Turandot at DMMO: 1988, 2002, 2017

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There is perhaps no other opera better suited to mark an anniversary season like Giacomo Puccini’s final masterpiece, Turandot. An opera that inspires both spectacle and controversy, Turandot will once again take the stage at the Blank Performing Arts Center as it opens our 45th Summer Festival in a thrilling new production featuring our Puccini dream team, Alexandra LoBianco as Turandot and Jonathan Burton as Prince Calaf. It will be Des Moines Metro Opera’s third undertaking of this remarkable piece, with previous productions in 1988 and 2002. Here’s a look back at our Company’s first two excursions into this spectacular work of musical drama.

1988 Production

16th

In 1988 DMMO’s founder and then-Artistic Director, Robert L. Larsen, felt it was time to produce this opulent masterpiece during DMMO’s Summer Festival Season. One of the first problems Dr. Larsen and the rest of the staff had to solve was finding the right theater for this opera. During the 14th Summer Festival only two years before, DMMO produced an extravagant and successful mounting of Verdi’s Aida at the Civic Center in downtown Des Moines, which garnered much critical acclaim and provided DMMO with a much larger venue to produce a work that would have been nearly impossible to perform in the intimate Blank Performing Arts Center in Indianola. “We always knew that Turandot might be another production for the Civic Center someday,” said Larsen.”But there’s also an intimacy about the opera, in terms of its small cast and its compartmentalized drama, so it seemed possible to do it in Indianola. And even though it stretched our limitations, it was conceivable and ultimately proved to be quite successful.”

Thus began one of the Company’s most ambitious endeavors in its early years. Auditions were held. Countless production meetings were scheduled. Additional auxiliary and children’s choruses were recruited. An elaborate set was raised. And finally rehearsals began for what one reporter from the Des Moines Register would later call “the most splendid production [DMMO] has put on stage in its 16 years.”

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Despite the intimacy of the theater in Indianola, Larsen had no issues staging this immense drama. “That stage absorbs people…the more people you put on it, the better,” he said in a recent interview. One scene that usually proves to be a bit troublesome for directors is the Ping, Pang, Pong trio at the beginning of Act II. Larsen mentioned that this scene can easily hinder the dramatic movement of the work if not done properly. To solve this riddle, Larsen opted to set the entire scene in the playing circle, allowing the audience to more closely connect and interact with both the dramatic and comedic elements of this fascinating scene. Another element that Larsen believes helped this scene was the choice to sing the production in English, which greatly aided the actors in their delivery and allowed the audience to quickly and fully appreciate the comedic timing, which is crucial to the scene’s success. For the large-scale moments when nearly the entire cast needed to be on stage, Larsen utilized the uniqueness of the space and placed chorus and cast members on every inch of both the main stage and the playing circle which “achieved a surprisingly panoramic feeling” as one reporter from the Bay Area News noted.

With a production of this magnitude, there are bound to be plenty of humorous anecdotes. When asked, Larsen recalled a rather unforgettable moment during one of the performances, which involved Prince Calaf’s hat…”I remember on one occasion, a torch caught Paul’s helmet on fire and he naturally had to be denuded of that helmet very quickly.” Another performance mishap surprisingly went by mostly unnoticed by many members of the audience. “That was the first production where we had an attendant to the throne, one of Turandot’s attendants, pass out during the production. He didn’t fall though, he was sort of held up by his costume and cast members were able to slip him out of his costume, leave the costume in place, take him off-stage and quickly call emergency.” We’re thankfully able to report that the attendant fully recovered after the incident.

CAST

  • Princess Turandot – Pyramid Sellers
  • The Unknown Prince (Calaf) – Paul Spencer Adkins
  • Timur, his father – Willaim Walker
  • Liù, a slave girl – Jean Glennon
  • Pu-Tin-Pao, the executioner – Steve Wilbur
  • Executioner’s assistant – Rick Humphrey
  • The Prince of Persia – Lee Franklin
  • Ping, the Grand Chancellor – Kimm Julian
  • Pang, the General Purveyor – Mark Kleinman
  • Pong, the Chief Cook – Reginald Pittman
  • The Emperor Altoum – Patrick Hansen
  • A Mandarin – Daniel Patano

PRODUCTION

  • Conductor/Stage Director – Robert L. Larsen
  • Assistant Conductor – Stewart Robertson
  • Assistant Stage Director – Sally Stunkel
  • Scenic Designers – Paul A. Norrenbrock and Katherine Ross
  • Lighting Designer – Martin Ross
  • Musical Preparation – Miriam Charney and Reed Woodhouse
  • Costumes – Opera Company of Boston

2002 Production

30th

Des Moines Metro Opera’s 30th Anniversary Season provided the perfect opportunity to revisit Puccini’s final masterpiece, this time with an all-new production once again staged at the Blank Performing Arts Center. The most striking difference between the 1988 and 2002 productions is the language in which it is sung. In the Company’s early years (well before projected translations became the norm at opera companies), every production at DMMO was sung in English. By 2002, DMMO had initiated the transition to sing every production in its original language. Of course, Turandot once again refused to be pigeonholed; this production was sung in Italian in every scene…except one: the decision was made to sing the infamous Ping, Pang, Pong trio from Act II in English in an effort to make the intricate comedic timing of the scene as accessible as possible. Aside from the language difference, this production proved to be just as grand, lush and extravagant as the 1988 Turandot. “The Des Moines Metro Opera opened its 30th season…with a grand and glorious performance of Puccini’s Turandot…which combined visual spectacle, dramatic coherence and musical opulence, both from the vocalists and the orchestra, to create an evening of compelling musical theater,” noted the Des Moines Register.

Caroline Whisnant, who sang the role of Princess Turandot, recalled one particularly memorable moment from the rehearsal process: “Arnold Rawls (Prince Calaf) and I had such a wonderful time singing together in Turandot. We both tend to sing out in rehearsals just for the joy of it. One day after our orchestra rehearsal, we had an additional piano rehearsal onstage for technical aspects with the entire cast including the children’s chorus. Arnold decided to mark his part that day for the first time. During a break one of the young boys in the children’s chorus asked Arnold why he wasn’t singing out loud. Arnold explained that we had been singing quite a bit that week and he was a little tired. The boy then looked up at Arnold with his angelic face and said, ‘We’re all tired.’ This phrase has become a mantra for Arnold and me whenever we talk.”

CAST

  • Princess Turandot – Caroline Whisnant
  • The Unknown Prince (Calaf) – Arnold Rawls
  • Timur – Travis Lewis
  • Liù – Jennifer David Jones
  • The Prince of Persia – Brian Osborne
  • Ping – Dennis Jesse
  • Pang – Paul Saik
  • Pong – Torrence Blaisdell
  • Emperor Altoum – Travis Richter
  • Pu Tin Pao – Robert Dutiel
  • A Mandarin – Brian Shadowens
  • Swordsmen – Chris Phillips, Don Walth, Tom Burman

PRODUCTION

  • Conductor/Stage Director – Robert L. Larsen
  • Assistant Conductor – Michael Borowitz
  • Assistant Stage Director – Marciem Bazell
  • Chorus Master – Susanne Sheston
  • Musical Preparation – Robin Stamper, Greg Ritchey, Julian Reed, Brian Osbourne
  • Scenic Designer – R. Keith Brumley
  • Scenery Construction – Virginia Scenic
  • Lighting Designer – James C. Trenberth
  • Costumes – Malabar Limited, Toronto
  • Makeup/Hair Design – Elsen Associates, Inc.
  • Supertitle Operator – Laura Friesen
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