HGO's Turandot: With "Pictures You Can Hear"

Robert Wilson's distinctive use of white face and signature colors.
Robert Wilson's distinctive use of white face and signature colors. Photo by Lynn Lane
Soprano Tamara Wilson will perform the title role of Puccini's Turandot for the Houston Grand Opera arrayed in distinctive white face and wearing a bold red dress — both the vision of director/set and lighting designer Robert Wilson.

Singer Wilson (no relation to the director) says that while she loves singing this role known for its many notes in the high register, she is very selective in the Turandots she is offered. A large part of her reason for doing this HGO production is director Wilson 's use of movement and light — something he has been known for in all his productions.

"Light is the most essential element in theater, the element that helps us to hear and see better," Robert Wilson says. "The first thing I do in the theater is to light. Then white faces — in order to see a singer or to hear a singer if I see their mouth moving if I see their face, it's the psychological thing,  I think I hear better. So I exaggerate the makeup on the eyes and the mouth so that I can see the movement of the eyes.

"It's a very big theater in Houston Grand Opera and you have people very far away. You have to make everything a little bit larger so that it reads better. It's stronger. I spend hours with makeup. I have for years, 50 years, developed techniques that help me see an actor better."

Turandot is the story of a young woman who doesn't want to get married. Suitors are required to answer three questions and if they get any of them wrong, they are put to death. Prince Calaf (Kristian Benedikt} passes her test but she still wants nothing to do with him until he kisses her and then, shazaam, she is transported.

Soprano Wilson knows that it's hard to warm up to her character. "From an audience perspective, she’s very cruel and unlikeable. I liken her to being one of the first kind of feminists. She’s balking at the idea she has to be with a man to have value and to have importance through being married and her dad kind of giving her away as chattel. Which was not the way people thought back then.

"So I look at her that she’s trying to protect herself from the horrors and dangers of love and everything that goes with that or the loss of love. All of her actions are a means to protect herself psychologically. Whether that reads on stage is debatable," she acknowledges, laughing. "She's a young woman who’s terrified of being nothing more than being somebody’s property.  She goes to extreme lengths to keep that from happening."

As for the prince's kiss at the end that transforms her? "Think of this as a fairy tale world; there's no way it works otherwise," Tamara Wilson says. "It's really a true love's kiss that breaks a certain spell . As far as realism, it's not in this opera."

Turandot is known for its beautiful music and equally for its gender stereotypes and misconceptions about China and Asia in general. When Puccini was writing it in the early 1920s, Europeans were fascinated by but basically ignorant of the cultures in the Far East.

"it’s interesting because it’s early 20th century view of exoticism from a European standpoint. Those worlds were opening up to people in a new way. So it became fascinating in a way and the music was no exception," Tamara Wilson says. "Puccini was exploring these different sounds and different sound worlds. To us as a modern viewer it kind of sounds like a music score that's normal but at the time it was something new and different, which I think the world of art in general was wanting.

"The music is very gorgeous and very evocative. This opera has some of the best known tunes in popular music," she says. "It’s a hard one for the opera world to give up don’t think it should be given up, but  should be taught in tandem with history and why certain things are important, why different points of view should be done with tact and reverence.

"In this one, Bob Wilson makes it more about the light than anything else. He said in our rehearsal yesterday he closes his eyes so he can hear better, He wants them to be pictures that you can hear. So while to some it might look like the opera singers are doing weird gestures and things might not go exactly with the music and we're walking around weird and we're wearing this weird avant-garde makeup, there's this theme in all of the shows he does. He's always had this white face paint makeup to accentuate how light hits it. So it's more about the mood and the aesthetic of the piece than it is a historical documentary."

Turandot is a full scale enterprise for HGO with 80 some chorus members and eight main principals, Tamara Wilson says.

The costumes are very geometrical, she said. "They're lines and shapes so certain characters have very fluid lines in their costumes. Mine is very stark. I’m basically a very huge triangle. I have a hoop skirt thing so it always looks like I'm gliding. So there's certain effects that we use to do that. I come in on a remote control platform at the beginning. I come in on a diving board. So it always looks like she’s not human, like she's otherworldly. Ever single character including the chorus has white faces. Everybody has a spotlight on their face at all times so you can see clearly. So it's definitely not your normal take of opera production."

click to enlarge Robert Wilson feels Turandot calls for red. - PHOTO BY LYNN LANE
Robert Wilson feels Turandot calls for red.
Photo by Lynn Lane

In this opera, Robert Wilson says, "the principal singers are quite static, except for Ping, Pang, Pong who move quickly throughout the opera as a counterpart." The color of an opera, the color of a light I consider from the beginning. For this opera I took red. Red seemed to be the right color. Turandot wears a red dress but the red is intensified; I put red light on it. The back wall of the stage is red. Red against red. 

"This is a very dark story. Turandot, she is a very evil woman. We can put in this dark evil woman and this story, light, then the darkness will be darker. So it's important in this dark story that somehow we render it with irony and bring light to it. It's the light that makes the dark darker."

And how to handle the ending when Prince Calaf's kiss makes Turandot falls in love? "In a formal way," Robert Wilson says. "Done with a gesture of the hand of Calaf to his lip and he extends it to her. I hate naturalism; when someone is trying to act natural on stage it seems so artificial. If you extend something that's artificial it appears in the long run to be more natural. I think about the stage space as something formal.

"All of the gestures are there to support voice. To help them sing better, to open the chest up so sound can go out and up. My responsibility as the director is can I create a space on stage that I can hear music."

Asked why people should attend this production, Tamara Wilson says: "It’s a great feat of music, Every piece that you hear, is a tune that you've heard before somewhere. And that's just a mark of good music. You know it stays with you.

"There’s certain things about the characters like the death of Liu [Nicole Heaston] is very emotional and heart rendering.  It's a good form of escapism in general  because it is a fairy tale in a place long ago, far away and literally you could put it in any type of situation and it's still just a fairy tale about a man trying to win over the heart of an ice princess, who is trying her darndest not to be one," Tamara Wilson says. "But I think the thing that wins her is that he actually gives her a choice. Because he does solve her riddles so she should marry him; it's what their rules are. But he actually gives her a choice. So in a way it is a love story. "

Performances are scheduled for April 22 through May 8 at 7:30 p.m. Fridays, Saturday and Tuesday and 2 p.m. Sundays at the Wortham Center, 500 Texas. For more information, call 713-228-6737 or visit hgo.org. $25-$255.
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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
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