Music by Giacomo Puccini
(completed by Franco Alfano)
Libretto by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni
Based on the play Turandotte by Carlo Gozzi
First performance at La Scala, Milan, Italy on April 25, 1926

Sung in Italian with English Supertitles

Time and Place: China in legendary times

(in order of appearance)

A Mandarin, baritone


Joe Pechota (USA)
Timur, banished Tartar king, bass


Maxim Mikhailov (Russia)*
Liù, a slave girl, soprano Ai-Lan Zhu (China)
Unknown Prince (Calàf), Timur's son, tenor Dario Volonté (Argentina)*
Prince of Persia, actor   Tom Oberjat (USA)
Handmaiden, soprano Stacy Fraser (USA)*+
Handmaiden, mezzo-soprano   Janelle Rollinson (USA)*+
Princess Turandot of China, soprano   Anna Shafajinskaia (Russia)*
Ping, Grand Chancellor of China, baritone Scott Hendricks(USA)*
Pang, Supreme lord of provisions, tenor Beau Palmer (USA) +
Pong, Lord of the Imperial Kitchen, tenor Joseph Hu (Taiwan)+
The Emperor Altoum, tenor Joseph Frank (USA)
The Prince of Persia, actor tba
Conductor Edoardo Müller (Italy)
Director Lotfi Mansouri (Iran)
Turandot's ladies, Imperial guards, executioner and henchmen, children, priests, mandarins, dignitaries, eight wise men, servants, soldiers, flag bearers, musicians, ghosts of the dead, crowds

* San Diego Opera debut
+ San Diego Opera Ensemble alumnus

Production from San Francisco Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Set Designer: David Hockney, Costumes: Ian Falconer
Estimated running time approximately 2 hours and 50 minutes with two intermissions


Turandot = too-rahn-DOHT* Shafajinskaia = shah-fah-jin-SKY-ah
Calàf = kahl-AHF* Dario Volonté = DAH-ree-oh vo-lohn-TEH
Timur = tee-MOOR*

Maxim Mikhailov = max-EEM mik-AYE-lohf

Liù = lee-OO (quickly) Ai-Lan Zhu = AYE-lan DROO
Pechota - peh-COH-tah

Lotfi Mansouri = LOT-fee man-SUR-ee

Edoardo Müller = ed-WARH-doh MEOOL-ler
Giacomo Puccini = JAH-koh-moh pooch-CHEE-nee

*While these names are usually written without accent marks, the music clearly indicates that, in each case, the accent is on the final syllable.

Puccini and Turandot

The Beginning

In 1920 Puccini was searching for a new topic for an opera. He had seen Oliver Twist in London and was considering both it and a story involving one of the characters in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Adami and Simoni started a libretto for the Dickens piece to be called Fanny. (Dickens’s Nancy would not sound right in Italian). However, Puccini was not pleased with what they produced; he wanted something new, perhaps based on a fairy tale. As Adami tells it, one day, at a lunch with Puccini, Simoni and himself, Gozzi’s plays were mentioned and Puccini suggested Turandot which he had either seen or been told of in Germany in a translation by Karl Vollmoeller with incidental music by Busoni (Busoni’s complete opera was later.) Puccini would also have known Bazzini’s Turanda, and he had a copy of Andrea Maffei’s Italian translation of Schiller’s German version of Gozzi’s play. He gave it to Puccini to read on a train ride to Rome, and it was not until some time later that Gozzi’s original was consulted.. This story is apocryphal. In fact, Simoni had already adapted Gozzi’s play for the stage, and Puccini and Simoni had discussed the idea a year earlier, including the changes they would make when adapting the play as an opera.

Puccini said: “To exalt the passion of Turandot, who for so long has suffered in the sashes of her great pride...when all is said, I cling to the feeling that Turandot is the least bizarre and most human of Gozzi’s theatre pieces”. He also told Simoni it would be: “a Turandot through the modern mind, yours, Adami’s, and mine”.


Puccini spent the last four years of his life on the composition of Turandot, years of delays and frustrations. His reaction to an early version of the first act libretto was not good. There were too many details of Chinese life; it was more like a scholarly lecture on China. Eventually the first act took shape but there many delays after that. Should there be two or three acts? Should Liù die and, if so, how? How could all of Gozzi’s complications be adapted for the shorter operatic version? Many letters were exchanged discussing these questions and because of long delays in finishing the libretto. Adami and Simoni had separate careers and other responsibilities, and because of his health, Puccini found it more and more difficult to work. At times he despaired and considered giving up the project altogether.

Nevertheless, he showed his usual thoroughness in researching the background, especially the Chinese music and instruments. He visited the villa of Baron Fassini-Camossi in Bagni di Lucca where he heard authentic Chinese instruments and got detailed descriptions so they could be duplicated as props. The orchestra is the largest Puccini ever used and Toscanini was a frequent consultant on the orchestration. At a meeting of the two near the end, Toscanini was very disturbed by Puccini’s appearance.

The Ending

The final duet had been a problem from the beginning. What should it be like after the death of Liù? Puccini wrote that “[it should be] the key — but it should have something about it of the grand, the bold, the unexpected, and not leave things where they began”. It had to represent the triumph of love over everything. “These two beings, who stand...outside the world, are transformed into humans through love, and this love must take possession of everybody on the stage in an orchestral peroration”. He also directed that Calàf should kiss Turandot “with a passion which would melt her”.

Although it is frequently stated that the end of the opera was unfinished at Puccini’s death, he had finished detailed sketches. The text of the love duet was done with some notes on the music and with six pages of vocal score. Only the orchestration was unfinished when he left for Brussels. He took the score with him but had a premonition and said, “My opera will be given incomplete, and then someone will come on the stage and say to the public: ’At this point, the composer died!&lrquo;.

