(Photo by John Fitzgerald)
The current heavyweight of Puccini's Turandot is California native Lise Lindstrom, already 30 different productions of the opera under her belt, who made her triumphant Teatro alla Scala debut last week singing the ice princess in a new production.
She spoke to Milan's Corriere della Sera about what it means to sing Puccini's meaty, vocally-juicy character, across so many life-changing stages and experiences.
OC's quick translation from Italian below!
An enigmatic princess who interrogates her prospective suitors with three riddles and he who gets it wrong dies (by decapitation). She's one of the most disturbing women in theatrical history (in opera and other arts) and reflects a theory most commonly held in regards to Turandot.
But the the heroine the Puccini opera, which debuted in 1926 at Milan's Teatro alla Scala in the unfinished form (the composer had already died before he was able to write the finale) and according to one of the opera world's current and best interpreters of the opera, she wasn't cruel and unsympathetic like most people think.
However, it's the opposite. Although according to Lise Lindstrom, the American soprano with a certifiable Puccini-esque destiny (she's a true "Fanciulla del West", born in Sonora, California, the heart of the 19th century gold rush epoch, and both of her grandmothers were called Minnie just like the main character in Puccini's Western-themed opera)
Her vision of Turandot goes against the stereotypes of Puccini's ice princess, man-eater, ball-busting woman.
Lindstrom, much loved by the American, German, and Dutch critics, celebrated her La Scala debut last night in a role that's made her famous (she's alternating in this La Scala production with Maria Guleghina since Turnadot asks for a vocal strength even greater than that of normal roles) and she's still "incredibly emotional".
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Lindstrom: "I've already appeared in Turandot directed by 30-odd directors, in productions that are often very different: from the net of the director's personal visions, an interpretation develops from the passage of many years, with study, and with a very general theory about a character that's so immense and in the end, so complex. A good example is from the great Italian baritone, Leo Nucci, who continues to study and interpret the character of Rigoletto after five decades of his career, and still discovers new facets and raises new questions."
From the sum of Puccini interpreters of the past, like Raina Kabaivanska, who once explained in an old interview with Corriere della Sera that she considered Puccini a sadist that wasn't ever in a position to let his women win. And in effect, within his operas (also in the operas of many other composers, really) women always meet a tragic end, aside from Minnie in La Fanciulla del West.
Lindstrom: "Kabaivanksa's point of view is very interesting, but i don't really examine Puccini through this lens, however. I mean, are we really sure that Minnie finishes in such good graces? She saves her man from a brutal execution and then says goodbye to her land, to California, to build a new life far away, together with him. She says goodbye to her world for a man. In the end will it be worth it? Is it the right choice?"
"For me it's an ending that's open, but with plenty of obscurity and darkness. I think it's really much darker than what is believed. Listen, I see Turandot also in a different way. Not only to keep it more interesting when dealing so often with the same personality of Turandot, but because there are so many presumed assumptions of the character that for me is actually very fragile. Puccini wasn't a misogynist in my opinion but he was deeply conscious of the injustices of life, and that's a completely different thing."
"His females leads have a tragic finish because no one helps them -- not men, nor society."
"Manon Lescaut, Cio-Cio San, Tosca: they're all women who sacrifice themselves. They're women who chose dignity instead of choosing survival at all costs. And with Turandot, Puccini's final work, Puccini complicates these things even more. I don't think he's a misogynist but certainly he has a distrust of society and the affirmation of justice in this world. But Turandot represents society. And she's power. It breaks my heart when I think that Puccini didn't have time to finish his opera, and I ask myself so many times (I know it's in vain) about what he would have decided to do in the end."
"But he leaves an enigma about a women who lives to ask riddles: A game like a Chinese puzzle box, a life where it isn't enough to have a final answer."
"And I ask myself, what if the audience would have asked themselves the same question, what are they thinking?"
"Is this woman insane? A monster? A serial killer? Or maybe she's a woman whose trying to understand all by herself questions like, 'What is love?' Because she's never actually loved herself at all. She's isolated from power and from the world. The Eastern setting is a very powerful metaphonre, during Puccini's time, and this isolation we always have to keep in mind."
"Everything has to be done alone: To learn to love, to understand alone what represents power and the role of compassion, of kindness, in ones life. And is she still a monster if you look at her in this way?"
"Of course the music is aggressive and overwhelming. But in her heart? I know that at the end of the opera, I go back to my dressing room with my heart in my throat, always, after the theater has emptied, here in Milan when I walk back to my hotel: I have this time to reflect on it. The streets are empty, and really, how am I seriously supposed to go to sleep after I've experienced emotions so extreme like this? So then I start thinking not really about how the performance went (although it's only human for the singers to think like this) but I reflect still on the Turandot that I just channeled. And so many questions come to me."
Listening to Lindstrom tell the stories of her emotions, her professional dreams (to in the future sing in Verdi's "Aida" or Strauss's "Die Frau ohne Schatten" -- that Lise, who once didn't have the same convictions, now thinks that it's one of opera's greatest masterpieces) it's difficult to think of her only nine years ago having left everything she knew to enroll in post-university classes in social science, and that working to help others left her unable to recognize her own dreams of singing in the opera.
Lindstrom: "My career hadn't started and my teachers couldn't understand the roles that were a good fit for my voice, and I was getting tired. I struggled once during a 1-hour lesson, I was paying 200 dollars, where the teacher told me rather rudely to drop it all and to pick a different job." Her husband found work in Indiana, pretty far away from the global centers of opera (New York, London, Paris, Milan, and Berlin) and couldn't come. A chance meeting with the right teacher who finally gave her the right advice for the appropriate repertory, a fortuitous substitution of a colleague, lifting-off from Indiana towards the most famous opera theaters of the world with the New York city press that cheered her debut at The Metropolitan Opera (from the New York Times to the publication that's like the bible for American opera lovers, Opera News)."
"I had to only wait a little bit. Turandot changed my life -- and even though some days, some nights, and sometimes on stage, it's the most difficult thing to understand -- i always do the thing that feels the best for me: I abandon myself to the extraordinary emotional force of Puccini's music. The answers are all there."