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After 34 years, David Hockney’s magnificent ‘Turandot’ sets get resurrected in L.A.

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After 34 years, David Hockney’s magnificent ‘Turandot’ sets get    resurrected in L.A.

When the curtain rises Saturday evening on Los Angeles Opera’s “Turandot,” composer Giacomo Puccini’s last work will feature the L.A. debut of the production’s biggest star: monumental stage sets designed in the early 1990s by David Hockney, the renowned British painter and celebrated chronicler of Southern California life.

Bathed in deeply saturated red and ultramarine, the swooping curves and dagger-like angles of Hockney’s “Turandot” sets are the backdrop for the grim fairy tale about a cold-blooded Chinese princess who has her would-be suitors beheaded — until one of them melts her heart.

Hockney’s scenic design, reminiscent of stark German Expressionist filmmaking with a dash of the backgrounds in Walt Disney’s “Fantasia,” is a virtuosic testament to the artist’s lifelong exploration of abstract figurative painting and his abiding love of opera.

“We’ve been trying to program Hockney’s ‘Turandot’ for 30 years,” said Rupert Hemmings, vice president of artistic planning for L.A. Opera, which commissioned Hockney sets for the operas “Tristan and Isolde” and Die Frau Ohne Schatten.” “The task is always to create something that audiences come for. It could be the soprano or the director. Here, it’s Hockney, who created a visionary work of art that the opera happens within.”

The cast of “Turandot” runs through final rehearsals Monday of the David Hockney production of “Turandot” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

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(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Among the grandest of grand operas, “Turandot” is a demanding enterprise.

“There are 342 people in the cast and crew, 95% of whom are union,” Hemmings said. “To work with an 86-piece orchestra and to cast, clothe, rehearse, corral and pay 128 performers is expensive, and to protect their voices, we can only play twice a week.” With a seating capacity of 3,100 for each of six performances at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, he added, “it won’t even be break-even.”

In addition to the cost of personnel, L.A. Opera has spent $80,000 to rent the production assets — the props, Hockney’s sets and costumes by Ian Falconer, the writer and illustrator of the popular “Olivia” series of children’s books — from the San Francisco Opera and the Lyric Opera of Chicago, which commissioned the “Turandot” designs 34 years ago.

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Having created opera sets since 1975, including 18 months of work on L.A. Opera’s “Tristan and Isolde” in 1987, Hockney took on the “Turandot” commission with fierce opinions. In his 1993 autobiography, “That’s the Way I See It,” he wrote, “I had seen many productions of ’Turandot,’ most of them kitsch beyond belief, overdone Chinoiserie, and too many dragons. … 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.” The result is a strikingly fantastical depiction of the city now known as Beijing, using, Hockney added, “harsh edges, strong diagonals, mad perspectives.”

According to Drew Landmesser, former deputy general director of the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Hockney — who moved to Los Angeles in 1964 — transformed a tennis court on his Hollywood Hills property into a work studio. Unlike other designers, who typically create set models at a scale of a quarter-inch or half-inch per foot, Hockney built a “ginormous platform with models so large that he could crawl around them to explore the space and how people would move in it.”

Workers move giant "Turandot" set pieces backstage for the second act during a rehearsal.

Workers move giant “Turandot” set pieces backstage for the second act during a rehearsal.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

The artist also installed his own lighting system to ensure accurate representation of the intense colors he chose for his set pieces, which include red exterior facades that soar to 30 feet and a scrim accented with jade green and royal blue painted on seamless canvas that stretches 60 feet across the stage.

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After two years of development, translating measurements for construction of the “Turandot” sets took six weeks of computer work. The sets, props and costumes cost around $1 million to produce, said Landmesser, a “not disproportionately large investment” shared by the Chicago and San Francisco companies and amortized through rentals. (That production figure does not include fees paid to the creative team, including Hockney, costume designer Falconer and the lighting and stage directors.) Since 1992, the sets have been used more than a dozen times across the U.S. and in Naples, Italy.

During a visit to rehearsals last week — as lead tenor and artist-in-residence Russell Thomas repeatedly banged an enormous gong, signifying the end of Act 1 — Hemmings and L.A. Opera technical director Jeff Kleeman described the labor-intensive process of mounting the show.

