Washington National Opera commissioned Grammy Award-winning composer Christopher Tin and Emmy-winning playwright, screenwriter, and librettist Susan Soon He Stanton to write a world-premiere ending to Puccini’s final, unfinished work, Turandot. 

Puccini spent the last 4 years of his life (he died in 1924) struggling with composing Turandot, noting at one point: “I curse Turandot!” Turandot is essentially a fairy-tale, and Puccini was known as a verismo composer, and I wonder if this is why he found it so difficult to write a believable story line where the Princess Turandot, who cruelly executes all her would-be lovers, suddenly falls madly in love with the hero, Calaf. At one point Puccini wrote that he thought the ending should be like Tristan’s, Wagner’s iconic love-death apotheosis, and in another instance, he wrote: “I would like her (Turandot) to burst into expressions of love—but excessively, violently, shamelessly, like a bomb exploding.” Wow! That’s quite a task, and it seems that subsequent composers like Franco Alfano and Luciano Berio haven’t quite found the solution to the last two scenes of the opera. 

Puccini’s work ends with the death of the servant girl, Liú, who sacrifices herself under torture to spare Calaf’s life. Before we proceed with the interview with librettist Susan Soon He Stanton (writer and producer of HBO's Succession), here’s a quick synopsis of the opera until this pivotal moment. Princess Turandot, the daughter of the Chinese emperor refuses to marry any of her many suitors. She gives them 3 impossible riddles and if they fail to answer correctly, she has them executed, much to the delight of the bloodthirsty crowd. (The lovesick Prince of Persia is being led to his death as the opera opens). Enter Timur, a deposed king, his son Calaf, and the slave girl, Liú. Calaf falls violently in love with Turandot, answers all the riddles correctly, and seeing how horrified the princess is at his success, grants her a riddle. If she guesses his name correctly before dawn, he will submit to execution. Turandot has Liú tortured to reveal Calaf’s name, but she refuses, telling the Princess her courage comes from love, after which she stabs herself...That’s all Puccini was able to write, and since his death, other composers have attempted to craft a believable ending to Calaf and Turandot’s love story. 

Nicole Lacroix: Now it’s your turn. How did you go about writing a satisfying ending to Turandot? Were Puccini’s many pages of sketches useful to you?  

Susan Stanton


Susan Soon He Stanton: I believe Chris (composer Christopher Tin) consulted the Puccini sketches to some degree, but they weren't directly relevant to my work. That said, we all wanted to create an ending that was a satisfying emotional and musical resolution to the 2.5 hours that came before.  

It was essential for me, as a storyteller who leads from character, that we really consider who Turandot is. How she became the “ice princess.” Even when Calaf correctly guesses her challenge, putting her own life on the line, she is bereft. She had a deep emotional reaction to finally being forced to marry and lose her agency. Francesca Zambello, our incredible director, who has directed the opera several times, has spoken at length about the audience's reactions to Liú's death. But within the original version of Turandot, we never see the ice queen melt. Not really. Not in a way that makes emotional sense. In the Alfano version, he plants a big kiss on her and she melts. 

 I wanted to explore what her trauma might be. That is, more than an Orientalist idea about a long-dead ancestor (who was abused), but that she was the one that was raped, and it was something that she was unable to confront. Once Calaf has solved the first 3 riddles and has earned her as a "prize for his daring," she becomes incredibly upset. She challenges him, "Do you want to take me by force? Do you want me reluctant and furious?" And that is when he offers her a riddle back, to guess his name. Over the process of the opera, Calaf learns love is not something to conquer. Turandot learns power is not necessarily a show of force, there is also strength in mercy in leadership. The two of them grow together in our new version when they face each other for the first time, shortly after the death of Liú. 

NL: How did you and the composer and Francesca Zambello work together to create this new vision of Turandot?" 

S S H S: We had many conversations over Zoom. Francesca was often in NY. I was in NY or London, and Chris was in Los Angeles. For me, as a playwright, I try to live in the emotional life of the character. What are a character's strengths and vulnerabilities over the course of the piece--the emotional progression for Othello, for instance. I strongly felt Turandot's arc felt truncated and Calaf also felt too unchanged. We discussed at length how the audience roots more for Liú. I thought a lot about how and why Calaf and Turandot became a couple, what they are willing to overlook in the name of love. I also thought about her psychology and power. Calaf answers the riddles and she’s bereft, and he gives her yet another opportunity and puts her life in the line. 

