New Jersey Stage
New Jersey Stage on social media

Tune into Radio Jersey with Lee Mrowicki every Monday through Friday from 6pm to 8pm
Broadcast on Asbury Music!

Puccini's Last Opera Makes Its First Appearance At Verismo Opera

By Patricia Kiernan Johnson,

originally published: 04/18/2018

Puccini's Last Opera Makes Its First Appearance At Verismo Opera

My boss, the CEO of OPERA America, has a favorite “first question.” Every time he interviews an opera creator, artist, board member or business partner, he asks them, “What is the first opera you saw? Who took you?”

For nearly 10 years, I’ve lived in dread that he’d ask me that question in public – because I just don’t remember. I mean, I know I went to some in school (pre-high school), but I just can’t seem to remember when I first went, and which opera that was.

But I always figured that when he DID ask me that question, I’d flip it so that I could talk about the one opera that has made three significant appearances in my early life: Puccini’s “Turandot:”

  1. When I was in high school in northern New Jersey, our school would get free dress rehearsal tickets to The Metropolitan Opera. So about twice per year, the music teacher would trek a small group of his music students to Lincoln Center to see an opera. And while I saw a bunch during my years there, one of the ones that made the biggest impression on me was “Turandot.” Partially because I was taking a music history class at the time, so we studied it A LOT, but also because this was the famous Franco Zeffirelli production, which was crazy opulent. And I remember that, even though this was before Met Titles (where you get an English translation of the Italian text on the seat in front of you), that I understood every moment of the opera because it just resonated with me.
  2. In college, I studied abroad in Rome. My best friend and I decided to buy tickets to an opera that was being performed in the old Olympic Stadium, which turned out to be “Turandot.” While that night was memorable for so many reasons, one of the things that made a big impression was how connected the whole audience was to the performance. I mean, it was a given that the native Romans in the crowd knew every note of the score (Puccini comes in only slightly second to Verdi in the nation), so not only did they hang on every note, many of them actually sang along. I was also fascinated to see how well they seemed to embrace the woman singing the role of Turandot – Sharon Sweet, who was American (OK, maybe not as well-embraced as the Italians who sang Calaf and Liù, but still).
  3. Almost 10 years later, my first job in opera was for the now-defunct Opera New Jersey. And one of the productions we mounted was “Turandot.” With Sharon Sweet.

Hopefully those stories will get me off the hook with the boss when that time comes. But in the interim, I get to share my love of this work with you!

And, luckily for you, the New Jersey Association of Verismo Opera is performing this beloved work on Sunday, April 22 at 3:00 p.m. at Bergen Performing Arts Center in Englewood. This is the first time in the company’s 29-year history that Verismo Opera is presenting this particular opera.

One thing to keep in mind with this “Turandot,” though, is that it was composed by an Italian in the early 20th century, yet focuses on a story in ancient China (the libretto actually says “legendary times,” I believe). So not only are there plot contrivances that make you sigh, there is a strong thread of exoticism throughout the work. But I honestly believe that Puccini was coming at this work from a place of love, not mockery. And there are sections and characters like Ping, Pang and Pong (especially at the beginning of Act II) that might set off your alarm bells, it’s important to remember that Puccini was operating through another mindset: Italian theatre. For example, Ping, Pang and Pong are actually meant to be reminiscent of the commedia dell’arte tradition, which is an important aspect of Italian theatre tradition.

And of course, not to bury the lead or anything, but “Turandot” contains probably the most famous opera aria of all time: “Nessun Dorma.” You’ll hear that come up at the beginning of Act III.

Puccini's Last Opera Makes Its First Appearance At Verismo OperaThe Plot

OK, so in Beijing, China, there’s this beautiful princess, Turandot. If any man wants to marry her, he has to correctly answer her three riddles. If he fails, then he loses his head. Literally. (Yeah, I’ve never understood why guys just didn’t give that whole area a wide berth, but whatever.)

ACT I– As the opera opens, the Prince of Persia has just failed the riddle test and is going to be beheaded. In the chaos at the palace gates, a blind old man is knocked to the ground and his slave girl (sigh), Liù, cries out for help. A young man, Calaf, hears her cry and helps, suddenly recognizing the old man as his long-lost father, Timur, the deposed king of Tartary. Timur tells Calaf that only Liù has remained faithful to him. Liù says that it’s because once, long ago, Calaf once smiled at her.

In the morning, when the Prince of Persia is about to die, the crowd implores Turandot to have mercy on him. She doesn’t. And of course, Calaf catches a glimpse of her and falls in insta-love.

Calaf is about to ring the gong three times, declaring that he wants to try his hand at the riddle, when the king’s ministers Ping, Pang and Pong appear and try to change his mind. Timur and Liù (who, unsurprisingly, secretly loves Calaf) also beg him to change his mind. He doesn’t.