Toscanini was given the responsibility for overseeing the finishing of the work. He wanted the composer Zandonai to finish the orchestration but Puccini’s son insisted on someone less famous. The task went to Franco Alfano. He had Puccini’s sketches and vocal score to work from but was not able to see Puccini’s orchestration for the rest of the opera. He spent six months on the task only to have his work severely criticized by Toscanini. A bitter Alfano said he might as well resign as director of the Turin conservatory and take composition lessons from Toscanini, but he shaved his original 377 measures down to 268. (After the initial production he cut an additional 100 measures.)


Turandot finally opened on April 25, 1926, seventeen months after the composer’s death. Rehearsals had been stormy and the singers were all different from those Puccini had wanted. Giovacchino Forzano, who stage the première was the Franco Zeffirelli of his time, used to directing operatic and cinematic extravaganzas. The detailed production book still exists so we know many details about it.

Mussolini was invited by La Scala to attend the première, and he accepted on the condition that the Fascist hymn Giovinezza be played at the beginning. Toscanini was a staunch anti-Fascist and gave La Scala an ultimatum. He would quit if the hymn was played! It was not played, and Il Duce did not attend! Music overcame politics! One of the papers told its readers the dictator did not attend because he did not want to distract attention from the music of Puccini!

After the death of Liù and the exit of her cortège, Toscanini laid down his baton saying, “Qui finische l’opera, perchè a questo punto il Maestro è morto.” (The opera ends here because at this point the Maestro died). That night the opera did end there, the orchestra and singers having been warned beforehand. Puccini’s prophecy was fulfilled. On subsequent nights Alfano’s ending was given, as it had been during the dress rehearsal. After the initial run, Toscanini never conducted Turandot again. Critics reacted positively but they were confused because they had not heard the ending and thought it was a tragedy.

Later Productions

The Rome première occurred four days later, and the first performance outside of Italy was in Buenos Aires on June 25, 1926. Turandot reached Germany in September, Austria in October and the Metropolitan Opera in November where the reception was cool. It was not given there again until 1950. In 1982 two scenes and a finale by Alfano were discovered in the publisher’s archives. Although it had been published in a vocal score and it was sometimes used in early recordings, the original was not again played in its entirety until 1982. When staged by the New York City Opera in 1983 and later by other companies, it was well received.

In recent years there have been many elaborate productions including the 1998 one at the Forbidden City in Beijing.

Recently a new ending was created by Luciano Berio. He was the founder of the Juilliard Ensemble, had studied at the Milan Conservatory, and wrote many vocal works including operas, the first of which was named “Opera”. Puccini’s estate has sanctioned this ending. It is 307 bars long, and Turandot’s transformation is more gradual and therefore more believable. It ends softly rather than triumphantly, because Berio felt the latter betrays death of Liù. This ending was tried in concert in the Canary Islands and in performances by Los Angeles Opera, the Salzburg Festival, and in Amsterdam. Berio died on May 27, 2003.

Turandot has been called , “the end of the Great Tradition” of Italian opera, that is of nineteenth century Italian opera. It is a “number opera” with big arias and ensembles, more fabulous than verismo and typical of the “grand opera” genre. Yet Puccini was correct when he said it would be a, “Turandot through the modern mind”. While the subject was from a fable, Puccini did give it many realistic touches. In many ways, it truly is a twentieth century opera.

Ancient China

The Dynasties | Early Legend and History | "Ancient" China | Epilogue

Present-day China covers a vast area and is protected on the south by the jungles of Indo-China, on the east by the ocean, and on the west by the mountains of Tibet. Only on the north was ancient China vulnerable to invaders, such as the Mongols, or to visitors and traders who, like Marco Polo followed the Silk Road from Europe. However, until the eighteenth century, to most Europeans it was an unknown and enigmatic country,.

The setting of the opera Turandot are given simply as "Ancient China", but that covers an enormous time-span. Traces of humans dating back almost 600,000 BC have been found, possible ancestors of the 400,000-year-old "Peking Man". Some scholars think that man originated separately in China, others that he migrated there from an ultimate source in Africa. Remains of Old Stone Age (Paleolithic) humans, dating from 50,000-35,000 BC, have been found which would have been contemporary with the Cro-Magnon of Europe.

Those in red are described in more detail below. Each of these can be accessed directly by clicking on its name. Many are also referred to in other articles which have links to the pertinent information here. Just as Peking is now Beijing, the transliteration of most of the names has changed. Variations are indicated in parentheses. The list is somewhat simplified; China was not always unified and some of the dynasties overlapped. Dates are approximate.

Age of the Five Rulers c. 2700-2200 BC
Xia (Hsia) Kingdom (legendary) c.2200-1520 BC
Shang (Yin) Kingdom c.1520-1066 BC
Zhou (Ch'ou) Dynasty c.1066-221 BC
Qin (Ch'in) Dynasty 221-207
Han Dynasty 207 BC - AD 220
Three Kingdoms Period 221-265
Shu 221-264
Wei 220-265
Wu 222-280
Jin (Chin) Dynasty 265-420
Liu (Sung) Dynasty (2nd Partition) 420-581
Sui Dynasty 581-618
T'ang Dynasty 618-906
Five Dynasties (3rd Partition) 907-960
Liao (Khitan, Ch'itan) Dynasty 907-1124: Capital established at Peking
West Liao Dynasty 1124-1211
Northern Sung Dynasty 960-1126
Southern Sung Dynasty 1127-1279
Jin (Chin, Jurchen) Dynasty 1115-1234: First imperial palaces Peking, Genghis Khan captured city.
Yüan (Mongol) Dynasty 1260-1368: Kublai Khan rebuilt capital at Peking and the Imperial City which later became the Forbidden city.
Ming Dynasty 1368-1644: Forbidden City built.
Qing (Ch'ing, Manchu) Dynasty 1644-1911
Republic 1912-

