Irish company stages chorus for 'Turandot'

GUANGZHOU, China — Outsourcing is a big issue for foreign companies in China — half the world’s finished goods are made here, after all. But outsourcing opera singers is a relatively new invention, one that Opera Ireland hopes will pay dividends when it stages Puccini’s “Turandot” at the Gaiety in Dublin this month.

Dieter Kaegi, Opera Ireland’s artistic director, came to Guangzhou in southern China looking for a chorus and came away with 16 talented young singers — 11 men and five women — from the illustrious Xinghai Conservatory of Music.

“Opera is the same all over the world,” Kaegi says. “I’ve worked in Korea and the U.S. and Europe. Once you’re in it, it’s the same thing. It’s just the way you get there that’s a little different.”

The Swiss-born director was speaking on the sidelines of auditions, where at least 30 hopefuls were aiming for a chance to take part in the project and, for many of them, travel abroad for the first time.

Chinese voices are a growing presence on the music scene, according to Kaegi. He describes “Turandot” as a “great challenge for the chorus.” Because the opera is set in China, Kaegi felt recruiting Chinese singers would add authenticity.

Effectively the only traditional venue for opera in Dublin, the Gaiety’s orchestra pit setup made it impossible to hold the number of musicians needed for a full production of “Turandot.” But the theater’s recent refurbishment to include an expanded pit made staging the opera an option.

Kaegi believes the Chinese singers will fit in well with the young international chorus, and Hong Kong native Warren Mok, a distinguished tenor, is singing one of the principal roles.

The respected conservatory is one of nine in China, and the only one in the south; it boasts 2,000 students learning either voice or piano.

Set in the Forbidden City and centered on a cold-hearted Chinese princess who, in order to avoid marriage, declares that any suitor must answer three riddles correctly or die, “Turandot” provides an appropriate vehicle for young Chinese singers to participate in their first professional production.

While musicals are popular, most Chinese people have little exposure to Western opera.

One of the driving forces behind the project is Bi Baoyi, a performer and teacher who works with the conservatory and was eager for Chinese students to get their feet wet in Western opera.

The singers can be seen Nov. 15-25, when “Turandot” runs on alternate nights with the Irish premiere of Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking.”

The Sino-Irish opera collaboration comes on the heels of a recent influx of international theater deals in China, including British producer Cameron Mackintosh’s plans to stage “Les Miserables,” “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Miss Saigon” in the country.

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