ACT II– Ping, Pang and Pong start off the act preparing for the either a wedding or a funeral for Calaf. They yearn for their lives outside the palace and lament having to accompany so many princes to their deaths.

In the next scene, Turandot’s father, the Emperor Altoum, tries to get Calaf to withdraw his challenge, but he refuses. Turandot appears and explains her reasons for the brutal challenges: an ancestor of hers, a thousand years ago, reigned over the kingdom and didn’t wish to wed. However, a foreign prince invaded her lands, ravished and murdered her. In revenge, Turandot has sworn never to wed. (That part I can understand. But it’s beyond me why she takes it a step further and beheads all who fail the riddles.)

Puccini's Last Opera Makes Its First Appearance At Verismo Opera

So, here comes the riddle part. Question one: “What is born each night and dies each dawn?” Calaf correctly answers “Hope.” Unnerved, Turandot goes to question two: “What flickers red and warm like a flame, but is not fire?” Calaf again correctly: “Blood.” Really nervous now, Turandot asks the third question, “What is ice which gives you fire and which your fire freezes still more?” After a moment, Calaf proclaims “It is Turandot! Turandot!” (To which I’ve always thought, “Duh. Sounds like she really WANTED someone to solve the riddle. Or maybe that’s just because I read too many romance novels.)

Turandot begs her father not to make her marry Calaf. The Emperor says (essentially): “No welching – you’re stuck.” So Turandot turns to Calaf and asks if he’ll take her by force. Calaf turns the tables and says that he has a riddle for her. Since she doesn’t know his name, if she can figure it out by dawn, he will die instead of marrying her. (To which I always thought, “Well this guy has a death wish…”)

ACT III– As the kingdom is ordered to seek out Calaf’s name (with punishment for all being death), Calaf sings that most famous aria “Nessun dorma” (Nobody shall sleep!).

Ping, Pang and Pong appear and offer Calaf riches if only he’ll give up Turandot, but of course he refuses. Then soldiers appear, bringing in Timur and Liù. People have seen them talking to Calaf, so they figure that they have to know his name. To keep Timur from being hurt, Liù says that only she knows his name. So of course, Turandot has her tortured. Liù says the prince’s true name is “Love” and gets tortured more. Eventually, Liù seizes a dagger from a soldier (great security there) and stabs herself. Everybody is really upset and everyone but Calaf and Turandot leave. Calaf tells Turandot that she is very cruel, then kisses her.


Calaf tries to convince Turandot to love him (because yeah, that always works). At first, she’s disgusted, but then she reconsiders and says she both loves and hates him. So, she tells him to leave, and she won’t try to discover his name anymore. At this point Calaf tells her his name (sigh) and leaves his life in her hands, since it’s not yet dawn.

In the final scene, Turandot and Calaf approach the emperor’s throne. She declares that she knows the prince’s name and it is… (wait for it) LOVE! (Hey, she stole Liù’s line!) And yeah, the two are cheered by the crowd. –So, happily ever after, I guess?

Another really interesting thing about this opera is that it was Puccini’s last. In fact, he died before completing it. He had fully finished through Liù’s death, with sketches for the final sections. (Don’t worry, “Nessun dorma” was written by Puccini himself.) Puccini left instructions for Riccardo Zandonai to complete the opera for him, but Puccini’s son objected, and so Franco Alfani was eventually chosen to finish it.

The first performance of the opera was conducted in Milan by Arturo Toscanini. Famously, he put down his baton after Liù’s death and said, “Here the opera ends, because here the Maestro laid down his pen.” Of course, in all subsequent performances of the opera, the final scenes by Alfano are added to complete the work.

Puccini's Last Opera Makes Its First Appearance At Verismo Opera

The New Jersey Association of Verismo Opera has been part of the state’s music scene since 1989, when it began with a vocal competition and opera workshop. It has been under the artistic direction of Lucine Amara, Metropolitan Opera star, since 1993. Not only does Verismo Opera perform repertoire standards like “Turandot,” but it also presents rarely-heard works – I’d list them, but really, I promise you’ve never heard of them.

Turandot will be conducted by Lucy Arner, music director and principal conductor. She is the company’s first female to hold these positions. (Of course, as soon as I heard that, my ears perked up.) There’s a big movement (ahem) in the field to further the work of female composers, conductors and administrators these days, led in part by OPERA America, but also with programs like The Dallas Opera’s Hartt Institute for Female Conductors. (And of course, female conductors and composers are also a major plot line in the current season of “Mozart in the Jungle.)”

