Vancouver Opera goes in search of the real Turandot

Fast-rising soprano Amber Wagner finds the humanity in Puccini’s notorious ice queen

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      The common perception of Turandot’s title princess is that she’s a fearsome, all-powerful ice queen with a penchant for chopping her suitors’ heads off. But in Vancouver Opera’s new production of Giacomo Puccini’s outsized final work, American soprano Amber Wagner is tasked with bringing much more to the role.

      Acclaimed Quebec director Renaud Doucet is focused on finding Turandot’s humanity. “He’s more interested in making it a story that’s believable,” says Wagner, who’s taking on the monumental role for the first time, after years of specializing in Richard Wagner. “Rather than saying ‘Here’s this frozen ice princess,’ how can we make it human so the audience believes it?

      “This is what opera is really about now,” she adds, on a break before rehearsal, sitting at the O’Brian Centre for Vancouver Opera, sipping on tea to preserve a voice the New York Times has called “powerful, gleaming and richly expressive”. “Renaud’s done quite a good job building a layered and multifaceted back story for her.”

      In the opera, set in ancient Beijing, the steely princess subjects all her suitors to three seemingly impossible riddles. The price of a wrong answer? Death, of course. But when Calaf (played here by Argentine tenor Marcelo Puente) falls in love with her, he gets all the questions right. Turandot still refuses to marry him, and that’s when he turns the tables, posing a puzzle of his own to the princess.

      A story about riddles, set amid spectacular red-and-gold scenery and gigantic choruses: does anyone hope to find a real woman in the middle of all that, and still make the murderous man-hater seem like she deserves a happy ending?

      The epic sets that will be seen here were recently part of the Atlanta Opera's staging.

      Yes—in fact, Wagner says she’s found empathy for the character. “She is fighting expectations in her culture,” Wagner explains. “In that culture, women were more property than anything. The [riddle] oath has locked her into this unique, weird experience.

      “While I can’t relate to the culture she’s growing up in, I understand that she resents those expectations and she’s scared of those expectations, so she puts on a façade,” Wagner adds. “Renaud talked about that: she puts on the exterior of being icy and cold because it’s better that the public hate her—instead of killing her to take the throne.”

      When she graduated from the Ryan Opera Center at Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2010, Wagner still thought her art form was “all about the singing”, she admits. The music is still paramount, but thanks to some influential directors, she’s changed her view.

      “I don’t think the audience wants park and bark,” she says, though she adds: “I would say they don’t want you rolling around on the floor while you’re singing an iconic aria, either.”

      Amber Wagner considers Turandot to be Puccini's greatest work—above Madame Butterfly and even La Bohème.

      In this Turandot, she’s been engaged in an especially intensive rehearsal process, with Doucet holding many read-throughs before blocking begins. “Our industry doesn’t do a lot of table reads,” Wagner says with a smile. “In my experience, you come in to rehearsal and you talk while you’re on your feet and staging.”

      Singing the role of Turandot is notoriously tough, even without trying to dig into her motivations. The title character has to rise above the huge chorus, pace herself well beyond her showstopping opening aria, and reach some powerful high notes.

      Wagner considers it Puccini’s greatest work—above Madame Butterfly and even La Bohème. “Tar and feather me for saying this, but I’ve never found Puccini riveting,” she admits. “I’ll take five hours of Wagner over his music! I have a very heavy German diet. But this one I love, I think because of the expression he wrote into the music. It’s incredible how he used the chorus in this opera. There’s some beautiful music.”

      In the end, Wagner’s biggest challenge may be wiping the audience’s preconceptions about the iconic role from the map. “Everybody already has an idea of who their favourite was and what it should sound like,” she says. “The current battle for us is that we bring our own thing to it.”

      Vancouver Opera presents Turandot at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on October 13, 15, 19, and 21.