The Not Entirely Complete Works of Peter Schulman

©2010 Peter Schulman

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Oprah

Julia was approaching six when we took her to see La Cenerentola - Cinderella. She had been asking to go since she and I watched a tape of Turandot a few months earlier.

So when tickets became available we got them. What better opera to introduce a youngster to the art form?

In this production Cinderella had a wicked stepfather and was taken to the ball on a motorcycle.

Julia asked why the stepfather was so mean.

My wife whispered that he was drunk.

Julia didn’t understand.

“What?”

“He’s drunk.”

“What?”

“He had too much to drink,” my wife explained.

Julia thought about it.

“Oh, he’s juiced up!“

You’re not supposed to laugh out loud while the performers are singing.

Julia was a trooper. She was so exhausted by intermission I hurt.

We offered to take her home, but she was determined to tough it out so we wouldn’t have to miss the second act.

A few weeks later Julia brought home a banner from school recognizing Thanksgiving.

It read: “Julia is thankful that she gets to see the opera with her grandparents.”

It is still on our refrigerator.

 

Julia loves musicals and she loves to sing.

Whenever we would drive somewhere with her she always insisted on having a musical playing in the car. Her definition of a musical was Annie.

When she visited at our house she would often sing.

At night we would have to watch a movie together.

She gravitated to two musicals: Annie and the tape of our synagogue’s performance of Fiddler on the Roof, in which I was the rabbi, my wife was Golda, my daughter was Tzeitel and her fiancé was Motel.

Julia sang along.

Julia had come to expect the offbeat from me so she took it completely in stride when I decided to take the musical format one step further and sing everything through lunch.

I started with her choice of what to eat.

“Julia, what would you like for lunch?” I sang.

“Macaroni and cheese,” she said.

“No, no, no, no, no. You have to sing; this is opera.”

“Macaroni and cheese,” she sang.

“Would you consider something else? What about grilled cheese?” I sang.

“Yes!“ She said.

“You have to sing,” I sang.

“Yes, I would,” she sang.

“How many would you like?” sang my wife.

And so it went.

All conversation, questions, answers and comments until we had cleared the table were sung until Julia finally sang, “Can we do it again?”

This was a familiar question because Julia often asked to watch her favorite movie or listen to her favorite song, both of which had the same name: Again.

I explained opera was like a musical except they sang everything, like we had at lunch. I asked Julia if she had ever seen an opera. She said she hadn’t.

“Would you like to?”

“Yes.”

Perhaps it wasn’t the best choice, but in retrospect it turned out just fine. I chose Turandot because I had been watching it and had only seen half.

So, we went up to the bedroom and sat together on the bed and watched.

Since Julia didn’t speak Italian she was constantly asking what they were singing.

I don’t speak Italian either, but I could read captions.

I couldn’t give her the literal translation because there were words she wouldn’t know.

There were also concepts she would not have come across so I had to explain them in a context she could understand.

I had problems from the outset.

Princess Turandot is looking for a husband. He must be of royal blood. He must also answer three riddles. If he fails to answer them correctly his head will be cut off.

How do you explain that to a kindergartener?

I told her the princess was looking for somebody to marry.

There is already a prince scheduled for execution. The crowd is pretty enthusiastic. They didn’t have that many things to entertain them back then.

An old man is jostled by the crowd. Only one young man moves to help him.

It turns out the old man is a deposed king and the young man is his son. This I can explain without much difficulty.

I tell her he is a king who lost his job and the guy who took his job wanted to hurt him.

The unruly mob takes pity on the prince scheduled for execution and becomes ruly, asking Turandot to pardon him.

She is as cold as ice and refuses. Unfortunately, at her age, Julia doesn’t have the cultural reference for me to start singing, “She’s as cold as ice.”

I explain that a prince lost the contest and he is going to be punished.

Julia seems to have no problem with that concept.

If she noticed the head that eventually ended up on a spike she didn’t mention it, to my relief.

The young man, Prince Calàf, is dazzled by Turandot’s beauty. He’s kind of a hunk himself played by Placido Domingo.

It reminds me of how different it was when I saw Aida. Radames, the guy Aida and the Pharoh’s daughter both love desperately, was five foot even, both in height and from front to back.

Calàf decides he must marry Turandot and wants to ring the gong to announce his intention to enter the competition for her. Julia has no problem understanding that.

Three government officials, Ping, Pang and Pong try to dissuade Calàf. But he has seen her and is already in love with her.

Julia has seen plenty of movies of fairy tales so love at first sight is not a foreign concept.

Prince Calàf is not persuaded to give up his effort to marry Turandot. He rings the gong three times announcing he will face the challenge of her riddles.

Thus ends Act 1 and, mercifully, I have a little time to figure out how I’m going to explain the potential execution.

Act 2 begins with Ping, Pang and Pong singing about how wonderful China used to be. They wax poetic about the places they lived before entering government service. They are very unhappy with the turn of events that has led to so many deaths in pursuit of Turandot.

