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.

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  • David J Timson

    I suspect that NI will cope with this leftism (and odd geography claiming that China is in the “south”) much better than 5 seconds of a naked woman!

  • culturalpolicywonk

    Bieito has previous form along the Nudity, Nazis and nipple-slicing axis…

  • murdockp

    personally the most offensive production I ever witnessed in the belfast opera house was May Mcfetteridge in ‘cinderella’

    I still have nightmares to this day

  • Newton Emerson

    You’ve made this sound about as radical as a 1976 Play for Today. If you want a Free P picket help generate interest in those £42.50 tickets, try swapping the phrase “global capitalism” for “Joseph’s dreamcoat”.

  • murdockp

    the irony of course being that the free p’s are wheeled out like a mobile punch and judy show to express faux outrage at liberalism and equality the philosophies that aim to redistribute wealth whilst thier puppeteer feeds of the great westminster teat.

  • Croiteir

    Art reflects society – and if that reflects us maybe its time to join the wee frees

  • culturalpolicywonk

    I thought Play for Today was quite good to be fair.

  • Janos Bingham

    A cry for the world’s exploited! At £42:50 a pop!

    (Still such things have precedence I recently saw a ‘Ché’ T shirt for £49:99)

  • culturalpolicywonk

    Did a bit of research on this in a ‘break from writing’ – looks like they’re downplaying it a bit – gang rape, suicide, punishment beatings and some old bloke wandering around in a soiled nappy. Does look a bit like May McFettridge.

  • terence patrick hewett

    I treasure the Desert Islands Discs interview of Julie Andrews who pronounced “Turandot” ” Turrrren-dough.” Oh Julie: you had the best voice of the 20th century. Archie’s greatest protégé.

    But Maria Callas Turandot Signore Ascolta comes near:

    Mea culpa; peccavi; Domine miserere mei.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    You’d be likely to view (and hear) an opera rather differently to a television play no matter how radical either may or may not be. As for a free P picket, that’s an opera in its own right and is of course … um free.

  • Chingford Man

    I normally like opera but this sounds like another leftie lovefest for hypocritical virtue signallers everywhere. I’m sure the people staging it have iPhones and just love a regular overpriced cappuccino, perhaps served by an economic migrant, or “refugee” as we are meant to say now.

    If they want to put on something truly controversial, maybe try something from a conservative perspective?

  • culturalpolicywonk

    What did you have in mind?

  • We saw this amazing interpretation of Turandot at GOH last night. I can see why Calixto Bieito is compared with Tarantino. It was raw, visceral stuff and sometimes very uncomfortable to watch. The singing was wonderful – principals and chorus both. Probably not the most accessible Puccini but an unforgettable experience.

  • Noel

    The applause tonight said it all – Ulster Orchestra- a fantastic sound! Principals – well done! Chorus – great support! Calixto Bieito – not for me and I dare say, to summarise the opinion of those sitting near me, not for us! I have no problem in spending £85 on a pair of tickets to support the arts in NI, but the next time I see an NI Opera production advertised I will think twice and check out the producer. Presumably the decision to forego an interval was a tactic to ensure a captive audience.