PRINT December 1991


David Hockney, collaborating with Ian Falconer, has just designed a production of Puccini’s Turandot that will premiere in January at the Lyric Opera of Chicago (and opens the following year at the San Francisco Opera). Turandot is set in and around the Imperial Palace in ancient Peking, which Hockney and Falconer have rendered as an abstracted Forbidden City of alternately sharp angles and interlaced curves. One might say that the guiding principle behind this production is the agon between the unrelenting geometry of the setting and the extreme lyricism of the music, a kind of paradigm for the contrast between the icy resistance of Princess Turandot, daughter of Emperor Altoum, and the red-hot pursuit of her hand by the unknown stranger Calaf. The palace setting of Hockney and Falconer is thrillingly austere and yet filled with visual incident; a constant journey for the eye is created, by means of lighting, as stage front and rear are alternately emphasized. This may also be Hockney’s most intensely hued production, with red and blue predominating. All in all, it is very much an artist’s Turandot, with detail subordinated to large pictorial effect.

The opera itself is the quintessential riddle opera. Princess Turandot will only marry a suitor of royal descent who can answer three riddles; any aspirant who tries and fails is beheaded. Along comes Calaf, son of Timur, the banished King of Tartary. Despite the attempts of his father and his father’s servant, Liù, who is secretly in love with Calaf, to dissuade him from the attempt, the incognito prince announces his desire to be put to the test, and correctly answers Turandot’s riddles. The reluctant princess is desperate. So, out of his astonishing love for her, the young prince contrives a riddle for Turandot: if she can guess his name before sunrise, he will free her from her obligation and allow himself to be executed like the other princes before him. After Liù, the young servant girl, is tortured and killed while refusing to divulge Calaf's name to Turandot’s soldiers, the princess finally comes to recognize true love. When it comes her turn to pronounce Calaf's name, to free herself from marriage, she says instead that his name is “Amore!” Exultant, Calaf passionately embraces Turandot; as the curtain descends, the crowd breaks into joyous song.

I interviewed Hockney at his house in the Hollywood Hills, a rather kaleidoscopic structure that has figured in many of his paintings and photographic collages. Here, in his studio (formerly a tennis court), the artist has constructed a large scale-model stage that enables him to build his sets, place his costumed figures, and even light the production before any work actually begins in the opera house.

Kenneth E. Silver: You’re in the process of designing Turandot, your first Italian opera. Up to now—and this is your eighth opera design, including the one-act operas—you’ve worked mainly on the French and German repertory. Was there anything in particular about Turandot that made you want to do it now?

David Hockney: I was interested in the challenge of doing a popular opera. Not only is this my first Italian work, it’s the first really popular opera I’ve designed. Even The Magic Flute is not as popular as Turandot. The music is totally accessible, you cannot have more accessible music; even if you’ve never seen an opera before, you can come and see this and be quite thrilled. So there’s the challenge: to do an opera from the popular repertory and yet to make it different, and yet still make it spectacle.

KES: Do you think the public is going to respond well to this production?

DH: Puccini will always sell, no matter who designed the sets. If my mother designed this Turandot, we’d sell it out. We’re taking on a big piece that will always attract an audience, which gives you the additional challenge of competing with the grandeur that has been tried before.

Not everyone sees it this way. For many people, the popularity of Turandot makes it unappealing. Peter Sellars said to me that he wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole; he thinks it’s a bit vulgar. I remember Benjamin Britten referring to Puccini as “that horrible music.” I wonder if he saw Puccini as we see Leroy Neiman, which after all isn’t very pleasant, to be honest. But I must admit that I used to think that maybe it was vulgar.

KES: What changed your mind?

DH: Hearing the music over and over again, I’ve come to see that it is a wonderful score, really great theater music. I admit it’s a lot easier to listen to than Tristan und Isolde and in the end perhaps not as satisfying, but it is a great work.

KES: Turandot is often referred to as the last Grand Opera, as the end of the Romantic tradition. Yet it was written in the early ’20s, just as Mussolini came to power, and fifteen years after Picasso painted the Demoiselles d’Avignon. Do you sense Turandot as a Modernist work in any way?

DH: It premiered at La Scala, with Toscanini conducting, in 1926, the year after Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sortilèges. Yet it would never now be part of a Modern music festival as Ravel’s opera would. Listening to it, on the other hand, you know it couldn’t have been composed before it was. You can tell Puccini had been listening to Stravinsky and to Richard Strauss, you can hear it in his music.