I asked Maestra Aner about how she got into conducting. She said that she was always interested in it, “but found that women were not encouraged to consider orchestral conducting — they were subtly but definitely discouraged. Opera seemed to be more of an option.” Maestra Arner further explained that opera singing has always been an interest of hers because great singing gives her the same kind of rush that a full orchestra does, and also includes elements of poetry and history.

Puccini's Last Opera Makes Its First Appearance At Verismo Opera

I’m fascinated about seeing a female conductor work on a piece like “Turandot” that I see as having female characters that are strong and powerful, yet weak and stereotypical. So, of course, I asked her about this. Maestra Arner sees that both Turandot and Liù are strong female characters: “Turandot is afraid to love and is afraid of being perceived as weak and vulnerable. Liù is the slave girl who acts nobly out of love for Calaf, and demonstrates a quiet strength and bravery that is incredibly touching. … These contrasting characters, and the contrasting nature of the music that Puccini has written for each of them, is one of the things that I find most compelling about the opera, in addition to the orchestration and the many colors that Puccini creates.”

When I asked Maestra Aner about “Turandot”’s relevancy in our current era, she said, “I think great opera is always relevant, because the emotions expressed through the music are universal. And the human voice is the most expressive instrument there is, the one that we all have in common. ‘Turandot’ is a fairy tale that takes place in a very different world from today’s #MeToo awareness, but it has important things to say about things that are always relevant, such as the importance of loyalty, fidelity, the power of love and the realization that we are all diminished by when we stand by and see others treated with cruelty and a lack of humanity.”

And on that note, I too, lay down my pen.

The Details
The New Jersey Association of Versimo Opera performs Puccini’s “Turandot” on Sunday, April 22 at 3:00 p.m. at the Bergen Performing Arts Center, located at 30 North Van Brunt Street in Englewood, NJ. Tickets ($25, $35, $45 and $55) are available at For more information about Verismo Opera, visit

About the author: About the author: Patricia, Jersey born and bred, is a lifelong arts lover, arts patron, performer and artist. One of the very few people who actually cheers when The Dreaded Opera Category shows up on Jeopardy, Patricia is also an avid Yankee fan (from birth) and is learning to become an Eagles fan (from marriage).

Content provided by Discover Jersey Arts, a project of the ArtPride New Jersey Foundation and New Jersey State Council on the Arts.

State Theatre Presents Diana Krall: Turn Up the Quiet Tour
(NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ) -- State Theatre New Jersey presents Diana Krall live in concert as part of her Turn Up The Quiet World Tour on Friday, October 12 at 8:00pm. Tickets range from $43-$153.50.  This concert will feature songs from Diana Krall’s stunning new album, Turn Up The Quiet, out now on Verve Records as well as a mix of some fan favorites. 
Kean Stage Presents The Manhattan Transfer
(UNION, NJ) -- Going strong after more than 45 years, Grammy Award winner The Manhattan Transfer, with tenor vocals from Kean University alumnus Alan Paul '71, will captivate Kean Stage audiences with their distinctive four-part harmonies at Enlow Recital Hall on Sunday, September 30 at 3:00pm.
3rd Annual North Jersey Indie Rock Festival
(JERSEY CITY, NJ) -- The North Jersey Indie Rock Festival returns to Jersey City on October 6. Presented by Mint 400 Records and Sniffling Indie Kids, the festival includes acts from those labels and Little Dickman Records, Rhyme and Reason Records, and State Champion Records.  The festival takes place at White Eagle Hall. Doors are at 4:00pm and the music starts at 4:30pm. Tickets are $10 in advance and $12 at the door.
Bobby McFerrin To Kick Off the 125th Season Of Princeton University Concerts
(PRINCETON, NJ) -- On Friday, September 21, 2018 at 7:30pm, 10-time GRAMMY award-winning artist Bobby McFerrin launches Princeton University Concerts’ (“PUC”) 125th Anniversary Season in a special event performance at Richardson Auditorium in Alexander Hall. The concert will feature McFerrin alongside members of his a cappella group Gimme5 in a program titled “ Circlesongs ” -- an evening of spontaneous music-making through shared improvised sound, in a language growing out of tribal chant and sacred music. 
The Dryden Ensemble Presents Bach Cantata Fest
(PRINCETON, NJ) -- The Dryden Ensemble will present a Bach Cantata Fest on Saturday, October 20 at 7:30pm at Trinity Episcopal Church, 6587 Upper York Road, Solebury, Pennsylvania, and on Sunday, October 21 at 3:00pm at Miller Chapel, located on the campus of Princeton Theological Seminary, 64 Mercer Street, Princeton, New Jersey. Tickets are $25 for general admission and free to students with an ID. They may be purchased at the door or online at