People's Republic 1949-

The civilization we know as Chinese began on the Northern Great Plain in the valley of the Yellow River. Like all peoples, the Chinese have their own creation story. In the beginning was an egg, from which hatched a man named Pangu (P'an Ku). The half of the shell above him became the sky, the one below, the earth. For 18,000 years he grew until the two were as far apart as they are today. Then he collapsed and broke into pieces which became mountains, rivers, etc. His two eyes became the sun and the moon. The lice on his body became men who lived as wild beasts. This happened about 2,229,000 BC. He was followed by three (or twelve) emperors, each of whom also lived 18,000 years; the Celestial Emperors of Heaven, of Earth, and of Mankind. Then came sixteen sovereigns of whom nothing is known but their names. They were followed by the Five Emperors, the first who were human: Huang Di (Ti), Chuan Hsiu, H'u, Yao and Shun. (Other than Huang Di the names vary in different accounts.) They introduced many things of benefit to mankind: agriculture, law, rules of morality and proper religious rituals, music, medicine, weights and measures, silk, etc. The most revered of all, was Huang Di, the Yellow Emperor, regarded as the founder of Chinese civilization. All subsequent kings and princes claimed descent from him.

The last of the Five Emperors was followed by , the founder of the legendary Xia (Hsia) Dynasty He built ravines through mountains so the rivers could run to the sea. During his reign, rice wine was discovered, and when he prohibited its use, the Chinese made it the national beverage. While the man and his exploits are legends, archaeology has found urban sites from the period which had bronze implements.

The Xia Dynasty is said to have ended when a degenerate descendant of Yü amused himself by forcing 3,000 Chinese to jump to their death in a lake of wine. He was followed by another descendant of Huang Di who founded the Shang (Yin) Dynasty (ca. 1520-1030 BC). For many years this was also thought to be legendary, but in the 1920s, a discovery was made of inscribed bones, which not only verified the existence of the Shang Dynasty but also gave archaeologists information about it. The characters on the bones were the ancestors of modern Chinese script and form the missing link between the early representational characters and the modern abstractions. They also wrote on tortoise shells. At that time, only the nobility had family names so only they could trace their ancestors. Without ancestors, a family could not have a shrine to worship them. In their cosmology, the Shang capital was the center of the universe. They called their land "Chung-kuo — The Middle Kingdom". There was a well-developed social system with king, nobles, commoners, slaves and an army with horse-drawn chariots. Their jade and bronze work was of a very high level.

Apparently the Shang culture employed human sacrifice, not only to accompany a king in death but in the foundation of a new building where they could serve as its spirit guardians. One structure had several hundred people, with war-chariots and weapons, buried in front of it. As with the Aztecs, most of those sacrificed may have been prisoners of war, with expeditions sent to capture people from more primitive peoples for this purpose.

About 1000 BC, the Shang were overthrown by a revolt, aided by the neighboring Zhou (Ch'ou) under the leadership of Wu. Their capital, Chi, was the first one associated with the site of the present-day Beijing. The Zhou leaders called themselves "Sons of Heaven" a title used by all subsequent Chinese rulers. (In prehistoric times the idea arose that all power in sky was conferred on one superman and his successors, giving them the right to rule all men. These were the 'sons of heaven'. In Turandot the Prince addresses the emperor as Figlio del cielo or Son of Heaven). The Zhou Dynasty lasted until 221 BC, about 800 years. The exact date of its establishment is disputed, for the Chinese had no absolute chronological reference such as dates BC and AD. Events were dated from the start of each reign, and started again with each new ruler. It was during the Zhou Dynasty that Chinese philosophy, based on Confucius and others, was born.

At one time there were over 1,700 small principalities, very like the Greek city-states. The small units were particularly vulnerable to attacks from the North and they built walls to protect themselves. Under the Zhou, many of these were amalgamated, and the central government assumed more and more control. However, the kingdom later fell apart and the years from 480-221 BC are known as the "Warring States" period. During this period the theories of yin-yang and the theory of the five elements developed.

The first real unification of the empire occurred under the Qin (Ch'in). These people learned the art of fighting on horseback from the nomads of the north, and from the third century BC on, they fought and defeated the Zhou in a series of battles. The Qin Dynasty gave the country its name and its "First Emperor", Qin Shih Huangdi. This is the first time that the title "emperor" (di or ti) was used. The emperor ordered the building of a wall of "ten thousand li" by connecting earlier walls. (2.8 li = 1 mile). This was the first version of what is now the Great Wall, although it really only stretches about 1,500 miles or about 4350 li. Shih Huangdi went about reorganizing China, replacing the feudal societies with a centralized government. The most powerful families were forced to move to his capital, where they were encouraged to build exact replicas of their other palaces. All weapons were collected and melted down. Standardized systems of weights and measures and of writing were introduced. (The emperor introduced a standard width for the axles of all carts. It has been claimed that this was so all would fit the existing ruts in the road, but this is not likely. If all followed the same ruts, these would soon be so deep the axles would touch the ground.) All peasants were made to work on public projects for a month at a time, and the records which had to be kept to enforce this requirement led to the proletariat finally gaining surnames.

