The Turandot Project

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The Turandot Project

In the wake of Mao's Cultural Revolution, the Chinese government instituted a program of international aesthetic exchange dubbed "art for art's sake." The motto comes to mind regarding The Turandot Project, documentarian Allan Miller's film record of Indian-born conductor Zubin Mehta and Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou's collaboration on two stagings of the Puccini opera Turandot. The duo mounted the opera in Florence in 1997, and the next year in Beijing, in a spectacular outdoor production housed within the Forbidden City. In the film, Mehta explains that he'd always wanted to bring an authentic Chinese touch to Turandot, the story of a Peking princess who plays dangerous lovers' games with a suitor. But the Beijing performance became so elaborate and expensive ($15 million) that it moved beyond conventional business models of supply and demand, and instead became grounded in the fulfillment of pipe dreams and the defense of national honor. As is Miller's common method, demonstrated in his Academy Award-recognized documentary Small Wonders, The Turandot Project dwells more on the preparations than the performance, though the opera itself might almost be worth a second film. The documentary's drama comes from the passive-aggressive behavior of the artists, who work through language barriers and creative conflicts while remaining convinced that they're conceding too much territory to their colleagues. Zhang in particular seems rankled by his limited impact on the Florence production, where only his name and his reputation for eye-catching color schemes appear to have been required. Once in Beijing, Zhang asserts himself, demanding that the costumes be tailored to match the era in which the palatial theater was designed and built, and bullying lighting designer Guido Levi to increase the wattage to suit the Chinese preference for brightness. Levi grumbles that Puccini should be lit more subtly, a complaint which underlines The Turandot Project's central conflict: whether the Italians own the production because it's a Puccini, or whether the Chinese own it because of the subject matter and the setting. The Chinese clearly stake their claim, as the government assigns a regimen of soldiers to perform in the opera—"the people's army serves the people," one officer insists—and rural families are asked to help with the detailed embroidering of the costumes. The Italians and English folk, however, exude a confidence derived from experience. The "project" in these twin productions of Turandot is the reconciliation of their disparate approaches to the arts, and its glorious results.

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