The Riddle of the 3 Riddles in “Turandot”

220px-Poster_TurandotThe Riddle of the 3 Riddles in “Turandot”

The plot of Puccini’s last opera “Turandot” hinges on the nameless suitor answering three riddles. Readers familiar with myth and folklore will instantly recognize this as an element common to many tales.

The suitor in “Turandot” is faced with having to answer three abstract riddles, the answers to which are “Hope,” “Blood,” and “Turandot.” (One wonders if each suitor got the same three, considering that they are read out loud and word must have gotten around if they were unchanged through the years!) If he wins, he gets the Princess; if he loses, he loses his head. Since Turandot herself is the cause of many deaths in the past, one should keep her association with Death in mind as we proceed in this essay.

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Careful of whom you ask questions!

In Wagner’s “Siegfried,” Wotan in his guise as The Wanderer, plays (as Anna Russell puts it in her spoof of the Ring Cycle) 20 Questions with Mime. The dwarf wages his head (cf. the wager in “Turandot”) that he can ask his guest three questions and then answer whatever three the guest proposes. Mime’s questions are easily answered by Wotan, and Wotan’s first two questions are easily answered by Mime. The last question, however, “Who will forge the sword?”, puts Mime in great jeopardy. Again, the last answer concerns an instrument of death—and again the contestant’s head is at stake.

Gold, silver, lead?

In Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” Bassanio is confronted with three caskets: gold, silver, lead. A portrait of his beloved Portia is in one. The audience knows which casket is the right one, because it has seen two other suitors choose the wrong ones. What is at stake here is Bassanio’s love and his need for money, both of which Portia is willing to satisfy—and indeed she has a song sung to Bassanio before he chooses in which most of the end words rhyme with “lead.”

Consider, now. Lead is associated with bullets and coffins, and is found deep in the earth. Again, Death lies in the third riddle.

In the folk tale, Goldilocks enters the house of the Three Bears. From the best bowl of porridge to the best bed, the first and second choices are too extreme while the third is always “just right.” When the anthropomorphic family returns, the little human barely escapes with her life—and a record of breaking and entering, I suppose.

1024px-Page_69_illustration_in_English_Fairy_TalesAnd what about the Three Little Pigs? The third survived the Big Bad Wolf, so perhaps death is not always the reward. Symbolism is not required to be consistent.


ts141207In myth, the shepherd Paris (or in some versions, Alexander) is suddenly faced with three naked goddesses, each of whom bribes him to award her the Golden Apple. Hera offers him the rule of Europe and Asia, Athena offers him the power to lead Troy to victory against the Greeks, Aphrodite offers him the fairest woman in the world. Since the latter is Helen of Sparta and her departure to Troy with Paris leads to the death of countless soldiers and citizens, that third choice seems yet again one of certain death.

One step back again to very early myth. The Moon appears in three phases. When full, it is Selina, Queen of Heaven. When it is in the shape of a bow, it is Artemis, the Huntress Queen of the Earth. When it is the New Moon (that is, no moon at all), it is black Hecate, Queen of the Underworld. And there we are again!

Beware that third wish, according to Dr. Freud

Freud considered this theme and concluded that humans will forever harbor a Death Wish, making choices that lead thereto. I see it from a different point of view. The very essence of three-ness is that three points form a triangle. Consider that nearly every comic opera plot concerns two characters of one sex in love with a third party of the other. In “Marriage of Figaro” there is the Figaro-Susanna-Count triangle; in “Oklahoma!” there is the Curly-Laurey-Judd triangle; in “The Mikado” we have Nanki Poo-Yum Yum-Ko Ko!

If we consider one of the males to be Thesis and the other Antithesis, there can be no Synthesis (i.e., a Happy Ending) unless the undesirable suitor bows out willingly or otherwise. This is the one of the great elements of comedy.

In tragic operas, however, that Synthesis can be brought about only in Death. So Aida and Radames can be united only in the tomb while Amneris curses the priests from above. Violetta and Mimi must both die of consumption because Life with the Beloved has proven impossible. Both Tannhauser and his Elizabeth must die to be united (one supposes) in a better world.