On the negative side, Shih Huangdi is notorious for burning the books of all the Confucian scholars. (Exceptions were made for those on medicine, agriculture and divination.) Those who did not destroy their own books were subject to branding and forced labor, often on the Great Wall. (Because thousands and thousands died, crushed beneath the stones, the wall has been called "the longest cemetery in the world".) Many books escaped confiscation, some because scholars memorized the complete works of Confucian teachers and passed them on orally, but some scholars were rounded up and sentenced to death or exile. In his last years, the emperor feared attacks on his life. He constructed a vast complex of palaces joined by covered passageways, so no one would know where he was, and he tried to find an elixir which would give him eternal life. When he heard of three fairy islands where, because its inhabitants had discovered such an elixir old age and death were unknown, he sent an expedition bearing precious gifts to find these islands. The leader of the expedition returned empty handed. He had found the islands, but the inhabitants didn't want costly gifts, they requested young men and women. The ships sailed again with 3,000 of China's finest young people and was never heard from again. Legend says it was they who colonized Japan.

Like the Egyptian pharaohs, Shih Huangdi started to build his tomb the moment he became king and some 700,000 conscripts worked for 36 years to complete it. It was said that several hundred maidens were buried alive to keep him company, and the workmen who brought the coffin into his tomb were also buried alive to prevent them from revealing its location within the tomb complex. After his death, the empire crumbled, and the dynasty lasted only fourteen more years.

His tomb did not stay hidden for long. A century after his death, the Han Dynasty historian Sima-Quan (Ssu-ma-Chi'en) described its desecration in 206 BC and wrote descriptions of the burial complex. They had dug through three subterranean streams and poured molten copper for the outer coffin, and the tomb was filled with models of palaces, pavilions, and offices, as well as fine vessels, precious stones, and rarities. Artisans were ordered to fix up crossbows so that any thief breaking in would be shot. The Yellow River and the Yangtze were reproduced in quicksilver and by some mechanical means made to flow into a miniature ocean.

The location of the tomb has long been known as a mound called Mount Li on the outskirts of the city of Xian. In 1974 a remarkable discovery was made. Workers in the fields to the east of the mound found interesting artifacts, and when archaeologists dug they found an army! An army of over 8,000 clay soldiers and horses as well as the cemetery for the laborers who had built the tomb. So far there has been no report of the several hundred maidens. The soldiers were arrayed, four abreast, in battalion order, and over 1,000 have been restored and can be seen by visitors. Each is about six feet tall and has a different face. It is thought they were copied from live models.

The Han Dynasty which lasted from 207 BC to AD 265, with a short intermission was one of the most productive in the history of China. The Chinese are so proud of it they still call themselves "Han people". The ban on philosophical and historical writings was lifted and men of talent were called upon to restore the lost works and to serve in the government. The Chinese Empire was governed by officials selected on merit, an unusual practice at any time. Their capital, Ch'ang-an, has been called the first great city in Chinese history. The Imperial Library had over 11,000 books on classics, philosophy, poetry, mathematics, and medicine.

Note: Starting with the Han, the reigning emperor was always referred to by a term meaning Emperor. When he attained the crown, his personal name became taboo. When he died he was given a posthumous name and it is by that he is known today. This name ended in ti (di), like Wu-ti. Since Ti means Emperor, it is redundant to refer to the Emperor Wu-ti. From the T'ang on, with the exception of the Mongols, the suffix used is tsu or tsung.

China was often subject to invasions by the Hsiung-nu (probably the Huns). THey waged and won repeated wars against them, thus expanding the Empire to include parts of what are now Korea, Manchuria, Turkestan and Indo-China. The Great Wall was extended to the west.

One of the most important men of the Han period was not an emperor but a historian, Sima-Qian, the author of the "Historical Records". Taking him ten years to complete, it is his account of the history of the known world. It includes not only the history of the dynasties, but treatises on topics such as the calendar and economics, and biographies of influential people. His granddaughter wrote a work on the education of women, "Lessons for Women", which emphasized the virtues of women and the proper restriction of their activities. After he died, the Records were continued until 1911. It was during the Han period that the lunar calendar was developed which lasted until 1912. Paper and porcelain also date from this time.

With the expansion to the west, caravans could now travel in relative safety from the Middle East to China. This route became known as the Silk Road. Stations along this Silk Road, were fortified, and trade with the West intensified. Oases on the western end were cultivated by people who were not Chinese but related to the Iranians (Persians). (The original Turandot story was from Persia, not China!) The Silk Road started in Antioch and ended at Ch'ang-an. By the first century AD, Chinese silk could be bought in the markets of Rome. Arabian horses were imported from the Near East and their stock soon proved superior to that of the Mongols. For more on the Silk Road and the cities along it see: http://depts.washington.edu/uwch/silkroad/index.shtml. There was also a sea route by which an emissary of the Roman Emperor reached China in AD 166 AD, and it was during the Han Dynasty that the Chinese first made contact with India.

Men were appointed to oversee markets, and prices were fixed. Official bankers lent money at a rate of interest of three per cent per month. Income was taxed. Like our returns to the IRS, everyone had to turn in a report on his earning and pay the required tax of about ten percent.

Like Egypt, China has its "Valley of the Kings", north of Xian and near the ruins of Ch'ang-an. In it are buried 12 Han rulers. Only the one of Jing Di, the fifth emperor, has been excavated. He was also buried with an army to protect him, but it was less impressive than that of Shih Huang, There are fewer men and they are only two feet tall.

Toward the end of the Han period, there were destructive power struggles between the eunuchs, who had gained considerable importance, and the court officials. Floods alternated with droughts, and peasant rebellions led to the rise of generals who massacred over 2,000 eunuchs and destroyed the capital. The Great Wall could not keep out hordes of "Tatars", or Mongols, who conquered large areas of the north. Soon the Empire was divided into The Three Kingdoms.

