Turandot is Death Metal Opera

I often harp on the irrelevance of genre distinctions, but even I have to admit that some musical tastes are incongruous; for example, opera and heavy metal. ‘Bel canto,’ after all, is simply the Italian for ‘pretty song,’ and let’s face it, metal includes a lot of ugly, ugly music. Opera is classical, classy, appealing. Heavy metal is brutal, thuggish and off-putting.

And yet… and yet…

Turandot staged at Seattle Opera, 2012

From a technical standpoint, heavy metal music is more closely aligned with classical music than any other musical style in its song structures and celebration of technique. (Jazz, while equally technical and challenging, is far more experimental, and eschews many of the rules and conventions shared by metal and classical music.) Are the soprano’s vocal gymnastics so very different from the wild solos of a lead guitarist?

Regardless of how heavy it sounds, heavy metal contains a lot of beautiful, moving music alongside the ugly. Likewise, some strains of opera (cough, Wagner, cough) break from the aesthetics of beauty to celebrate something…dare I say, brutal?

Thematically, both styles range from the existential to the macabre. Needless to say, both forms of music revel in spectacle.

When you start to dig down into subgenres, it becomes even easier to find similarities. Symphonic metal is an obvious crossover. Melodic death metal bands have recruited singers from the ranks of bel canto opera. And now, I would like to suggest that metal bands abandon the tradition of ironic covers of pop music and replace it with opera-based concept albums. They should begin with Turandot. Seriously, someone please make a death metal album out of Turandot. Replace the tenor Prince Calaf with a growling baritone and you have yourself a wicked death metal album.

At Seattle Opera’s recent production of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot, stylized sets littered with severed heads and dripping with gore, all bathed in red light, provide the first indication that we are not in traditional romantic territory. This is the story of Princess Turandot, the daughter of the frail and ancient Chinese Emperor. Turandot is a creepy girl in corpse paint with serious sexual hangups and a mad desire for power. Ostensibly in revenge for the rape of an ancestor 1,000 years ago, all potential suitors must solve three riddles or die. Prince Calaf, son of Timur, takes the challenge and wins; but then, relenting at her distress, he gives her an out Rumpelstiltskin-style. She threatens to massacre all of Peking if no one can reveal his name. Calaf’s devoted slave girl is brought to the palace, where she submits to torture before committing suicide rather than betray him. Despite her death, Calaf continues to woo Turandot, whose heart melts at the last moment, and she submits to the marriage, thus ending her reign of terror.

Turandot and Prince Calaf share a tender moment?

The ending is the only part that might require modification. But there is so much great material to work with. Let’s take a look at some of the lyrics (from this website):

Here is the chorus in Act One, responding to the news that the Prince of Persia has failed the test:

He must die! Yes, die!
We want the executioner!
Quickly, quickly!
Death! Death!
The punishment!

Grind the whetstone! Grind it! etc.

Oil it, sharpen it,
let the blade gleam, spatter
fire and blood!
Work is never dull for us
where Turandot reigns!

Where Turandot reigns!
Sweet lovers, come forward! Come!

With our hooks and our knives,
we’re ready to embroider
your skins!

And in Act Three, Prince Calaph is warned that Princess Turandot will slaughter all of Peking if he fails to reveal his name:

Stranger, you don’t know
what the Cruel One is capable of
you don’t know!

You don’t know the horrible tortures
China will invent
if you stay and do not reveal
you name!

The Sleepless One does not forgive!
We are lost!
It will be a horrible torture!
The sharp irons!
The spiky wheels!
The hot grip of the pincers!
Death, little by little!
Don’t make us die!

Ah! horrible crime!
We will all pay for it!
The offended spirit will take revenge!
(Then a superstitious terror seizes the crowd: the fear
that the dead girl will become an evil spirit, because
she was the victim of injustice, and that she will
change, as the popular belief has it, into a vampire. As
two handmaidens cover Turandot’s face with a white
veil embroidered in silver, the crowd supplicates.)

Grieving shade, don’t harm us!
Scornful shade, forgive us!

Truly, Turandot is death metal in opera.