San Francisco Opera had taken both of my productions that had originated in Glyndebourne and then gone to La Scala, Milan: The Rake’s Progress and The Magic Flute. They had bought those sets and produced those operas in San Francisco and I had helped. So I felt a sense of loyalty. They then said they would love to have an original work made for them and suggested Turandot. Then it turned out it would be a joint production with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, opening in Chicago.

Turandot was the only Puccini opera I would do because it is not verismo, there is some fantasy in it, it takes place in mythical China. I had seen many productions, most of them kitsch beyond belief, overdone chinoiserie and too many dragons…. When San Francisco Opera asked me, I thought, I’ve never done an Italian opera—I’d done eight other operas by then—but I would not do it alone because it is an enormous job. Ian Falconer, Richard Schmidt, and I got to work, with Richard setting up the model and doing all the technical work with the lights, while aesthetic decisions were made by Ian and myself. Ian and I designed it together because, for one thing, there are 200 costumes in Turandot and I wanted him to do them. Straight away I chose the colors, which are predominantly red—the color of the walls of the Forbidden City in Peking. I was inspired by the Chinese red I had seen on my travels in China in 1981.

I also specifically said that we wanted to do away with the excessive 19th-century Chinese look, the Victorian look, and use the drama and the music and make forms. It was clear to me—in the first scene in Peking—that Turandot was about cruel China, about harsh, sharp edges, axes, not about soft things, certainly not the China of Le Rossignol. That was my main theme at the beginning as well as the red walls. So we began to make harsh edges, strong diagonals, using mad perspectives. We made little models first, just as notes, and then carefully made the big models. For the first scene, the city of Peking, I suggested that we take the dragons away and put them into the roofs, in forms that felt like dragons, without specifically looking like them, thus evoking the grotesqueness of the city. We used lighting right from the start, keeping in mind how the costumes should look, since Chinese costumes are elaborate.

Turandot is an opera with a large chorus on the stage for a lot of the time and you have to take into account how they come on, get off, and how other characters play against them. We worked it out slowly: when we got the red walls, I suggested that the chorus, the people of Peking, the popolo, should be dressed in black against them. Ian did a superb job and of course we found marvelous reference books covering 2,000 years of Chinese costume—a very rich area to explore. Even though the costumes were not in the end elaborate—they were bold abstractions of Chinese costumes—they were marvelous.  ©David Hockney