After four hundred years of disunion and weak ruler after weak ruler, a new Dynasty, the T'ang, emerged in AD 618 and formed a government in which the emperor was supreme and officials were once more chosen on the basis of merit. A census, needed to implement a system in which people were drafted to do labor, was taken every three years. Society was organized into a strict hierarchy. At the top of the social scale were nobles; the othere were divided into nine ranks each of which was supported by the taxes of those below it. The highest received the taxes of 10,000 families, the lowest of only 300.

The first T'ang emperor started the Grand Canal to join the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers. Now barges from the south could bring rice to the north, which had previously existed on wheat and millet. The T'ang capital of Ch'ang-an became one of the largest cities of the world. It covered 30 square miles in a grid layout typical of the Chinese. It had two main markets and several parks. A broad avenue, the Street of Heaven, led from the main gate in the south to the Imperial City. This avenue was almost five times as wide as New York's Fifth Avenue. Each of the blocks created by the grid was surrounded by a wall forming a ward. Even the highest officials were expected to dismount at a gateway into a ward. The Emperor's home, the Great Luminous Palace, was set among the hill on the northeast. There was an Imperial College for the training of civil servants, and there were over 10,000 scholars attached to it, all of whom were exempt from taxes. Tourists from India and Europe came to admire it. Buddhist monks came from India to teach, and Chinese Buddhists travelled to India to study their religion at its source.

The T'ang Dynasty lasted almost three hundred years, but the unfairly burdened common people rose in rebellion after rebellion. By the tenth century China was again divided, with five dynasties in the north and ten kingdoms in the south. The Peking region came under the control of a Mongol people called the Khitan. They set themselves up as a dynasty with the name Liao and called one of their five capitals Yenching, still the literary name for Beijing. Jurchen chieftains from outside united to overthrow the Liao and set up the Jin (Chin) Dynasty. Yenching became their capital

The kingdoms coalesced once more into the Northern (960-1126) and Southern Sung (1126-1279) Dynasties. When the Northern Empire was overrun by people from Manchuria, one son of the emperor escaped and set up the Southern Dynasty. It was during this period that women lost status and, treated as playthings, had their feet bound to make them smaller. This cruel practice was not banned until the twentieth century.

YÜAN (References in Gozzi's Turandot make this the most likely time in which it is set.)
Giving themselves up to art and luxurious living, the Sung became easy prey to the powerful Mongols of the northern steppes, led by the formidable Genghis Khan. His grandson, Kublai Khan, moved the Mongol capital to the site of Peking and declared himself emperor of the new Yüan Dynasty. The Mongols replaced the Chinese nobles in the government with their own men and with foreigners such as Marco Polo.

After Kublai Khan died, he was succeeded by his grandson Timur, whom Marco Polo described as "a valiant man full of kindness, wise, and prudent". (The name Timur is Middle Eastern.) With Timur's death, the Mongol Empire broke apart. The name of the deposed emperor in Turandot is Timur. One of the most famous of all Timurs was Timur-i-leng or Tamerlane.

Once more the unhappy Chinese revolted. Under the leadership of Chu Yüan-chang, a peasant army reconquered China from the Mongols. In 1368 Peking fell, Chu Yüan-chang became the first Ming emperor, and China went back to being Chinese. The government was modelled on that of the T'ang, the Forbidden City took its present form, and the Great Wall was strengthened.

The Mings were despots, keeping all the power in their own hands. The mandarins had little influence and became cautious and conforming. By the end of the Ming Dynasty, contact with the West had increased. Jesuit missionaries arrived who served the emperors as map makers, calendar reformers and astronomers. Contacts were peaceful and in 200 years the Jesuits attracted 300,000 converts to Christianity. On June 3, 1644 Ch'ing, or Manchu, forces entered Peking and the final Chinese Dynasty began its almost 300 year reign. This dynasty lasted until the 1911 revolution when the last emperor, the boy P'u-yi, was deposed . Although he continued to occupy the Forbidden City for thirteen years, the era of Chinese Dynasties had come to an end. The movie, The Last Emperor, tells his story.

Note: There are many excellent sites on the web on which more can be found about any of the above history.

Libretto & Source


The play which was the source for Puccini’s Turandot, Schiller’s adaptation of Carlo Gozzi’s Turandot or Turandotte, has an even older genealogy (although there are several versions of the actual origin). According to some, it was based on a story by the Persian poet Nizemi, who had traced its origins back to very old Iranian or Arabian legends. It is NOT (as is often reported) from the collection we know as The Arabian Nights or the Thousand and One Nights. It may come from a Persian source called The Persian Tales or The Thousand and one Days, which was well-known in France.

How did a Persian fable come to be set in China? Very early, a people who called themselves Irani (Aryans) came from Babylonia and Assyria and settled in what is now Iran. Others called them Persians because early kings had their capital at Persis. When in the seventh century AD, they were conquered by Moslems, they changed their religion but not their culture. The new rulers took Baghdad (then in Persian territory) as their capital. The Turks conquered Persia in the eleventh century, but in the thirteenth century, it fell once more to Genghis Khan’s Mongols. Then, near the end of the fourteenth century, it fell to Tamerlane. In Puccini’s Turandot, the victim in Act I is the Prince of Persia.