The biggest change to me, is that the causes for Turandot’s actions are not because of a distant ancestor who was defiled, but it was Turandot herself who was raped, and experienced this trauma. Calaf creates an environment where she is finally able to relive and purge her great pain. It’s there that they are able to connect as lovers and equals. He then gives her his name. And she can choose what kind of China she wants to rule. 

She honors Liú by burying her body beside her father, the emperor. (I should add, in our version, the Emperor also dies in the night.) And so, in this significant scene between Turandot and Calaf, they cover a lot of ground—the death of Liú, the feeling that they both have blood on their hands, and Turandot is mourning the death of her father, and worrying about what kind of ruler she will be. She finally confesses her past, reliving her trauma, but ultimately, this moment is a cathartic act, that allows her to free herself from her past. It is a new dawn, for Turandot, as a woman, as a leader. Calaf gives her power again, his name. She can use it if she wants to lead with mercy or vengeance. And she has learned that strength can also come from mercy. And her subjects, who were once bloodthirsty at the top of the act with the prince of Persia are also changed. They also cry out for this new era of love and mercy. 

 I know for us, this was a big scene. I wrote out a very long scene, like a play, and spent a good deal of time discussing the emotional keystone moments with Francesca (the director) and Christopher (the composer). Puccini’s letters to his librettists, Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni, include numerous allusions to the dramatic significance of Princess Turandot’s metamorphosis. Puccini wrote in a letter that ‘for me the duet must 

be the clue – but it must have in it something grand, bold, unforeseen . . .’ And for me, the Alfano version falls flat. The kiss is brief. The psychology doesn’t work. And so we really wanted to bring the complexity and beauty to this scene. We need to understand that for the good and the bad, this is why these two people should be together.  

NL: How do you seamlessly meld a 2024 finale with a 1924 opera? Music, language, mores, history, all have dramatically evolved in 100 years. 

S S H S: I would say that is more of a Chris question. But we carried over musical phrases and I also carefully consulted the full libretto by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni. I carried over certain important words and phrases from earlier in the opera and theme, (like night into dawn), Calaf giving Turandot his name. Kelly Rourke and I also went through the supertitles. For me, it was important to do what I could to reduce Orientalist language, in lines like "your skin is as white as jade." Which, also is confusing because jade comes in many colors but most commonly green!  

 NL: Turandot is based on a Persian story written by an 18th century Frenchman, transferred to China by a Venetian composer in a commedia del arte opera. Despite using Commedia del arte characters (Ping, Pong, Pang), Puccini worked to give his opera a “Chinese” feel, although I’m not sure how successful he was. In your version, does Turandot reflect a modern Chinese sensibility? Is she a real Chinese woman, or is she a fairytale woman, plunked down in “Peking” for exotic effect? 

S S H S: This is a tricky one. To me, it felt best to keep it in a fairy tale and move it away from anything directly Chinese. I wanted to focus on her as a character and a woman and explore the idea of her as a leader. To me, this story exists in another time and I did not think it would be satisfying to try to reverse engineer it to make this feel like a modern Peking (Beijing). I wanted her to be a complicated woman living in a complicated time, but it is also a fairy tale, a parable about love.   

NL: Is there anything else you would like us to know about your work on Turandot? 

S S H S: I loved working with Chris Tin. And I would deeply love the opportunity to create an original opera, and to collaborate with Chris again. I was amazed by the scale of the production. I don't have the perfect numbers but I believe there's over 200 singers and over 100 musicians. Hearing the music and the singers fill the space as opposed to workshopping our version on the piano with two singers was overwhelming. There was a surging, transformative effect for me, taking in the opera in its full state for me for the first time. I got very emotional and I do believe as my first time coming into this form, that I couldn't ask for a better entry. Or a better director to work with. Francesca is incredible and an inspiration to watch her work.  

Washington National Opera presents Puccini’s Turandot (with new ending by composer Christopher Tin and librettist Susan Soon He Stanton) May 11-25 at the Kennedy Center Opera House. 

WETA Passport

Stream tens of thousands of hours of your PBS and local favorites with WETA Passport whenever and wherever you want. Catch up on a single episode or binge-watch full seasons before they air on TV.