretations can supply a gush of fresh blood to an aging drama, but Turandot, never completed by its original creator, presents even greater opportunitiesThere have been a few efforts to re-write the final part of Turandot that Puccini left unfinished. The Alfano version, currently considered to be the standard, is itself a re-write of Alfano's first attempt. Janet Maguire did a rewrite of the final part in the 1970s trying to make it more faithful to Puccini's original intent. In 2008, another attempt was made by the Chinese composer Hao Weiya, who is said to have been “keen to make Turandot’s flare of passion for Calaf more psychologically plausible.”(Marion Lignana Rosenberg at Operavore). 

The most famous of all the rewrites of Turandot ending is that of Luciano Berio, which was published in 2001 and premiered in 2002 in Amsterdam. Musically, the Berio ending seems to delight the progressive while horrifying the traditionalists. I myself found it interesting, although the transition from the Puccini part to Berio part felt jarringly abrupt. 

I am most pleased with the Berio version for its dramatic potential. The flaw of the old libretto is still there (and we can't do much about it), but so is the possibility of remedies. For example, while both “the kiss” and the love confession by Turandot that follows it still remain in the text, Berio widens the temporal gap between these two events with a long stretch of orchestral music that is dissonant and conflicted, not only alluding to the long and eventful journey Turandot has to take on within herself, but also offering the stage director a fair opportunity to present his/her own interpretation of Turandot's transformation. Also in this version, Turandot's acceptance of Calaf (by her calling him “Amore”) is not accompanied by a fanfare of rejoice as in Alfano's version, but with an ambiguous and nuanced tone.

The 2002 Salzburger Festspiele production of the Berio version
sets the story in a Steampunk world of machine and puppetry.
The 2002 Salzburger Festspiele production of the Berio version (directed by David Pountney, with costume design by Marie-Jeanne Lecca and sage design by Johan Engels), which is available on DVD, makes quite a feat in modernizing this opera. In this production, the setting is changed from ancient China to a more ethnically-neutral Steampunk-like environment, where humans are under the control of machines and puppetry. Liù here is no longer the submissive slave girl misguided by her subservient habit of mind and masochistic passion. She is plucky, assertive, and defianta welcome change introduced by acting and dramatic direction alone without any change in the libretto. She strikes as being almost heroic, although the choice the director made about her death (which I will not reveal here) is puzzling. Her role in Turandot’s transformation is emphasized in this production through the costume design as well: aLiù tells the princess how she too will come to love Calaf, Turandot sheds her glorious blue regalia, revealing a dress underneath itthe same plain white dress as that of Liù. The problematic “kiss” never literally materializes on stage, although the libretto still mentions it. Instead, Turandot and Calaf stand rooted in their spots looking at each other over Liù’s remains. As the dissonant music continues, Turandot tends to Liù's body. Turandot and Calaf pull a sheet over it together, and holds each other’s hand over the covered body. With this, people of Turandot's kingdom, finally freed from the mechanical masks and machine parts, gather on stage, embracing each other against the sobering music. What triumphs here is not passionate, animal love, but humanity that encompasses love in its all shapes and forms. 

This rendering of Turandot, I believe, does a decent job rescuing this opera from itself, which deserves to be rescued, as flawed as it is. 

* Later, in November 1922, Puccini mentions in his letter to his librettists of his desire to make Liù’s death affect Turando’s change. Ashbrook and Powers write that Puccini, quite late in the process, inserted the line by Turandot, “Amore?” echoing Liù’s answer to the question of what gives her the strength to withstand the torture. Puccini scholar Mosco Carner however thinks Puccini failed in connecting Trandot's transformation to Liù's death. In my own judgement, some production brings out this element better than others. In any case, by the time “the kiss” happens, this aspect of Turandot’s psychology gets largely forgotten.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Visit to France 3. Following Van Gogh in Arles

On our second morning in Provence, we took a 20-minute train-ride from Avignon to Arles.

