Giacomo Puccini’s Final Opera, Turandot, to be performed by the Fairbanks Symphony

Max Erickson / Sun Star

With the conductor’s command, the sounds of rehearsal overwhelmed all other noise in Davis Concert Hall. The drums exploded, the gongs clanged and clashed and the violins, bass and cellos thrummed with energy. The maestro called, “More, I need more!” and “I want a hole in those drums!” Stage lights illuminated the concert hall and the sheen of the brass and the instruments, and Chinese lanterns glowed softly in the aisles.

“Bottom line, it’s one of the greatest operas written,” George Rydlinski, the principal Bassoonist of the Fairbanks Symphony said of Turandot, an Italian opera written by Giacomo Puccini in 1924 and finished by his student Franco Alfano after Puccini’s death.

The story takes place in ancient China, where princess Turandot makes a proclamation that any man who wishes to marry her must correctly answer three riddles. “What is born each night and dies at dawn? What flickers red and warm like flame, yet is not flame? What is like ice but burns?” If they succeed they win her hand in marriage, if not the suitor is beheaded. Thus, Princess Turandot becomes known as the Princess of Blood.

Calaf, a prince who is smitten with Turandot decides he will attempt to win her heart. Turandot’s ministers, Ping, Pang and Pong, characters who function as comic relief, begin their best efforts to dissuade him of his near suicidal idea. After Calaf correctly answers the three questions, the princess is shaken and begs her father to not marry her to the successful suitor, to no avail.

Calaf, seeing Turandot’s despair, decides to make her a deal.  If she can guess his name by dawn, then he will freely forfeit his life. Turandot decides she will discover the man’s name at any cost.

The production is by Eduard Zilberkant, who has an active career as conductor and pianist. He has been a guest artist and conductor at some of the most prestigious music festivals in the world. For the last fifteen years Zilberkant has been the music director and conductor of the Fairbanks Symphony Orchestra and the Artic Chamber Orchestra, according to the play’s program. As conductor, Zilberkant is responsible for setting the tempo and keeping the entire orchestra in sync.

Turandot is a massive production featuring nine soloists, two choirs, the Fairbanks Symphony Choir and the Northland Youth Choir, a full orchestra and a myriad of gongs.

“Where the interest comes in is the amount of gongs. So percussion is the real hero in many respects of the orchestra,” Zilberkant said.

“For me, this is a dream come true,” Zilberkant. “It is one of my favorite operas.”

Zilberkant has wanted to put on this production for years and believes Fairbanks will enjoy the opera’s intensity and the coordination effort between the musicians.

Seven of the soloists in Turandot are being flown in from outside of Alaska, with one arriving from South Africa. Many are internationally known stars like Teresa Eickel, Michael Morrow, Zachary Owen, Benjamin Bunsold, José Adán Pérez, Walter Fourie and David Blalock.

The Davis Concert Hall does not have a pit, a lowered area in front of the stage where the musicians and conductor traditionally reside, so every musician will be on stage. With over 100 musicians in the program the stage is packed, leaving little room between musicians. There are many large instruments, such as the gongs and drums, which take up the already sparse available space.

“The music is challenging, of course… but there’s just no room to move.” Bob Olsen, the first chair Bassist said. This will be Olsen’s fortieth year in the Fairbanks Symphony Orchestra and he has nothing but compliments for the group, saying his favorite part of the show is hearing his fellow musicians play.

Bryan Hall is the concertmaster of the Fairbanks Symphony Orchestra and serves as both a private and university teacher. He has enjoyed success as a violinist, violist and conductor, playing all over the world.  He once performed at the forbidden city concert hall in Beijing, China.

“I think an opera is the highest art you can do as a classical musician,” Hall said. “It’s essentially like having a live movie. The goal of it is to be the most magnanimous, the biggest production one can have in art, with the set design, costuming, singing, dancing, it’s everything at once.”

An opera requires action in addition to music to convey the storyline to the audience. This production has singers traversing the stage and even has choreographed the Northland Youth Choir sauntering through the aisles of seating holding illuminated Chinese lanterns. The singers are given a unique challenge as they must sing as well as perform their character’s roles.

Jaunelle Celaire, who plays the character Liù, can attest to the difficulty of singing while acting. Luì is Calaf’s servant, who is in love with him but must watch as he throws himself at Turandot. She is eventually captured and tortured by Turandot’s men so that they can learn Calaf’s name.

Celaire made her debut with the Fairbanks Symphony Orchestra in 2004 and has since gone on to become internationally recognized, often traveling to other nations to put on performances. She will be leaving in September to South Africa to perform at recitals, cabarets and educate other audiences about American music. She is currently a teacher, soloist, conductor and performer.

“With opera we think about the production of sound as opposed to the acting so it’s always tricky to have to put all these extra motions into the mix,” Celaire said.

The show will open Friday, April 29 at 7:30 p.m. and play again Sunday, May 1 at 4 p.m. Tickets are available online at the Fairbanks Symphony’s website.  Non-student adult tickets cost $40 and student tickets are $20. The production will be subtitled so the audience can understand what is being sung.

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