Gozzi’s Play

The Characters


Timur, King of Astrakhan

Calàf, Prince of Nogese Tatary (Astrakhan)

Prince of Samarkand

Altoum (Emperor of China)

The Masks

Zelima (a slave)


Adelma (Former Tatar Princess)


Barach, called Assan (former tutor of Calàf)


Schirina (Zelima’s mother and wife of Barach)


Act I

At the gates of Peking which are decorated with the sculls of failed suitors

The Prince, Calàf, and his aged parents have escaped from the conquered kingdom of Astrakan. (Astrakan is at the mouth of the Volga River.) Living as beggars, they have crossed high snow-covered mountains and burning deserts on foot. For a while the Prince worked as a gardener for Cheicobad, king of the Caranzani, where he was noticed and helped by the Princess Adelma. Cheicobad started a war with Altoum, the Grand Khan, and was defeated; Adelma was thought to be dead. Another King took pity on the Prince’s family and arranged for the parents to be cared for in the poor house, leaving Calàf free to come to Peking, some 4,000 miles from his home. There he wished to join army of the Chinese Khan. At the gates of Peking he is recognized by his former tutor, Barach, who is living under an alias (Assan) and claiming to be from Persia. A dead march signals the beheading of the Prince of Samarkand. When Barach tells the Calàf of Turandot, the Prince remembers that the son of Cheicobad came to Peking and disappeared, probably another of Turandot’s victims. He is horrified by the stories he hears and castigates Turandot. Then he sees her portrait, falls in love with her, and becomes determined to answer the riddles himself.

Act II

Great Hall of royal council chamber

Truffaldino, master of the eunuchs, and Brighella, master of the pages discuss several topics while they rearrange the hall for the next test. There is a procession of guards; eight sages; Pantelone, the Emperor’s secretary; Tartaglia, the Chief Chancellor; and finally the Emperor Altoum. Pantelone says that where they come from (Venice) they don’t have such laws, nor are there men who fall in love with portraits and girls who hate marriage; they would laugh at such things. Calàf appears, saying he is a prince but refusing to give his name. All try to dissuade him from trying the riddles. A group of female slaves includes Adelma who was actually captured during her father’s war, and Zelima the stepdaughter of Barach. Adelma recognizes the Prince as her former gardener.

Turandot admits that this prince stirs her to pity. As he answers the questions, Zelima prays God to help him. Adelma also prays but for a different reason; she wants him for herself. Turandot advises the Prince to leave, but he insists on trying to answer the riddles and succeeds. Although the answers vary in different translations and adaptations, one set includes the sun, the year and the lion of St. Mark (symbol of Venice). Turandot wants to asks three more riddles but Altoum insists she stick to her vow. The Prince offers to die if she can find out his name by dawn.


The rest of play is very complicated and cost Puccini, Adami and Simoni considerable trouble in transforming it into an opera…


A seraglio or harem

Adelma laments her fate as a captive slave. Turandot describes her scorn for all men and their fickleness where women are concerned. Adelma proposes they trick the Prince into revealing his name, hoping to win him for herself. While the Prince and Barach are talking, guards come to fetch the Prince who just then is recognized by an old man in tattered clothing. It is his father Timur, who cries out Calàf’s name and tells him his mother is dead.

Act IV

The prison

Turandot tells Barach, his wife and Timur they can save their lives by revealing the Prince’s name. Barach refuses; but Timur agrees to be tortured and give the names on the condition that Barach and his wife are spared. Adelma has her own plan to corrupt the Prince’s guards. Turandot is torn: she would like to learn his name but is tormented by thoughts of his death. The Emperor tells Turandot he has learned the names of the Prince and his father, but she will never discover them; she should give up and marry "the worthiest man alive". She refuses. Calàf is visited in turn by Schirina, Zulima, and Adelma each trying unsuccessfully to learn the names. Finally Adelma tricks him into calling them out, but when she offers to save him if he will leave China with her, he refuses.

Act V

Second riddle scene

Turandot arrives and speaks the names of Calàf and Timur. Calàf tries to kill himself but Turandot stops him, saying he must live for her sake. When Adelma tries to kill herself if she can not have the Prince, Calàf stops her. Turandot realizes he loves her and announces her own love for him. Altoum announces Calàf will succeed him. He has received news that the usurper in Astrakhan has been overthrown, and Timur can return to his kingdom. Adelma is also allowed to go home. A happy Turandot announces that her previous hatred for the male sex has disappeared and asks pardon for her previous actions.


  1. 1. Keikobad and Barak are named in Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman Without a Shadow) indicating its source might also have been Persia. The name Keikobad belonged to several historical rulers of Persia and also to a thirteenth century Seljuk Turkish king. Barak was the name of one of the Tatar rulers.
  2. In Gozzi’s play we learn more of Turandot’s character. She scorns men for their faithlessness in moving from woman to woman with little regard to social status. An early exponent of women’s liberation she, like the mythical Amazons, sees men as useful only for the fathering of children. She wants the freedom men enjoy and is proud of her intellect. However, at the end, she addresses the audience and tells them she was wrong about men--she really loves them. Until near the end, Puccini’s Turandot is only interested in revenging an ancient ancestress and in protecting her own purity.

Other Versions of the Story

There are many other versions of the same story. There is a tale called Wisdom under the Severed Heads in which there are as many riddles as can be asked between morning and evening. The Prince answers them all and asks the Princess his own riddle — not his name — which she fails to answer. They live happily ever after.

There is a Turandot story in which Calàf is the son of Tamerlane. In that one the answers to the riddles are the sun, the sea and the year.

Giuseppe Giacosa, one of Puccini’s librettists for earlier operas wrote Il trionfo d’amore, in which the story is moved to the Val d’Aosta in Italy during medieval times.