KES: How have you decided to approach this tried-and-true workhorse of the repertory? What will make this Turandot special?

DH: Taking out the dragons. Almost every previous production looked the same, they are usually unbelievably overdesigned. One of the reasons I wanted to do it was that I felt it was possible to simplify it, to get rid of the grotesque chinoiserie—that’s what I mean by getting rid of the dragons. Even Franco Zeffirelli’s striking New York production for the Met is overdone, and his space is literal, which ours is not. Although there’s no fussiness in ours, we think the feeling will be grand.

KES: But we usually think of Puccini’s operas as verismo, part of late Romantic realism.

DH: Yes, but not Turandot, which is a fairy tale. I think this is the only Puccini opera I would do, and in a sense it is a non-Puccini opera, in that it’s a fantasy. True, you must set it in Peking, but you’ve got more leeway than with Tosca or Bohème, which are set in Rome and Paris, and are both quite specific in their setting and their date.

KES: It’s a gruesome fairy tale, like so many.

DH: It’s a fairy story about someone becoming human, the story of an icy princess who is often said to hate men, but I would suggest that she’s actually afraid. There are only two emotions, really, love and fear. Hate is part of fear. When Turandot asks the third riddle, she’s terrified; it’s fear she’s feeling, not hate. Then she melts and has her first tear. Really it’s a terrific story, precisely told.

KES: Does the set change over the course of the opera to emphasize Turandot’s transformation?

DH: Well, as you know, Puccini died before he could complete the last act of Turandot, and so it was “finished” by Franco Alfano. Toscanini hated this ending, so he cut it down. We’re using Toscanini’s abbreviated version. I got the feeling that we needed something new and grand at the end: the music is very grand indeed, and I thought you should see something you hadn’t seen earlier in the opera. This is a duet about the glory of love, after all.

KES: But in the shortened version, which I agree is more dramatic, there isn’t much time between the death of Liù and the finale. Everything happens so quickly

DH: That’s right, and the only way to completely change the stage so rapidly is to use flats. That’s what we’re doing, transforming the night garden of the last act into a set that gives you the impression—a suggestion really—of going right into Turandot’s heart at the finale, as she finally feels love. The set suddenly turns red, and this is the first time you’ll see that particular red in the production.

KES: Have your travels to China and your interest in Chinese art informed this production in any way? Apparently it’s well-known that Puccini himself adapted two real Chinese melodies for Turandot, one from a music box belonging to an Italian baron whom he knew and the other from a booklet on Chinese music.

DH: We’re not treating the China of Turandot as authentic, although I’ve made use of the red walls of the Forbidden City for the first act. This China, as I’ve said, is mythical, it’s a fairy tale, and not only does it involve a princess of old China, but she herself is obsessed with a crime committed against one of her ancestors a millennium before! The China of Turandot is ancient and cruel, as opposed to the gentle China of Hans Christian Andersen, which we tried to create, out of gentle curves, for Stravinsky’s Le Rossignol.

KES: You might call the latter design export China....

DH: Precisely, because we did it, as you know, in the blue and white of Chinese porcelain, since the glazes seemed to be embodied in the transparency of the music. But Turandot is something else’s gutsy. The music seems to describe a rather grotesque place and you’re forced to deal with it. If you listen to the words, they’re saying “Come away from this terrible place, get out while you can,” so you must feel that. There seem to be sharp edges in the,music; even the executioner’s axe is suggested in it. So even if, as I’ve said, we’ve taken the dragons out, the sharp edges and the grotesque quality must be there, and it’s in the angles of the architecture and in the jagged roof lines of our production.

KES: So you try to create a stage decor that not only conveys the narrative but expresses what you hear in the music as well.

DH: Of course. I’ve learned, though, that this is not a universal goal. I was once on a panel with Robert Wilson here in Los Angeles. I was talking about working in musical theater and explaining my concern that the set should fit the music if it’s going to be exciting. And Wilson said that he thought the set should work against the music. Well, frankly, I think that’s precisely what most of the bad productions I’ve seen in my life do, so why would I want to do more of that? An opera is first and foremost its music. You wouldn’t want it otherwise.

KES: As this is your eighth opera design, can you look back and say what you’ve learned about making art for the theater?