This town feels more charmingly rustic, down-to-earth, and in a human scale than the majestic, pontifical Avignon, and on this sunny day at the tail end of the summer, it somehow seemed to suggest a taste of Spain. 

The Roman amphitheater is seen at the end of the small street
Arles is particularly famous for two things among others: the Roman ruins and its former resident Vincent van Gogh. Here are a few photos of the Roman ruins.

Roman amphitheater. Gladiators are long gone, but bullfights still go on here.
Dramatic ruins of Roman theater.
Before moving on to van Gogh, here are a few photos from Church of St. Trophime:

Outside the church.
Little statues, with some missing heads. Where did they go?
The late afternoon sun lights up Christ's face. Did the painter know where the picture will be hung?
I'm always attracted to little candles in churches, each with its hopes and dreams and secrets.
The plaza right outside the church.

And here comes the most fascinating part of Arles--the van Gogh tour:

The first van Gogh easel to be seen walking into the town from the train station. The yellow house where the painter once lived apparently is no more. Or is that building on the left of the picture a part of the house that still remains? 
In daytime, about 125 years later, do we still feel the magic?
Entrance to the public park.
Le Cafe la Nuit, the subject of one of van Gogh's most beloved paintings. 
The garden of the hospital in Arles where van Gogh was confined at night for his mental illness.

The bridge. I guess the tree is new... (And so is the car.)

Here are some more photos from streets of Arles:
Mr. Lynch in Arles. what a nice photo?
The view from a viewpoint near the Roman amphitheater. Some guidebook will tell you you can see as far as les Baux from here. I overheard a group of British tourists looking for the castle of lex Baux. A lady pointed at the structure that can be barely seen on the right side of this photo, and said, "For me, that is les Baux." (It can't be, but I bet she wouldn't want to know...)  

We had lunch near the Roman amphitheater at a restaurant called Grillon. I had their lunch formule (a salad, a tart of tomatoes and eggplants, and coffee) and S had le plat du jour, which was a rabbit dish and an excellent one. We found dining in Province pleasurable in general, and here, one often gets a healthy amount of vegetables with each meal--different from our previous experience in Paris.

In the rest of the afternoon, we stayed in Avignon and walked around the city.

-to be continued.

Visit to France 2. Magical Mystery Tour

What a day.

We took a one-day small-group tour of Provence from Viator this day. The itinerary: 

1. Lavender Museum: a tourist trap with a big shop awaiting at the end. (By the way, visit Provence in late June or early July if you want to see the lavender blooming. The harvest is done some time in July.)

2. Gordes: a charming little hill-climbing town.

3. Rousillon: A lovely town built on its famous red soils (that contains ochre).

The buildings take their colors from the soil.

We caught the market day at Rousillon.
A spice vendor 

A charcuterie vendor

4. A quick stop at Roman ruins near St. Remy.

5. Les Baux: a beautiful white ghost town, haunted by tourists. 


6. Pont du Gard: the famous Roman aqueduct

TIPS on Viator’s 1-day small group tour of Provence: 
Bring a guidebook with you and do your own research on the sites visited. Our guide was more like a driver than a tour guide. She didn’t attempt to deliver in-depth information, and—low and behold—actually made up a couple of things. (She said that the town name Baux came from the name of the family who governed the town, which turned out to be not true at all. She also said the old olive tree near the Pont du Gard  was 500 years old, when it is actually 1000 years old). But this is a relatively stress-free way of seeing a few towns in one day.  

The 1000-year-old olive tree

On this Thursday night, it was impossible to get a table at a decent restaurant in Avignon during the regular dinner hour without reservation. We ended up dining in one of the tourist restaurants on Ave. Republique (which had lots of empty tables in contrast to other well regarded restaurants, which had truly intimidating lines of people waiting for a table). The food wasn’t very bad, but we wish we made a reservation in advance. (Or maybe we just shouldn't have waited until when the French eat?)

-to be continued.