Not all versions involve riddles. Marco Polo tells of a king of Samarkand who had a daughter who was able to defeat any man in the kingdom in battle. She swore never to take a husband until she found one who could defeat her. Her father gave her permission to marry anyone who bested her, but if a man tried and failed, he had to give her 100 horses. While no one dies, she has received 10,000 horses.

Turandot with Music

About 1800, all spoken plays in German had incidental music. At least five different composers, including Weber, wrote incidental music for a serious drama based on Gozzi’s Turandot by the German poet Schiller, and at least seven operas predated Puccini’s. Puccini’s source was Andrea Maffei’s Italian translation of Schiller’s play adapted from Gozzi.

Gazzoletti-Bazzini*: Turanda. 1867, La Scala

Only a few fragments of this were published and, although he was probably aware of the opera, it is doubtful that Puccini knew it. The setting is on the Tigris in Persia before AD 650 at the time of the last Sassinad kings. There is a seraglio and no masks. The characters include Turanda the daughter of the king of Persia and Adelma her confidant. Calàf becomes Nadir, an Indian prince. Timur is dropped. Acts I and II are basically the same as in Gozzi. Turanda tries to learn the secret name by magic but the spirits refuse to give it to her. Adelma puts a sleeping potion in Nadir’s drink. While Turanda and Adelma observe him, he mentions his name in his sleep. In Act IV Turanda confesses her feelings for Nadir. Later she tells him she knows his name and orders him away. When he tries to stab himself, Turanda confesses her love and asks her father to bless their marriage.

*Bazzini taught Puccini at the Milan conservatory.

Busoni’s Turandot

Busoni’s Turandot (1917) started as an orchestral suite. In 1913 he got the idea to turn it into an opera. He wrote his own libretto, following Gozzi rather than Schiller, and retained Truffaldino, Pantalone and Tartaglia. His Act I is a compression of Gozzi’s first act. Truffaldino directs the arrangements for the coming test. The Emperor Altoum is a major character. Adelma recognizes the Prince immediately and knows his name so all the complications are avoided. ACT II starts with a chorus set to Greensleeves! Turandot examines her feelings, and her Father urges her to yield, "he is too good for you". Adelma tells Turandot the name of the Prince in return for her freedom. When Turandot announces Calàf’s name, he starts to leave but Turandot asks him to stay; he has awakened her heart. The final ensemble asks, Was ist das alle Menschen bindet? (What is it that binds all mankind?) The answer is Love.

It was the practice, especially when Goethe directed Schilller’s play, to keep changing the riddles. Some of the answers are:









Human Mind

Hope and Faith





Knowledge and Power


Lion of Venice




Other Adaptations

There are plays by Raymond (1897), Vollmöller(1911), Wolfenstein (1931), Reiser (1933) and Hildesheimer (1955); incidental music by Destouches (1802) and Weber (1809); ballets by Gsovsky (1944), Blank (1952), Freund (1955) and Egri (1964); operas in addition to those by Bassini and Busoni by Reissiger (1835), von Püttingen (1838), Jensen (1864) and Rehbaum (1888); and finally, a 1934 film by Lamprecht. Turandot is a popular lady.

The Music of Turandot

Puccini’s final opera may be dramatically flawed, but musically it is certainly one of his strongest works. Although the composer is best known for his soaring, emotion-wringing tunes, he should be better known for his ability to create the perfect sonic environment or musical atmosphere for the drama at hand. In the case of La bohème, for instance, we are ushered immediately into the playful, masculine, scrappy world of Rodolfo and his companions. We know within the first few bars of the score what ’world’ we’re in and we don’t question its appropriateness for a moment. The music creates a perfect background, a canvas for the human details to come. The score of Turandotdeals similarly with ’ancient’ China (although it is a fictional China) and the given situation, which is the announcement by the mandarin of the next princely suitor who is about to lose his head, is deftly handled by the announcement from the full orchestra of a disjunct, angular melody followed by unrelenting dissonant chords ’stabbing’ away in accompaniment.

This brief musical introduction is, in miniature, a perfect model of the entire score. The orchestral color is bright and heavy, with an emphasis on bi-tonal dissonances which give the opera its remarkable overall texture. Tunes in the opera are more often angular than overtly lyrical, almost as if Puccini were attempting to work against his natural gift for expressivity (Listen to the mandarin’s very first utterance, Popolo de Pekino, an octave leap downwards followed by a leap up of a minor sixth. Nothing could be less Puccinian.) Adding to the unusual color of the opera is the collection of percussion instruments that add a kind of ’Oriental’ flavor, and we mustn’t disregard the addition in the score of a number of authentic Chinese folk tunes that go even further in creating the perfect atmosphere.

But the score is decidedly different from the earlier operas which make up the more familiar Puccini oeuvre in our audiences’ ears: Bohème, Toscaand Butterfly.We tend to forget about operas that we rarely see these days, La fanciulla del West, La rondine, Il trittico, which, once known, show us quite vividly that Puccini was constantly growing, ever evolving towards Turandot. What accounts for the growth that we hear? It’s always good to remember that Puccini was very much aware of the musical current flowing about him in Europe during this time. He was familiar with Stravinsky (experiments in bi-tonality), Richard Strauss (orchestration), and Claude Debussy (the use of whole tone harmonic structures and the pentatonic scale).He was also certainly acquainted with the 12-tone experiments of Arnold Schoenberg, having attended the first Italian performance of Pierrot Lunaire.

