Culture Clash

In May 1997, conductor Zubin Mehta recruited Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern) to mount a stage presentation of Puccini's final opera, Turandot, which was based on an old Chinese story. "Usually," Mehta says, "Turandot is full of Chinese cliché looks like a big Chinese restaurant." So it seemed like a good idea to get an actual Chinese director for authenticity. Documentarian Allan Miller's backstage look at the project gets off to a slow start, with preparations for performances in Florence. Things get more interesting after the show is transplanted to Beijing a year later. But authenticity came at a price. It hadn't occurred to the Italian producers that performing inside the Forbidden City would mean redoing all the costumes: Zhang explains that the Florence costumes were from one dynasty, while the architecture in the Forbidden City is from another; "Chinese audiences will think it's a joke," he says.

The most interesting clashes are the cultural ones: the Italian lighting director insisting that Puccini requires one kind of lighting, with Zhang, who has overseen the rest of the visual elements, saying they will be ruined without the opposite kind of lighting. The performance itself (which aired on PBS and is available on DVD) apparently went perfectly; given the potential pitfalls that Miller documents, it's some kind of miracle.

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