Is Turandot the most controversial artistic production ever staged in Northern Ireland?

Following their successful production of Salome back in February, NI Opera’s Steven Hadley introduces the company’s next show Turandot [Ed – everyone can hum along with Nessun Dorma!] which he promises will challenge audience views on wealth, consumerism and the power of art to shock, educate and entertain. Is Northern Ireland ready?

Turandot 08 Credit Ludwig Olah State Theatre of NurembergNorthern Ireland Opera are closing this autumn’s Belfast International Arts Festival with three performances of the lavish Turandot by Giacomo Puccini at the Grand Opera House. It’s a rare opportunity to see Puccini’s final operatic masterpiece fully staged in Northern Ireland, with over 80 singers on stage and, true to the company’s remit, a cast featuring talent from all over the island of Ireland. It’s also a UK and Ireland premiere, and internationally co-produced with the State Theatre of Nuremberg and the Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse. So a big deal for Northern Ireland Opera, and a big deal for the NI arts scene.

Turandot is directed by Calixto Bieito, a man described by The Guardian as “the Quentin Tarantino of Opera”. Currently working to great acclaim with English National Opera and with a production soon to open at The Met in New York, Bieito is a director with a world-wide reputation for producing opera as spectacle. With aesthetic references ranging from Pedro Almodovar to Fritz Lang, Hitchcock to (yes) Tarantino, this new production of Turandot is without doubt visually stunning.

Turandot 15 Credit Ludwig Olah State Theatre of NurembergHowever, with scenes of graphic violence and sexual exploitation, will Bieito’s new production of Turandot be too much for Belfast audiences?

Nessun Dorma [None Shall Sleep], an aria from Turandot, was made famous by the BBC when they used it as their theme for the Italia 90 World Cup twenty five years ago. Much has changed in the intervening years.

Oxfam estimated in 2014 that the world’s 85 richest people were now as wealthy as the poorest half of the world. Almost half of the world’s wealth is now owned by just one percent of the population, and seven out of ten people live in countries where economic inequality has increased in the last 30 years.

By re-staging the story of Turandot in a slave-labour factory under totalitarian rule, Bieito forces us to confront the often hidden realities of the new consumerist society.

Turandot 11 Credit Ludwig Olah State Theatre of NurembergLabour market regulation is weak in much of the Global South. In many countries, trade unions are often banned or under tight state control (as in China). In this context, the increased exploitation of labour has taken different political and social forms from those in the Global North. In the Global South, child and forced labour, harsh treatment, long hours, poverty pay, and minimal or no safety standards are frequently the norm. It is increasingly the case that forced, child and physically dangerous labour are part and parcel of contemporary global capitalism. And because capital is global, the moral responsibility for the human suffering caused is near universal. Exploitative labour regimes in the Global South ensure that workers obtain a tiny fraction of the value they create, so that we can enjoy our Apple products as we drink our over-priced artisan coffee and craft beer.

As US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously said, “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of the few, but we cannot have both”.

A combination of the grotesque and the beautiful, the stunning aesthetic of this production of Turandot forces the spectator to confront the harsh realities of global capitalism.

Still want that newly-released shiny gadget? Is Northern Ireland ready to face up to the harsh reality of its consumerist habits? Can art educate as well as entertain? Maybe a night out at the opera will help you decide?

Northern Ireland Opera presents Puccini’s Turandot at the Grand Opera House Belfast on Friday 30, Saturday 31 October and Sunday 1 November at 7.30pm. Ticket prices range from £18 – £46 (concessions available). Book through the Grand Opera House Box Office (028) 9024 1919 or online.

This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.