Using all the compositional techniques at his disposal, Puccini created a score which is loaded with atmosphere. He then lays in the details, never forgetting that an opera audience must have its melodies, and Turandotis filled with lyrical moments freshly minted from the Puccini gold: Signore ascolta; Non piangere Liù; the threefold climax of In questa reggia and of course, Nessun dorma. Combined, the bright orchestral and atmospheric yang and the lyrically expressive and vocal yin create the perfectly balanced opera. Unfortunately the opera was left incomplete at Puccini’s death, and the perfectly balanced ending has yet to be devised.


ACT I The Imperial City of China, outside the walls of Peking

The Princess Turandot has vowed that she will only marry the man of royal blood who shall solve the three riddles she has set. If he attempts and fails, he will be beheaded. A crowd of people fills the square as a Mandarin reads a proclamation to that effect and announces that The Prince of Persia has just failed in his attempt and will die at moonrise (Popolo di Pekino — People of Peking). The excited crowd calls for the executioner but is beaten back by the guards. Timur, the blind, deposed, Tartar king, and Liù, his Chinese slave girl, have concealed themselves amongst the crowd. In the confusion, Timur falls and, when Liù asks for assistance, an Unknown Prince offers to help. He recognizes Timur as his father and explains he is incognito because their enemies are searching for them both. Timur tells his son of his flight, accompanied only by Liù who has offered to guide him. When the Prince asks her why she has risked her life, she tells him it was because he once smiled at her.

As the executioner sharpens his sword, the populace, impatient for the rising of the moon, cries out for the blood of the Persian Prince. However, when he appears, his youth and sad expression draw pleas for mercy. Calàf joins them, speaking of Turandot as evil and cruel. Then she appears, and her radiant beauty captures his heart. Even when she gives the signal for the execution of the Persian, the Unknown Prince remains under her spell. In spite of the pleas of Timur and Liù, he runs toward the gong that announces potential suitors. The Emperor's ministers, Ping, Pang and Pong, appear and also try to dissuade him by describing the horrible death that awaits him if he fails. After all, Turandot is merely a woman; there are many others.

Turandot's ladies enter and demand silence, their mistress is resting. They exit and the Unknown Prince, urged on by the ghosts of former suitors, persists in his desire to try to answer the riddles. Once more, Liù pleads with him (Signore, ascolta — Sir, listen). He tries to comfort her (Non piangere, Liù — Don't cry, Liù) but, enchanted by the vision of Turandot, and calling her name, he strikes the gong.

Scene 1
A pavilion in the palace.

Ping, Pang and Pong talk of the sorry state of China and how, until the birth of Turandot, all was in accord with the ancient rules. Reduced to being merely ministers of the Executioner, they recall the many deaths of suitors: eight in the year of the dog, six in the year of the rat and, in the current year of the tiger, already thirteen, including, they suppose, the Unknown Prince.They long for the time when Turandot will finally succumb to a lover.

Scene 2 A square in front of the Imperial Palace.

As the people congregate, the great drum and trumpets are heard signaling the ceremony of the riddles. The Emperor Altoum, is hailed by the crowd as the 'Son of Heaven' and with their wishes for him to live ten thousand years. He is accompanied by eight Wise Men who carry scrolls with the answers to the riddles. The Emperor regrets the oath he swore to uphold the law which causes Turandot's suitors to lose their lives, and he tries to discourage the Unknown Prince; he has witnessed too many deaths. When the Prince refuses to heed his warning, the Mandarin again reads the law. Turandot enters; she tells of her ancestress Lou-Ling, who was abducted and killed and killed by the Tartars two thousand years ago (In questa reggia — In this kingdom). Turandot now takes revenge on all who seek to possess her. She asks the three riddles. "What is born anew every night and dies at dawn?" The Prince answers: "La speranza — Hope". "What kindles like a flame but is not a flame?". He answers: "Il sangue — Blood". Finally, "What is ice which gives you fire?" Triumphantly he responds: "Turandot". As the people hail the Prince, a stricken Turandot begs her father not to give her to the stranger. However, the Emperor replies that his oath is sacred. The Prince offers that, if she can discover his name before he will release her from her oath and allow himself to be executed. Turandot accepts the challenge.

Scene 1
The gardens of the palace.

It is just before dawn, but all in the city are awake. Turandot has decreed that there will be no sleep unless the name of the prince is discovered. If it is not, all will be killed. The Prince sings his aria Nessun dorma (None shall sleep). The people threaten him, demanding to know his name so that they will not be tortured. Ping, Pang and Pong do their best to persuade him to flee and save his life, even tempting him with beautiful women and treasure. As soldiers bring in Liù and Timur, Turandot appears and demands the name of the Unknown Prince, threatening to torture Timur for an answer. To save him, Liù pretends that she alone knows the name but refuses to devulge it. She is tortured but still refuses to tell the name. When Turandot asks what force enables her to keep silent, Liù answers that it is love (Principessa, ascoltami! — Princess, listen to me!) and predicts that Turandot will come to love him also. Fearing she may break down, and determined not to reveal her secret, Liù siezes a dagger from a soldier and stabs herself. As the people call for his name, she staggers to the Prince and falls dead. Confused, the blind Timur kneels, pleading with her to get up, and is told she is dead.Her body is carried away, and all follow. (It is at this point that Puccini left the opera unfinished.) The Prince is left alone with Turandot. He rushes to her, tears away her veil and, in spite of her protests, kisses her passionately. The icy Princess melts in his arms. As dawn breaks, she tells how she had despised the many others who had died, but that she both hated and feared him. She has been conquered by him (Del primo pianto — From my first tears). The Prince, knowing he has won her, reveals his name; he is Calàf, the son of Timur.

Scene 2

The emperor and his court await Turandot's news. She tells her father she knows the stranger's name: His name is Love!" All rejoice as Turandot and Calàf embrace.

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