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The Appeal of 'Turandot' Is No Riddle

September 23, 1996|ANN CONWAY

Arlene Cheng loves opera. Her husband, George, is learning to love it.

Both appreciated the opportunity to underwrite the appearance of soprano Guiping Deng, who had a starring role in Puccini's "Turandot" on Saturday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

The production launched Opera Pacific's 11th season, drawing a sellout crowd.

"We feel very good about helping to promote Asian singers," said Arlene Cheng. "Otherwise, they might not have a chance. This gives them a little push."

The Chengs were among the more than 100 Opera Pacific supporters who dined at the Center Club in Costa Mesa before watching Puccini's final masterwork, the tale of a vengeful ice princess set in ancient Beijing. Turandot beheads would-be suitors who cannot answer her riddles.

"This is my favorite opera," said Arlene Cheng.

Deadpanned George Cheng: "She likes the story. I like the costumes."

It is easy to enjoy the opera that features "Nessun Dorma," the haunting aria popularized in recent years by tenors Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras and Luciano Pavarotti. But the production always raises a question for opera buffs: Is the title pronounced "Turandough"? or "Turandahtt"?

According to Kevin Crysler--director of Opera Pacific's community programs--it is neither.

"It's Turandoat," he said at a preview discussion for opera lovers in Segerstrom Hall.

During dinner at the Center Club, Opera Pacific board member Georgene Smith said she enjoys "Turandot" because it is fairy-tale like. "I've always been a fairy-tale fan," she said during the champagne reception that featured the Mei Ling Chinese Dance Co.

"And this opera has a happy ending. Most have a bad one. Somebody dies."

In "Turandot," the princess eventually meets her match--a deposed prince who answers her three riddles. But it is not enough. She wants nothing to do with him.

("She doesn't want to marry the guy," Crysler explained. "But he's so in love with her . . . he's willing to let her off the hook. If she can tell him his name before dawn, he says, she doesn't have to marry him.

"She tells everybody in her kingdom to find out his name . . . or she will chop off their heads!")

David DiChiera, general director of Opera Pacific, called "Turandot" a "grand opera in the 'Aida' tradition."

"It is the only opera that Puccini wrote on a huge, spectacle scale," he said during festivities at the Center Club. "All of his other operas were more intimate, had to do with smaller emotions."

Opera lovers have to wait until Act Three to hear "Nessun Dorma," sung by Calaf, the suitor who correctly answers the riddles.

(Explained Crysler: "When Calaf sings 'Nessun Dorma' [Nobody Sleeps], he is saying he will not sleep because, in the morning, Turandot will be his.

"The chorus is singing they will not sleep because they're going to die in the morning.")

In the morning, however, Turandot kisses Calaf and decides she loves him. "One kiss did it," said DiChiera as he mingled with supporters at the Center Club.

Dr. Gayle Widyolar, president of the Opera Pacific board, finds the conclusion of "Turandot" one of the most satisfying in operatic experience. "It is wonderful to watch the ice princess find out about love," she said.

Joining Widyolar at her dinner table was opera star Carol Neblett of Coronado, and her husband, Dr. Philip Akre.

Neblett, who starred last season in Opera Pacific's production of "Regina," has sung the role of "Turandot."

"It is not my favorite role to sing," she said. "I find her a rather static character. She has some great moments, but I like characters where I can do more moving around."

Being the husband of an opera star has its challenges, Akre confided. People sometimes call him Mr. Neblett. His wife's advice: "Speak right up and tell them it's Doctor Neblett."

When it happened at the Met in New York, Akre used her line. "I did it, and it felt good," he said.

Also among guests at the Center Club were Opera Pacific Board Chairman Tom Hammond with his wife, Karla; Ruby and Jonathan Lloyd (who donated $25,000 to help underwrite the new season); Irv and Gloria Gellman; Laila and Bill Conlin; Jeanette Segerstrom; Don and Eugenia Thompson and Elaine Redfield.

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