Forbidden City Sounds

A great conductor and director try and try to make sweet sounds out of Puccini

Ah, the backstage show-biz story. A classic movie genre. Think Bullets over Broadway, think Shakespeare in Love, think The Producers. Seen one, seen 'em all, you say? Consider this real-life scenario: A musical director from India plans to produce an Italian opera in Italy. He asks a Chinese director to stage the action. The director has never directed an opera before. He is not even a theater director but a filmmaker. He only speaks Chinese. The music director speaks English. The lighting designer speaks Italian. The sound designer speaks German. Nevertheless they manage to stage the opera in Italy and then get permission to restage it in China, in Beijing's Forbidden City.

So far, so good. Except the director is not welcome -- many of his films have been suppressed in China. So he must sneak around to check out proper locations. The costumes from Italy aren't authentic enough for a Chinese audience. They are thrown out, and 2000 Chinese tailors must make 900 costumes from scratch. The Forbidden City space is so enormous; an entire Chinese Army regiment, complete with a drill instructor, is enlisted to fill up the stage as extras. The production team starts arguing, the rehearsal is behind schedule, the stagehands screw up their set-change cues, the budget balloons to $15 million, it rains on dress rehearsal, and there is no way to reschedule it. Oh, and by the way, the Forbidden City, built in the Fourteenth Century, is made entirely of wood. If anything collapses or burns, the Chinese official in charge will go to prison.

The show goes on anyway, but watching this nearly impossible production unfold is the chief delight of The Turandot Project, a feature-length documentary by Allan Miller, who won Oscars for two previous music documentaries, Bolero and From Mao to Mozart -- Isaac Stern in China. The story begins in Florence in 1997 when Zubin Mehta, the world-renowned conductor and music director, is preparing a production of Turandot, the final opera by Puccini. Turandot is based on an ancient Chinese folktale, and Mehta has always chafed at the many faux-Chinese productions he has seen or been involved with over the years. "Usually Turandot is full of Chinese clichés. It looks like a big Chinese restaurant." His solution: Hire a Chinese director to give the production authenticity. His choice is the great Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern, Ju Dou), who agrees to collaborate.

Soprano Sharon Sweet stars as Princess Turandot in Allan Miller's cross-cultural collaboration
Heather Greer
Soprano Sharon Sweet stars as Princess Turandot in Allan Miller's cross-cultural collaboration

The film follows this partnership, which starts out smoothly. Though the intense Zhang is reserved, he clearly respects and likes the colorful, outgoing Mehta. And the division of authority seems perfect, at least at first -- "Mehta can do all the music. Whatever is heard is up to him, but what is seen is mine."

Ah, but in opera, what is heard is inextricably tied up with what is seen. Zhang wants the chorus women in the back and the men in the front, as per Chinese custom. But that screws up the overall sound. Similar compromises must be made with costumes, lights, and sound. Zhang becomes more frustrated. Used to complete control of his film productions, he now must accommodate the requirements of many departments. And even simple goals can't be reached; the mostly Western cast can't master traditional Chinese theatrical gestures, actions that most Chinese civilians could grasp immediately. But Zhang soldiers on and keeps his cool in spite of his frustrations.

Miller follows this progress closely, and it's a wonder that he's allowed such intimate access. Both Mehta and Zhang freely express their feelings to the camera team, so The Turandot Projectreally captures the boil of emotions that is the essence of close backstage collaborations. When the project gets an unexpected green light to travel to China, Miller's crew goes along too, and the film itself begins to change. In the early Italian scenes, Miller is entirely focused on the opera project. He doesn't bother to show the outside world, the life of Florence. But when the company heads for China, Miller widens his focus, turning the camera on bustling Beijing. The film takes in the Chinese reactions to the production and the work of the local stage crews, and follows a pair of the singers -- one American, the other Chinese -- as they tour the dumpling stalls and shops of the ancient city for a tantalizing glimpse of Beijing street life.

The backstage scenes also take on a new character. The problems Mehta and Zhang face in China aren't merely show-biz headaches; there are serious political and cultural problems as well. Tensions build, as do emotions. Zhang and his Italian lighting designer butt heads over light levels. The designer blames the dark tiles of the Forbidden City location for the somber, murky production look. Zhang wants brighter, more authentically Chinese stage light. The designer resists, fearing brighter lights will wash out the subtleties of his design. Fearing that a less than superior production will not bring honor to the Chinese people, Zhang berates his Chinese stage crew for screwing up their set changes. From the looks on their faces, the crew understands what's at stake. As opening night looms, the project seems in dire jeopardy.

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