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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

In China, a composer has put a new spin on a famous opera. Since the 1920s, opera buffs are puzzled over how the Italian composer Giacomo Puccini meant to end "Turandot." Puccini died before he could finish writing the music. He left only sheets of sketches for the ending along with instructions that the opera should be completed.

To date, the most-performed ending was written by one of his contemporaries. But now, China is debuting a new ending to "Turandot."

And NPR's Louisa Lim met its composer in Shanghai.

(Soundbite of opera, "Turandot")

LOUISA LIM: Performing Puccini's "Turandot" in China is rife with political difficulties. Set in mythical China, the opera tells the story of a tyrannical, bloodthirsty princess, Turandot, who has unsuccessful suitors for her hand beheaded. Partly because of this depiction of China, the opera wasn't performed here for almost seven decades.

But when Beijing wanted to inaugurate its new, massive National Center for Performing Arts, officials decided to stage "Turandot" as the only Western opera set in China. And they wanted a new ending written by a Chinese composer. They chose 36-year-old Hao Weiya who has then studying opera in Italy.

Mr. HAO WEIYA (Composer): (Through translator) When I think about it, I think it was my destiny, my fate. I wasn't scared because it was only a job, but I was worried about doing it well.

LIM: Hao set to work studying Puccini's texts and the opera for about a month. Then, in an astonishing six weeks, he penned an 18-minute long ending. This was then revised seven times with help from experts from the Puccini Foundation in Italy.

(Soundbite of opera, "Turandot")

LIM: One big difference is a new aria he wrote for Princess Turandot. This aims to tackle the opera's main difficulty: how the cold-hearted, ice princess, Turandot, can suddenly fall deeply in love with her suitor, Calaf. The new aria aims to give psychological depth to Turandot's transformation while trying to stay faithful to Puccini's original music.

Mr. HAO: (Through translator) We wanted to respect Puccini's style and finish the work in the same way. We didn't want my contribution to be completely Chinese or completely modern or completely different from Puccini.

(Soundbite of opera, "Turandot")

LIM: The music from "Turandot" is known - even among to people who never go to the opera - for the aria "Nessun Dorma." In the traditional ending, this finishes the opera triumphantly.

(Soundbite of opera, "Turandot")

LIM: But Hao Weiya made a different decision. He decided to end with the traditional Chinese folk song, "Jasmine Flower," which Puccinni uses throughout the opera to foreshadow appearances by Turandot.

(Soundbite of opera, "Turandot")

Mr. HAO: (Through translator) I put "Jasmine Flower" at the end of the opera because it's putting the most important character, Princes Turandot, at the end. I think that must be correct. In my last use of it, I made the tune of "Jasmine Flower" bright and glorious like the last few words of the opera - love lights up the world.

(Soundbite of applause)

LIM: Some see this opera as a Chinese re-appropriation of Puccini's work. Hao Weiya's new ending was greeted with almost unanimous approval here - an extremely significant artistic feat, said one reviewer, Xu Ziaozhong. But opera critic Andrew Moravcsik, who's seen the performance twice, it was more critical when we listen to the newly composed music together.

(Soundbite of opera, "Turandot")

Professor ANDREW MORAVCSIK (Director, European Union Program, Princeton University): And that's a kitschy crescendo there. That's the only way to describe it.

LIM: So, I mean, this is cinematic, isn't it?

Prof. MORAVCSIK: Yes, riding off into the sunset, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer all the way.

LIM: He describes the new ending as a noble effort that falls short, but is striking for what it represents.

Prof. MORAVCSIK: There is a little bit in it that's modern, a little bit in it that seems traditionally Chinese, a little bit that's glitzy, a little bit that's commercial, a little bit that's very sincere. But in the end, it isn't coherent. And that's very much like China is today. It's on its way to trying to find a coherent identity, but it hasn't found it yet.

(Soundbite of opera, "Turandot")

LIM: As Moravcsik points out, this is a sophisticated and audacious production, especially for a country like China, with no tradition of Western opera, but it comes from almost nothing to a world-class production. In just three short decades shows that China, in opera like in much else, has a world-class ambition.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Shanghai.

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