TURANDOT – Soprano Othalie Graham stars in Frestival Opera’s Season Premiere

Puccini’s final work plays four performances at the Lesher Center for the Arts beginning July 11th

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By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

When the curtain rises on Saturday, July 11th, for Festival Opera’s Turandot, the occasion will mark more than just the beginning of another season.  Two years in the making, this particular production will be both the largest and most lavish in the company’s 18-year history – as well as the first Turandot since San Francisco Opera’s production in 2002.  Set in the opulence of ancient Peking, Turandot is a riveting tale of the power of love over fear and terror. Princess Turandot is secretly afraid of men, so to avoid marriage she has created three riddles which each of her suitors must solve.  So far, all have perished in the attempt.   When Prince Calaf, the son of a deposed king and unbeknownst to Turandot, unexpectedly succeeds, she refuses to marry him and surrender her chastity.  Undaunted, he poses a riddle of his own.  If Turdandot can uncover his identity by dawn, he will gladly forfeit his life to release her from her vow.

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TURANDOT – At Festival Opera, July 11th—19th

The role of Turandot will be sung by acclaimed Canadian soprano Othalie Graham, who made her Bay Area debut in 2006 at Festival Opera in the title role of Tosca.  “Turandot is a very difficult role to cast,” says executive director Helen Sheaff.  “Most sopranos under 40 just don’t have the voice for it yet.  Othalie is probably going to be the up and coming Turandot in the United States in the next few years.” The production will feature such other noted performers as lyric tenor Christopher Jackson as Prince Calaf; soprano Rebecca Sjöwall as the  slave Liù; and bass Kirk Eichelberger as Timur, the vanquished king.  Turandot will be conducted by Bryan Nies and directed by David Cox. Set design is by Peter Crompton.

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OTHALIE GRAHAM – as Puccini’s “Turandot”

Puccini was already ill when he began the opera, five years before his death. The unenviable task of determining how to finish the master’s work fell to Arturo Toscanini, who had been working with Puccini and was to conduct the debut performance. Franco Alfano, a colleague of Puccini’s, was chosen to write the final 200 measures and labored over it for six months. Perhaps finishing such a major work was as great a challenge as one of Turandot’s own riddles; despite Alfano’s hard work, Toscanini was dissatisfied and after the first production he never conducted the opera again.

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GIACOMO PUCCINI and ARTURO TOSCANINI

“It’s the biggest thing Festival Opera has ever done,” says director David Cox, who previously helmed Un ballo in maschera in 2005 and Rigoletto in 2004 for the company.   “It’s just a huge opera, and a very difficult piece to pull off.”  Indeed, for a regional company that operates on an annual budget of less than $800,000 and a full-time staff of one, Turandot could be considered a massive undertaking.  Among other things, a national search for the principal roles had to be conducted – through which they found tenor Christopher Jackson for Calaf in New York and soprano Rebecca Sjöwall for the role of Liù in southern California.   The all-volunteer Festival Opera Chorus, a crucial feature to both productions this season, had to be expanded to 75 (including 15 preteens), requiring a round of extra auditions, along with an intensive twice-weekly rehearsal schedule that began in January.  To integrate so many additional bodies into the onstage action, the production brought in choreographer Mark Foehringer to collaborate with stage director David Cox, as he did so successfully last season with stage director Michael Morgan on A Midsummer Night’s Dream . The need for more than 80 costumes could have quickly swamped Festival Opera’s wardrobe department – the costumes were acquired through one of the world’s premiere houses, Malabar in Montreal.  The extra cost of Peter Crompton’s superb sets was defrayed through an arrangement with Opera Birmingham in Alabama – which utilized them in their own production last January.  And as the project progressed, so did the recession.  “When we started on Turandot, “the Dow was at 13,000,” says Executive Director Helen Sheaff with a laugh.

With Puccini’s sweeping music, a stellar cast, and spectacular sets, the stage is set for Bay Area music lovers to feast on the wonders of opera at its best.  For more information: TURANDOT @ FESTIVAL OPERA

Add these recordings of Puccini’s Turandot to your Classical Library:

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TURANDOT – Leopold Stokowski conducts this live recording from March 4, 1961, featuring Birgit Nilsson, Franco Corelli, and Anna Moffo.

TURANDOT – Zubin Mehta conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Featuring Luciano Pavarotti, Joan Sutherland, Montserrat Caballé, Tom Krause, Nicolai Ghiaurov, and Peter Pears.

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Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Seán Martinfield, who also serves as Fine Arts Critic, is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”, which is being prepared for publication. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: sean.martinfield@comcast.net.

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