BEIJING -- When the curtain rose on Puccini's "Turandot" in Beijing recently, 800 astonished music fans soon realized it was one of those memorable nights at the opera when history is rewritten and culture sacrificed to political expediency.
An inkling of what was to come arrived with three senior Culture Ministry officials. Showing up for the gala opening at the Beijing Auditorium, they stepped out of their Mercedes-Benz limousines dressed in austere Mao suits.
The original plan, proposed in more liberal days 18 months ago, had envisaged an extravaganza at Beijing's Forbidden City, China's imperial palaces in front of Tiananmen Square. Tenor Placido Domingo was to sing the role of Calaf, the Tatar prince who risks death and torture for Turandot, the cruel daughter of a senile Chinese emperor.
That scheme was quietly abandoned. It was clearly too provocative after last June's massacre on Tiananmen Square. After all, Turandot's three ministers, Ping, Pong and Pang, would have to intone into the square the warning from the libretto: "They strangle you in this place, impale you, cut your throat, skin you, tear you to pieces and decapitate you, saw you and disembowel you."
The Shanghai Opera Company canceled its "Turandot" production after a letter from a senior musician complained that Puccini's tale of cruelty, torture and rolling heads in a legendary China was "portraying China and the Chinese in an offensive manner."
Not so Beijing's Central Opera, already committed to the production but sensitive to a last-minute warning from the Culture Ministry: "We do not want to promote the idea that the Chinese adore Western music."
The appraisal of a senior editor of the official New China news agency was more blunt. "This is not a convenient opera since it might arouse people to bloodthirsty acts," he wrote.
All this happened behind the scenes.
When the curtain finally went up the expectant audience, mostly foreigners, did not hear the overture to "Turandot," but the rousing prelude to Wagner's "Lohengrin." This was subsequently followed by arias from "Carmen," "Rigoletto" and "La Traviata." The potpourri concluded with two pieces of Chinese opera described by one disgruntled Western opera buff as "a mixture of Soviet atonal dialectics from the '50s and some avant-garde composers of the same era."
The hush following the first curtain was broken by polite clapping. Patrons hastily checked their programs. There was no mention of a distilled opera evening.
Worse was in store. "Turandot" was indeed staged after the intermission, but pruned from 2 1/2 hours to an hour.
Gone were all the scenes of torture and corruption. Gone were the choruses with the masses calling for blood, the executioners promising, "We are ready to embroider your skins" and the imperial guards assaulting the populace with shouts of "Back, back, you dogs!"
Exorcised too was the ominous proletarian chant against the emperor and his hatchet men: "We are already digging a grave for you who dare to challenge love; in darkness, alas, is written your cruel fate."
"Turandot," or what was left of it, was conducted by Zhen Xiao-Ying, China's only female conductor. A Latin American opera buff who lives in Beijing summed up her direction: "She has better credentials as a party member. She conducted 'Turandot' in the style of 'The East Is Red' " -- the theme song of the Cultural Revolution.
There was one consolation for Western opera lovers. The last scene was left uncensored. It reveals that love triumphs over cruelty in the end.