DH: What I’ve learned about is light. With The Rake’s Progress, which I did in 1975, I did not light the production ahead of time. It was graphic, so it only required flat light, and that was pretty much true for The Magic Flute too. It was painted illusion on flat drops, so the technique was to evenly light those flats. But by the time I moved into Parade, in 1981, I was using pure color—pure ultramarine, for instance—and I knew that the lighting had to become important, because this was powerful color. Now to make good color in the theater is not easy. To get it you have to light from the very start, to think about the color of your set and the light on the color right at the beginning. That’s why we’ve built this stage model with lighting here in the studio. A lot of music in Puccini functions to create atmosphere and place, and we’ve found that we can light for both place and psychology, if I can call it that. For instance, in the moonlight scene in the first act, we’ve tried to light for both the time and setting and for the psychological dimension.

KES: It’s Wagnerian, really, the concern with light and color.

DH: In fact, by the time I began Tristan, in 1987, I was lighting from the very start on this model. I don’t understand why Bayreuth hasn’t been imitated more often. You know they put a covering over the orchestra, so when the lights go down, it’s genuinely dark. When you’re using a lot of color on the stage, the light that comes out of the orchestra pit can be a real problem.

KES: Has working on opera design shown you anything new about music?

DH: Yes, I’ve become especially aware that theater music, unlike symphonic music, is meant to be seen. Opera is theater, and the composers in the theater specialized in just that. There’s very little Puccini music that was not written for the theater, very little Verdi not for the theater, very little Wagner not for the theater. In Turandot there’s a great deal of music to create mood and to give you a sense of place; the music demands spectacle and so you feel like you can add something.

KES: Have you ever changed your opinion about a piece of music as a result of designing an opera?

DH: I’ve learned to listen a bit differently to opera, with the idea of what might be happening on the stage. For instance, when I was preparing for the Stravinsky evening I did in 1981. After first listening to Le Sacre du printemps and Oedipus Rex, both of which are very strong, I listened to Le Rossignol and thought “My this music is pale. it’s so delicate.” I was worried that it wasn’t going to fit with the other two, very powerful pieces. But it worked perfectly because Le Rossignol turned out to be even stronger in the theater than the other two. It had a theatrical strength when you actually saw it performed. Just listening to it I couldn’t have known that.

KES: This makes me think a bit of your Wagner drive in the Santa Monica mountains, where you coordinate views of the landscape with Wagner, mostly Parsifal. It seems so appropriate for Los Angeles, a bit like going to the movies. Has movie music and how it works with images influenced you?

DH: Actually, what I’ve found is that what the opera designer does is analogous to a film composer, but in reverse: I create what you see to enhance what you hear. What the Wagner drive has really made me think about is doing the entire Ring cycle. What a designer could add to that music—color, space, line—would deeply enrich it. I really think I could do it differently than it has ever been done. In part owing to the Wagner ride, I’m beginning to understand some of the problems. How do you put nature on stage? Because the Ring is deeply about nature, but you can’t use verisimilitude because it would look absurd with the music. You have to find abstractions for it. We’ve had a lot of director’s Rings, but I think a designer’s Ring would be something new.

KES: I’d like to return to something you said at the beginning of this interview, that you’re excited by the challenge of designing a truly popular opera. Do you identify at all with Puccini’s popularity? Like him, you’re an immensely popular modern artist, which is a kind of contradiction in terms. The general public adores your work, but the New York critics do not.

DH: Puccini got similar treatment, yes. But the fact remains that Turandot is unbelievably pleasing to listen to.

KES: But isn’t that part of the problem, that the pleasure is seen as coming too easily?

DH: For some people. But there is a pleasure principle in art and without it there isn’t any art at all. On the other hand, difficult music and art often do take time to understand and appreciate. I never dismiss difficult music right off; if I don’t like it the first time through, but if it seems at all intelligent, I’ll listen again.

KES: Do you think the New York art world does likewise for you?

DH: To be honest, I don’t live in New York, so I don’t give it much thought. It’s not the center of the world for me; the center of the world for me, naturally, is where I live. I’m also a little hesitant about, what is called the art world. If it is a world, it’s a very small one indeed. I know that art which lasts has to get outside of that small world. I also know that in the end most of the art that’s made will be forgotten. It will only be looked at if someone loves it and cares for it. And love is really all there is.

Kenneth E. Silver is associate professor of fine arts at New York University. His book “Esprit de Corps”: The Art of the Parisian Avant-Garde and the First World War, 1914–1925 (Princeton University Press), which won the College Art Association’s Charles Rufus Morey Award for 1990, has just been published in French by Éditions Flammarion.