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Giacomo Puccini's 'Turandot'

Remember Helen of Troy — the beautiful princess with the "face that launched a thousand ships"? Well, in Giacomo Puccini's opera Turandot, the title character is another legendary princess — whose face chopped off a thousand heads!

Turandot is based on an ancient fable, originating in Persia and set in China. It tells of a princess so desirable that men came by the hundreds, from all over the world, and queued up to vie for her love. There was a catch, of course. To have any shot at all with Turandot, a suitor first had to answer three vexing riddles — and anyone who failed wound up with his head on a stake, as a warning to all the suitors still standing in line.

The opera tells us about the one fellow who did solve the riddles. But winning the heart of Turandot turns out to take more than just three clever answers. In telling the colorful story, Puccini created an opera that's simultaneously extravagant, exotic, musically powerful and dramatically "over the top." That is, it's got everything an operatic potboiler could possibly want, and then a little bit more!

As a bonus, the man who eventually wins Turandot's heart gets more than just the lovely princess. He also gets to sing what may be the most famous number in opera, the soaring tenor aria "Nessun dorma!" — "None shall sleep!" Even people who think they've never heard an opera aria have probably heard this one. It's been performed by everyone from The Three Tenors, to Sarah Brightman, to the Scottish Fiddle Orchestra!

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone brings us a production of Turandot from Houston Grand Opera. The tenor who sings the big aria is Vladimir Galouzine, with the American soprano Jennifer Wilson in the title role.

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