I tell Julia they think China used to be a wonderful country, but Turandot has made some laws that have made them miserable.

As they finally finish, Julia says, “If they don’t like it, why don’t they just move to Florida?”

I don’t have to explain anything for a few minutes while I regain control.

The crowd gathers for the riddles.

Even the emperor tries to persuade Calàf to change his mind, but love is blind or, more likely, stupid.

Turandot now explains why she has set up the process of the riddles: she hates men.

Again, Julia is too young to use a cultural reference, but I would to have loved to sing I Hate Men from Kiss Me Kate.

Turandot tells us she had an ancestor princess who was brutally slain by a conquering prince thousands and thousands of years ago.

Turandot’s revenge is no man will ever have her so she invents apparently unsolvable riddles to taunt suitors with the possibility of winning her only to be put to death.

Julia has trouble with this.

“Why is she still so angry?” she asks.

“Some people really know how to carry a grudge,” I tell her.

“Get over it.” Julia watches too much of the Disney Channel.

I decide not to mention Turandot’s belief that she is the reincarnation of the slain princess which makes carrying the grudge so meaningful for her.

As the riddles start I’m forced to tell Julia that if he gets them wrong he will be killed.

I’m surprised she has no problem with this. Maybe all the fairytales and cartoons she has seen have made death seem unreal.

Hansel and Gretel kill, though in self defense.

Red Riding Hood’s wolf is hacked to pieces by woodsmen.

Wile E. Coyote routinely runs off a cliff and returns to die another day.

What’s the big deal about death?

Turandot delivers the first riddle.

“In the dark of night a glowing ghost takes flight. It rises and spreads its wings above despairing mankind.

“All the world implores it. But the ghost vanishes at dawn only to be reborn in men’s hearts.

“Every night, it is born again. And every day, it dies.”

Calàf struggles like he is succumbing to consumption, but eventually does an in your face as he answers, “It is hope.”

Turandot is not happy. Julia understands she has lost the first riddle.

Turandot asks the second.

“What warms like a flame, yet is not a flame?

“Sometimes it is a delirium, an intense and ardent fever.

“Inertia turns it into languor.

“Lose your will or your life, and it grows cold.

“Dream of victory and it catches fire.

“You listen to its voice with caution. And it glows as vividly as the setting sun.”

While she is asking this riddle, Calàf is tortured, trying to come up with the answer. He clutches his stomach. He presses his fists into his temples.

His face contorts as if he is fighting back explosive diarrhea.

He chews his fingernails.

Turandot has a smug look of gloating on her face as his body is wracked.

But why have three riddles in the story unless he can answer at least the first two?

“Yeah, I get it,” is my translation of his preface to the answer: blood.

I’m thinking this chick is wacko if she thinks everything she said applies to blood, but I guess we already knew that.

Turandot is shocked and angry and tells whoever to quiet this vile crowd which is rooting for Calàf. Maybe she can’t believe he got the right answer because it is such a stupid answer.

Now she hits him with the third riddle which she knows he can’t possibly get.

“What is the ice that sets you on fire? And when you burn, becomes even colder?”

Calàf looks like he wants to cry.

Turandot looks like she’s ready to do, “I got you,” in a sing-song voice.

“It is both apparent and obscure.

“If it gives you freedom, it makes you a slave.

“If it accepts you as its slave, it makes you King!“

She looks so smug.

He is shaking his head. Nobody could answer that.

She is strutting around taunting him. What a bitch.

He’s is shaking. The crowd is fearful.

Calàf starts, “I have won you!

“My fire will make you melt! It is Turandot!“

He shakes hands with the crowd like Jay Leno at the start of his show.

Turandot is disconsolate. She tries to back out of the deal.

I explain Turandot doesn’t love him and doesn’t want to be with him. She was hoping he would lose and they would kill him.

Suddenly, Julia asks, “Why doesn’t she just get a divorce like Uncle Jerry?”

Even if there is an answer to this question there is no answer to this question.

The only one who listens to Turandot’s pleas is Calàf. He won’t take her against her will. She must love him.

This dufus is the hero?

He offers her a riddle to solve.

“You do not know my name. Tell me my name. If you tell me my name before dawn, at dawn, I shall die.”

As Act 3 starts we hear of Turandot’s proclamation that no one in Peking shall sleep until she learns the stranger’s name.

Julia and I are called down to a holiday dinner.

I insist we will be down in a few minutes because I want Julia to hear what comes next.

Calàf sings my favorite aria: Nessun Dorma - No one shall sleep.

At the end of the applause Julia and I go downstairs to dinner with her parents, her younger sister, my wife and my daughter.

As we enter the dining room Julia’s mother asks, “Why didn’t you come down? What were you doing?”

Julia answers without hesitation.

“We were watching Oprah.”