Deeper Into Jeopardy! XXI: Opera Characters – Final Jeopardy!

Jeopardy! category: OPERA CHARACTERS (06-07-2012)

Clue: In a play subtitle, she’s called “the Chinese Sphinx”; in a later opera her suitor calls her “Principessa di Morte”

Correct response

The gist: More than just a big hunk of rock in Egypt, the Sphinx of Greek myth was known for asking riddles and devouring anyone who was unable to answer correctly. 

Similarly, in Giacomo Puccini’s opera Turandot, the titular daughter of the Chinese Emperor Altoum has a riddling challenge about her – anyone who wishes to marry her must answer a riddle or die (“Principessa di Morte,” the title of an aria, is Italian for “Princess of death”). As the play opens, the Prince of Persia has been sentenced to execution, and a crowd is gathering to watch. In the crowd are Timur, deposed king of the Tatars who has been reduced to anonymity, his loyal slave girl Liu, and his long-lost son Calaf, who are reunited in the mob. As the crowd pleads for the Prince of Persia’s life, Turandot briefly appears and contemptuously orders the execution to proceed – and Calaf immediately falls in love with her. After the execution, he announces his intention to answer the riddle and marry her.

Act II opens with Turandot’s ministers Ping, Pang, and Pong (yes, really) hoping aloud that the princess will fall in love and stop her reign of terror. The Emperor begs Calaf not to go forward, but he will not be dissuaded and Turandot gives her riddles, all of which Calaf answers correctly:

  1. What is born each night but dies each dawn? Hope.
  2. What flickers red and warm like a flame, but is not a flame? Blood.
  3. What is like ice, but burns? Turandot herself.

Horrified, Turandot begs her father not to give her hand to the stranger. Calaf offers a counter-challenge – if Turandot can learn his name (which has not yet been revealed to her) before dawn, he will give himself up for execution.

In Act III, Turandot proclaims that anyone caught sleeping before Calaf’s name is made known will be put to death. The mob sets about looking for Calaf, and Ping, Pang, and Pong try to bribe him to leave the city, but he refuses. Liu is captured and tortured, but her loyalty and love for her master allows her to keep quiet. Liu kills herself after telling Turandot that she will know love soon, too. The mob carries Liu’s body out to a funeral, and when Turandot and Calaf are left alone, the prince kisses her, and Turandot weeps, overcome by emotion. At the end of the opera, Calaf reveals his identity, having won the heart of the princess.

Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong as Turandot in 1937

The clue: While acknowledging that I didn’t know this one, there are a couple of things going on with this clue. Firstly, we know that the character is female, of course. Next, we know she’s Chinese. Third, we know her opera is in Italian (if we can identify the language of “Principessa di Morte”), and that suitors play an important role (although that can be said about a ton of operas). More centrally to the plot, though, is her riddling ways – the trait that ties her to the western Sphinx. Still, this one stumped two of the game’s three contestants, so even with all that it wasn’t an easy one.

In Jeopardy!: For a Puccini, Turandot doesn’t show up too often – only 15 regular clues plus this FJ! clue in the J!Archive. Puccini is mentioned in 12 and is himself the correct response in five. When the correct response isn’t the opera itself, it’s either related to its setting (China or Asia), or in the one remaining clue, a production at La Scala. For regular clues, a contestant needs to know that it’s by Puccini and takes place in the East – if it comes up in FJ! again, a skeleton of the plot should be enough.

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