“Here’s Lucie!” Lucie Arnaz LIVE! at the PNC Bank Arts Center
Even though the weather outside Holmdel, NJ’s PNC Bank Arts Center is cloudy with some light intermittent drizzle this Wednesday, September 12, 2018 afternoon, the venue’s stage is still shining brightly with talent thanks to a live performance by television, film, and stage actress/singer Lucie Arnaz!
Mike Aiken Talks About Aiken & Friends Fest, North Branch At RVCC
(BRANCHBURG, NJ) -- Raritan Valley Community College presents Aiken & Friends Fest, North Branch on Friday, September 21 and Saturday, September 22.  The three-day event will feature a number of different musical shows by Mike Aiken, as well as other solo artists and groups.  
Virtuoso Jazz Violinist Jean-Luc Ponty LIVE! at the Newton Theatre
It’s a warm but lovely Aug. 23, 2018 evening here in Newton, NJ. After enjoying some hand-dipped Cliff’s ice cream from the window at Hayek Market, we march up Spring Street looking forward to hearing some world-class jazz at one of the Garden State’s favorite concert venues, The Newton Theatre.
An Interview with Bernie Williams
Four-time World Series Champion and Latin Grammy-Nominated guitarist and composer Bernie Williams will perform with his All-Star Band at the Jersey Shore this Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018 at The Grunin Center of the Arts in Toms River, NJ!
“Unleash the Love” The Beach Boys LIVE! at The Great Auditorium
So what were you doing at 8:18 pm on 8/18/18? Well, we’re not sure what you were up to, but we know that on that hot August night, we were listening to “America’s Band” — The Beach Boys — and watching them “Unleash the Love” while performing their incredible catalog of hits at Ocean Grove NJ’s Great Auditorium!

Event calendar
Friday, Sep 21, 2018


Talib Kweli @ Asbury Lanes, Asbury Park - 9:00pm

JESSIE’S GIRL @ The Wellmont Theater, Montclair - 8:00pm

Bill Staines at the Minstrel @ Morristown Unitarian Fellowship, , Morristown - 7:30pm

FELIX CAVALIERE AND GENE CORNISH’S RASCALS @ Mayo Performing Arts Center (MPAC), Morristown - 8:00pm

MICHAEL MCDONALD @ State Theatre New Jersey, New Brunswick - 8:00pm

Up Close & Personal 2 with "Them Lean On Me Boys"...RIFF @ Hamilton Stage @ Union County Performing Arts Center (UCPAC), Rahway - 8:00pm

The Marshall Tucker Band with special guest The Outlaws @ Count Basie Center For The Arts, Red Bank - 7:30pm

The Jeff Jensen Band @ Lizzie Rose Music Room, Tuckerton - 7:30pm


Souvenir @ Surflight Theatre, Beach Haven - 8:00pm

East Lynne Theater Company presents SILENT SKY @ First Presbyterian Church (Cape May), Cape May - 8:00pm

The Shuck @ Cape May Stage, Cape May - 7:30pm

Incorruptible @ Ritz Theatre Company, Haddon Township - 8:00pm

West End Festival of the Arts- Theatre Brut Session 1 @ West End Arts Center, Long Branch - 8:00pm

OPEN auditions for Sondheim on Sondheim @ Burgdorff Center for the Performing Arts, Maplewood - 7:00pm

Evita @ Broadway Theatre of Pitman, Pitman - 8:00pm

Seuls en Scene French Theater Festival - "Harlem Quartet" @ Class of 1970 Theatre, Whitman College , Princeton - 7:00pm

Seuls en Scene French Theater Festival - "Portrait de Ludmilla en Nina Simone " @ Class of 1970 Theatre, Whitman College, Princeton - 9:00pm

HUMAN ERROR by Eric Pfeffinger @ West Windsor Arts Center, Princeton Junction - 8:00pm

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest @ Black Box PAC, Teaneck - 8:00pm

Brick City @ Premiere Stages at Kean University, Union - 8:00pm


Big Apple Comedy Club @ The Newton Theatre, Newton - 8:00pm


Monty Python and the Holy Grail Quote-A-Long @ Hopewell Theater, Hopewell - 7:00pm

New Jersey Film Festival @ Voorhees Hall #105, New Brunswick - 7:00pm


AN EVENING WITH DR. SANJAY GUPTA, MD @ Bergen Performing Arts Center (bergenPAC), Englewood - 7:30pm

View all events


For more on our awards, click here

New Jersey Stage © 2018 by Wine Time Media, LLC | PO Box 140, Spring Lake, NJ 07762 (732) 280-7625 |

Images used on this site have been sent to us from publicists, artists, and PR firms.
If there is a problem with the rights to any image, please contact us and we will look into the matter.