A view of Turandot on Sydney Harbour stage under construction.

Cheat sheet: Turandot on Sydney Harbour

Famous for the wonderful aria ‘Nessun dorma’, Turandot has plenty more gorgeous music. Here’s everything you need to know.

Who was the composer? 

What happens in the story?

Will I know the music?

About this production

A little history

Conversation starters

Please, just sum it up for me!

Who was the composer? 

Giacomo Puccini. Born in Tuscany in 1858, Puccini is an Italian composer who took Verdi’s crown as the most prominent composer of Italian opera in his day. Renowned for his love affairs, Puccini left a trail of broken hearts across Italy, but also left us music-lovers 10 beautiful operas, three of which are regularly in the top 10 of operas performed around the world.

What makes Puccini Puccini?

Puccini’s music is sweeping, uplifting, enchanting and always intensely moving. His real genius, however, was to combine that music with stories about ordinary people.

The composer himself once said his success was due to putting “great sorrows in little souls”.

A photograph of Puccini sitting at his piano

Giacomo Puccini at the piano (Alinari Archives, Milan)

What happens in the story?

Turandot is a beautiful and powerful princess, who challenges her many suitors to answer three riddles on pain of death. No one has ever succeeded.

Calaf is a brave prince from a foreign land, who falls instantly in love with the princess.

Despite the wishes of his exiled father and the pleas of a slave-girl who loves him, he rings the gong and declares his love for the princess.

She presents her riddles, and in triumph, the unknown prince answers. Turandot despairs and the prince takes pity — offering the ice-cold princess a riddle of his own. But Calaf’s riddle risks more than his own life — everyone else’s hangs in the balance.

Who are the main characters?

Turandot: Princess of Peking

Calàf: Prince of a foreign land

Liù: a slave girl to Calàf’s father, Timur. She loves Calàf, who once smiled at her.

A beautiful Chinese woman stands in front of Sydney Harbour

The beautiful Turandot is irresistible and brutal; she executes any suitors who cannot answer her riddles.

What’s the big hit?

It’s bigger than big, it’s the biggest. ‘Nessun dorma’ is probably the most famous aria ever written. Listen to this clip to see why!

Something to listen out for

Puccini based several themes in Turandot on traditional Chinese melodies. Listen out for the folk melody 'jasmine flower', first sung by sopranos in act 1. You’ll hear it again and again through the opera — it’s a sort of leitmotif, or theme, for the princess.

Turandot is scored for a large orchestra including 13 tuned Chinese gongs — a full chromatic scale! Listen out for all of the fun percussion in this opera — including tubular bells, an on-stage wood block and on-stage gong.

The opening five chords represent an executioner’s axe falling. You can hear the descent, the impact, and then the head hitting the ground!

This production is…

... a spectacular new production of Puccini's famous opera, created especially for the Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour outdoor, water-top stage. Chinese-American director Chen Shi-Zheng will bring his unique perspective to a story that Westerners can often see as a silly fairytale. Chen believes the story has more gravitas that we often give it credit for, and tells a tale of China's chequered history. Turandot's desire to remain unmarried has put the entire empire in jeopardy, and it's against this desperate backdrop that the story plays out. 

Designer Dan Potra has created an arresting set, including a 60-metre dragon, with a tail that morphs into the Great Wall, and a shimmering pagoda that stands 18m tall. He has steered away from traditional Chinese tropes and wants to present a China that is sleek and modern, with set elements and costumes that reflect the spirit of today's China. 

Expect bold, dramatic, bright shapes and a set that will take your breath away.

a render of the turandot set design including a giant dragon

A render of the set design for Turandot on Sydney Harbour, created by Dan Potra.

A little history

A historic poster for Turandot

Turandot was Puccini’s last opera, and wasn’t quite finished when he died in 1924. This gives it both a significance and a complexity. It’s the great composer’s last opera, and displays some interesting developments in his style. On the other hand, he left it unfinished, and although one of his students wrote an ending that we perform today, it isn’t perfect, and the results are a little unsatisfying.

We can’t be too hard on Alfano — the finishing composer — Puccini struggled desperately with the end of the opera, and there is no telling whether he himself could have resolved the opera’s difficulties.

The problem lies in the libretto, penned by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni. While the story thrilled Puccini, (he savoured “the clear and moving humanity that is in this story, full of poetry and special perfume…”), the cruel heroine left him a bit cold. So he invented a slave girl, Liù, who loves purely, and gives her the best of the music and most of his sympathy. It makes the ending tricky, as [spoiler] the composer has to somehow get the icy princess and the bombastic prince together seconds after Liù commits suicide.

Puccini had composed most of Turandot (up to the final scene by March of 1924) but still hadn’t worked out how to finish it when he set it aside to receive cancer treatment in November. Perhaps he knew what was coming, as he visited the maestro Toscanini and said, “Don’t let my Turandot die!”.

Puccini had a heart attack on 29 November 1924. Turandot premièred in 1926, one year and five months after the great composer had died. After Liù’s death scene, Toscanini laid down his baton, saying something to the effect of “At this point the maestro laid down his pen”.

Turandot was soon performed at all the major European houses and reached even Australia by 1928. It is now a staple in the repertoire, and although several composers have made an attempt to write the definitive ending, today we usually hear a shorter version of Alfano’s original.

Conversation starters

  • Puccini actually pronounced ‘Turandot’ with a silent ‘t’ at the end, as Turando, according to Rosa Raisa, who sang the first Turandot.
  • Puccini first heard some of the Chinese folk melodies in the opera in a music box — a gift from an Italian diplomat to China. He used three of the music box melodies in the opera, including the jasmine theme.
  • Turandot was not performed in China until 1996, as the opera paints a one-dimensional and not very flattering picture of China.

Facts and figures

  • There are 12 principals, 18 dancers and 48 chorus members in the production, with a total cast size of 78
  • 58 members of the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra play in a custom-built studio under the stage
  • 1000m of specially loomed crinkle organza will be used in the costumes
  • The production features 187 hats and headdresses, 46 wigs and 30 sets of facial hair
  • 65km of power, data and audio cable power the venue and stage
  • 223 speakers carry the music out into the open night air
  • 220 lamps light up the performance
  • Approximately 150 people work to build the stage and venue over a period of 22 days
  • Approximately 300 people work on site for each performance
  • The opera is rehearsed over about 200 hours
  • Over the course of the Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour season, 21,000 glasses of sparkling wine are sold
  • More than 87% of waste produced at Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour is diverted from landfill
  • About 70 volunteers help make this event possible
  • Surf life savers keep a watchful eye over the construction, and every performance
A crane delivers the final piece of Nefertiti's head on the set of Aida in 2015.

A crane delivers the final piece of Nefertiti's head — the centrepiece of Aida on Sydney Harbour in 2015.


Turandot on Sydney Harbour

New to opera?

Read our ultimate guide

Turandot in a nutshell

The composer: Puccini. Italian. Late 19th Century. Also famous for Madama Butterfly and La Bohème.

The music: Famous for his big, sweeping, tuneful melodies coupled with stories about ordinary people. He said his success came down to putting “great sorrows in little souls”. (In other words, bring the tissues.)

The big hit: 'Nessun dorma', the hit that became a global sensation when Pavarotti sang it at the FIFA world cup.

The setting: A mythical version of China, at any time during China's imperial history.

The tragedy: Puccini didn't live to finish Turandot - one of his students wrote the ending we perform today.

A quirky fact to impress your date: Puccini took some of the Chinese melodies in the opera from a music box — a gift to the composer from an Italian diplomat to China.

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