Turandot – What’s in a name?

From its first telling to its operatic premiere in 1926, the story of Turandot spans an 800-year journey. Though the opera is primarily based on Carlo Gozzi’s 1762 play of the same name, the original tale has its roots in a Mongol fable from the 13th century.

The legend revolves around a 19-year-old woman called Khutulun who was born in the year 1206 near western Mongolia and was the daughter of Kaidu, the most powerful ruler in Central Asia. Khutulun was a fierce warrior who often fought alongside her father in many battles. When pressed about finding a suitable husband, Khutulun insisted that “any man who wished to marry her must defeat her in wrestling.” Of all Kaidu’s children, Khutulun “was the favorite, and the one from whom he sought advice and political support. According to some accounts, he tried to name her as his successor to the khanate before he died in 1301. However, his choice was declined due to her male relatives.”

It is this legend which found its way to Europe through French author François Pétis de la Croix. De la Croix was working on a biography of Genghis Khan in 1710 when he published a collection of Arabic myths and legends entitled The Book of One Thousand and One Days (not to be confused with One Thousand and One Nights, which is the well-known collection of Middle Eastern and South Asian stories assembled between the 8th and 12th centuries). One of the stories included a modified version of the story of Khutulun, a Persian princess that de la Croix called Turan-dokht, which literally translates to Daughter of Turan (a region in Central Asia). De la Croix made several prominent alterations to the story. For example, instead of Turan-dokht wrestling her potential suitors in a match of physical strength, she asks them to answer three riddles, and if they answer incorrectly, they are executed by beheading. It was this story that caught Gozzi’s attention and served as the basis for his staged drama nearly 50 years later. In this version, the princess’ name was once again altered, this time to Turandot to better fit the Italian language.

By the time Puccini became familiar with Gozzi’s play in the early part of the 20th century, the story had already been the muse for at least seven different opera composers—Carl Maria von Weber had written incidental music for Gozzi’s play and Ferruccio Busoni wrote a Turandot opera in 1917 which suffered the same fate as Leoncavallo’s La bohème—became completely overshadowed by Puccini’s much more popular offering.

Whether she has been called Khutulun, Turan-dokht or Turandot, the story of the stringent sovereign has been a fortuitous one for dramatists for eight centuries and counting.

To ‘T’ or not to ‘T’

Music scholars have been fiercely divided over the pronunciation of Turandot’s name for decades, with renowned historians and linguists lining up on both sides of the debate. At question is whether the final ‘t’ of Turandot should or should not be pronounced. Despite years of research, there is still, surprisingly, no scholarly consensus on this controversial topic.

As discussed above, François Pétis de la Croix adapted the original tale of Khutulun and published it as Turan-dokht, which is a Persian word meaning “the daughter of Turan”. In Persian, “dokht” is a contraction of “dokhtar” (daughter), and in this word both the ‘kh’ and the ‘t’ are pronounced.

After being adapted yet again (this time by Carlo Gozzi in Italian), the name was simplified to Turandot. As is custom in the Italian language, words are often adapted into the diminutive as a form of endearment. Therefore, Turandot becomes Turandotte (meaning, little Turandot). In the Italian language, the final ‘t’ would undoubtedly be pronounced in the diminutive version of the name. In fact, Puccini himself wrote a poem addressed to Renato Simoni (one of the librettists) in which he uses the diminutive version of the name: ‘Bevi una tazza di caffè di notte; / Vedrai, non dormi e pensi a Turandotte’ (Drink a cup of coffee at night; / You’ll see, you won’t sleep, you’ll think of little Turandot instead).

However, there are several scholars and singers who argue that Puccini specifically requested the final ‘t’ to be silent in the final months before his death. The original Turandot, soprano Rosa Raisa, claims that the conductor Arturo Toscanini was told by Puccini that the final ‘t’ was never to be pronounced.

Yet another famous early Turandot, Eva Turner, never pronounced the final ‘t’ in her performances. After being asked this question in one of her interviews with Robert Lloyd, she responded, “I was at the first performance that Toscanini conducted, and it was ‘Turando[t].’ And whenever I sang it for the first time, or whenever I sang it, I say ‘Turando[t].’ And, I think I have to confess, I like it. More especially when it involves a musical line, to keep the continuity going. It isn’t quite so chopped.”

Another layer of confusion comes from the composer’s granddaughter, Simonetta Puccini, the keeper of the Villa Puccini and Mausoleum, who has rebuffed the sopranos, stating that the final ‘t’ must be pronounced.

So, where does this leave us? Nearly 100 years later, the debate still continues and, at this moment, there seems to be no definitive answer. How will the name be pronounced in our exciting, new production, you ask? Well, you’ll just have to buy a ticket and hear for yourself!

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