Four nights at the opera -- under the stars

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Four nights at the opera -- under the stars

Almost a year ago, Seoul’s World Cup Stadium was packed with frenzied fans, enraptured by the drama, excitement, joy and tears of the FIFA soccer championships.
Today, that same stadium is poised once again to be packed with with drama, excitement, joy and tears, but this time for a very different reason ― opera.
One of China’s greatest film directors is bringing his lavish production of Puccini’s “Turandot” to Seoul for four days beginning Thursday.
Hanging over the western entrance gate of the the stadium is a large screen covered with photographic highlights from the last year's matches. A glass case by the wall displays a lucky tie that was once worn by Guus Hiddink, the Dutch coach who led South Korea’s national team to a fourth place finish.
But just a few steps away from the entrance, construction workers hurriedly carry large wooden panels and steel rods, trying to ready the sets and other production equipment, all under a banner reminding everyone about the need for safety.
At the stadium, a mixed crew of nearly 300 local and foreign people are working together to finish up a fortress wall that stretches 150 meters long and 45 meters high (165-by-50 yards), about twice the size of the set the director used when he staged this opera at the imperial palace of Beijing’s Forbidden City four years ago. The rough frames of the set were built in an outdoor studio in Gyeonggi province in early April, then installed in the stadium two weeks ago.
The scale and budget of the opera, at 5 billion won ($4 million), makes it one of the largest outdoor operas ever put on, certainly in Korea. In addition to the mammoth set, about 1,500 tailor-made costumes and props were brought from China by ship early this month.
The local production of “Turandot” has been the talk of the town, even before the crews arrived in Seoul. The Beijing run, which caught the world’s attention for its cost and artistic accomplishment, has inspired high expectations among opera buffs foreign and domestic here.
Up to 40 percent of the seats were filled by the third week of ticket sales, despite relatively high ticket costs, which range from 30,000 won all the way up to 500,000 won. By the fourth week, the company announced that the show had reached the break-even point. For a venue that can accommodate 30,000 people each show, the public response has been huge.
“The idea of using the soccer stadium for an opera event is tremendously brilliant,” said Carlos Palleschi, a conductor of the Seoul production. “I must admit that there will be technical difficulties with the sound and lighting, but the space is full of possibilities.”
Set in ancient Beijing, “Turandot” by Giacomo Puccini is the story of the cruel and icy Princess Turandot, who has decreed that anyone wishing to marry her must answer three riddles correctly ― answer one wrong and he will be put to death. Many of the princess’s admirers have tried, failed and been executed, until a Persian prince, Calaf, resolves to win her.
Similar to “Madame Butterfly” or “Miss Saigon,” the story of “Turandot” reflects Europe’s fascinations about the exotic Orient, which sums up the sentiment about the East at the time of Puccini.
Perhaps that is why Zhang Yimou’s production of “Turandot” has caught so much attention from Western critics. Mr. Zhang, who earned his reputation making films like “Raise the Red Lantern” and “The Story of Qiu Ju” that are historically authentic and cultural ly specific, has taken a traditional opera reflecting western fantasies about China and reclaimed it for the East, giving it new nuance and meaning in the process.
Indeed a number of critics who have seen Mr. Zhang’s “Turandot” have said that the visual display of his production is overwhelmingly rich and grandiose compared to the more plain sets of “Turandot” usually staged in European opera houses in the past.
Mr. Zhang admits his ambition is to challenge the traditions of opera. “My vision of ‘Turandot’ was to change the color of the production with more glittering lighting and a grandiose scale of music,” Mr. Zhang says. During his earlier productions of “Turandot” in Florence and Beijing, he worked very closely with Zubin Mehta, the Bombay-born maestro who had performed for both stages, to extract the most “sublime and solemn tunes” out of the orchestra to suit the visual spectacle.
The show at Seoul Stadium is another challenge for Mr. Zhang as it is his first opportunity to experiment freely with technical elements. In Beijing, the crews of “Turandot” faced frequent limitations over the lighting due to the nature of the Forbidden City as one of China’s most important historic relics.
“In terms of technical completion, in between the scenes it will be the most beautiful opera you have ever seen,” Mr. Zhang says.
“The stadium is a significant place to stage Zhang’s production,” says Park Hyun-jun, the project coordinator and director of the Hangang Opera Troupe, “because we assure this opera is something that will mark a strong impression about Korea for a long time.”
The Hangang Opera Troupe is one of the show’s three sponsors, along with Hanjeon Arts Pool Center and the SBS broadcasting network.
Despite the ambition and lengthy preparations that have gone into the production, there is one thing the crews of “Turandot” are helpless to control and pray about ceaselessly ― the weather. The production has been well-insured, just in case of sudden monsoon or other natural disasters that could cancel the shows. In Florence and Beijing, the shows simply continued if rain fell after Act 1. The shows in Seoul are supposed do the same, unless the rains grow to torrential levels.
“Normally in arena operas, the orchestra packs its bags with just a few drops of rain,” Mr. Park says. “But we are preparing a portable booth for the musicians so that the shows can go on in the rain. That’s the worst scenario. We are expecting the best.”

by Park Soo-mee
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