And of course the greatest example of love-in-death is that of Tristan and Isolde, as Wagner tells it. But more about that in some other essay.

Going full cycle, then, back to “Turandot,” her first kiss from a man suddenly brings her over to his way of looking at things and the opera ends happily (if one ignores the death of little Liu, the only really sympathetic character in this tale). And yet, a recent production of this opera (available on a DVD) takes a chance and has Turandot stab herself at the last moment, even as the chorus is singing about how wonderful life will be in Peking. Personally, I think the tenor doesn’t know how lucky he is!

The Healing Power of Song


These words were written on September 14 with the memory of last Tuesday’s horror story still very fresh in mind. It is fascinating how while the political questions of Who, How and Why have begun to be hotly debated, certain religious questions have also been re-asked and re-examined. Did we not pray hard enough? Do prayers have any effect to begin with? Why was this allowed to happen? And so on. Still, many have flocked to their places of worship where prayers are being offered and songs are being sung.

No one will deny that songs under any circumstances fill a deeply rooted need in the human psyche. First of all, it is a form of community event, even if it involves a single performer and a silent audience. But in churches and synagogues, singing is a group effort and the members of that group are more closely drawn together by doing the same thing at the same time and for the same purpose. Thus we create a united act of defiance against the ones who sought to tear us apart.

But that cannot be all. Why sing at all? Yes, of course that is the accepted means of expression in places of worship. But that begs the question. What is there about songs that tends to ease our sorrow? This question was asked, for example, in the early days of Tin Pan Alley; and at least one analyst came up with this answer. Few people can express themselves well in words. Lyricists, by their very nature, can. Therefore most of us have to express our feelings in the words of others.

Now these words can be optimistic or pessimistic. If optimistic, then the effect on sorrowing singers is palpable: it expresses hope. In the case of September 11, some might ask, Hope for what? The horror was done, it is a fact, a fact that all the songs in the world cannot erase now. Hope that it will never happen again? That is too naïve to elicit comment. Perhaps the answer is this: hope that we will never sink so low as even to be glad in our hearts that such a thing can happen to innocent citizens. Think: people who gather to sing such songs are not the kind to condone, let alone commit, such acts. And who knows? Possibly such optimism will hold them back from knee-jerk thoughts of  “retaliation” against other innocents in this world.

ucsb_victor_45132_01_b18973_01_160If pessimistic, what possible solace can such songs afford to people already grieving? Help me disentangle this concept. If you are mourning the death of a person and read “Flow Gently, Sweet Afton,” you can not only feel that you are not alone in your grief but (to repeat) that the poet has expressed such grief far better than ever you could. Now this poem has been set to music, so if you actually sing the lyrics you have added an extra dimension to the healing power. And finally, if many people gather together to sing it… Well, I think we have already drawn the necessary conclusion.

TristanTake what is possibly the greatest non-religious expression of love-in-death, the “Liebestod” that ends Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde.” Some of the lines translate more or less thus: “Do only I hear this melody that is so wonderful and gentle sounding within him, saying everything, reconciling gently, piercing me, hovering over me, sounding around me?” This is Isolde over the dead Tristan. Could it not be an entire nation over the thousands who died early in the morning because of a handful of maniacs who were convinced they alone were right or could never be anything but right? Many politicians rushed before the cameras to express their sorrow in words that may or may not have been scripted for them. Did any of them even come close to what Wagner wrote? Or Burns?

61RldYaBlAL._SY450_After our Civil War, there was a great outpouring of “angel songs,” mostly about the deaths of beloved family members, usually wives and infants. It was almost as if we had recoiled so forcefully from the horrors of the recent carnage that we sought to be reconciled with our religious beliefs, with our consciences, with the world in general. The point is, the songs did help and that is what is important.

So theological considerations are all beside the point. The very act of singing was then and is now an absolute necessity for us to keep our humanity and to find consolation as best we can. Let it be hymns, popular songs, or grand opera–singing, even when done alone, is an act of communion with all those who have grieved in the past or are grieving at that very moment.

I doubt if I have offered anything profound and I certainly have not answered the question I posed, but I simply was compelled to tackle this subject on this date in our history.