“The level of detail to produce and resource it properly takes months and months of analysis,” said Kleeman, who pores over renderings made with computer-aided design software to adapt Hockney’s design for the L.A. Opera stage and establish placement of scenic elements and lighting in what is known as a composite ground plan.

“Act by act, piece by piece, we make it fit,” he said.

The sets, which San Francisco Opera pays to store in a warehouse in Modesto, were broken down into “thousands of pieces and fit together like Tetris to reduce damage and fit into three 53-foot trailer trucks with eight-foot ceilings,” Kleeman said. Upon the sets’ arrival in L.A., his 64-strong stage crew spent five 10-hour days in three teams, sorting the pieces for each act of the opera, assembling them, making necessary repairs and positioning some 800 lights.

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‘Turandot’: What to know

Three quick points about Puccini’s last opera

“The sets are what we call soft walls,” Kleeman noted, “made from wood with fabric coverings. These days, sets are constructed with steel and plywood, which are heavier and more durable. Soft walls weigh less and are cheaper to build, but after a couple of uses and trips in the truck, they tend to get worn.” Enter the scenic painters, who custom-blend and color-match Hockney’s highly saturated hues to touch up the sets and create a board lined with pieces of painted tape for quick patches before or during a performance.

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Intermissions in the show last 20 to 25 minutes, to allow the 43 members of the wardrobe, wig and makeup crew to prepare performers for the next act and the stage crew to roll pre-built sets into position. About one-third of the scenery is “gripped,” Kleeman said, meaning pieces are carried onstage and assembled by carpenters. “It sounds chaotic,” he added with a smile. “Everything needs to be placed exactly where it should be, in a highly choreographed way, and with each rehearsal we refine the approach. So as big as it all seems, it becomes a routine.”

Workers move pieces of a roof during a set change.

Workers move pieces of a roof during a set change.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

A man with flowing gray beard stands by a ladder and watches set pieces move around the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage.

Technical director Jeff Kleeman during rehearsal in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

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The towering sets are more than just spectacle, senior design manager Carolina Angulo said. “The use of forced perspective and oversize proportions unconsciously leads the audience to think about the characters’ place in this world and to feel their emotions.”

In presenting the San Francisco Opera Medal to Hockney in 2017, General Director Matthew Shilvock cited the artist for his impact on the art form.

“His productions are bold expressions of archetypal emotions, deeply rooted in a strong sense of spatial resonance and scale,” Shilvock said. “He finds rhythm in color and design and creates portals that we enter with thrilling excitement.”

Hemmings concurred, calling Hockney’s “Turandot” a provocative conceptual design that remains timeless.

“A lot of opera sets last for more than 30 years,” he noted. “If this ‘Turandot’ got to the point of it being worn out, someone would rebuild it. You would never get rid of it. That would be like throwing a David Hockney painting away.”

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"Turandot" set piece has hand-written notations about which act it's to be used in.

A “Turandot” set piece has hand-written notations about which act it’s for.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

‘Turandot’

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday , 2 p.m. May 26, 7:30 p.m. May 30, 2 p.m. June 2, 7:30 p.m. June 5 and 8
Where: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.
Tickets: $34 and up
Information: (213) 972-8001, LAOpera.org
Running time: 2 hours and 55 minutes (including two intermissions)

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'Sight' highlights the journey and faith of an Asian American medical hero who helped the blind see

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'Sight' highlights the journey and faith of an Asian American medical hero who helped  the blind see

When Dr. Ming Wang came to the United States in 1982 at 21 years old, he had nothing but $50 and a Chinese-to-English translation book. He had just survived the violent cultural revolution in China — including the loss of a dear friend — during which the government had shut down most of the universities in the country.

We see this and much more in flashbacks throughout the movie “Sight,” which is based on Dr. Wang’s autobiography “From Darkness to Sight” and opens this weekend. In it, Dr. Wang (played by Terry Chen) ends up earning medical doctorates from Harvard and MIT (graduating magna cum laude from the latter), while also earning a PhD (laser physics, University of Maryland). He discovers a new way to potentially help blind people see — using an amniotic membrane contact lens if you want to get technical — as he and his medical partner Dr. Misha Bartnovsky (played by Greg Kinnear) embark on a mission to help orphans regain their sight.

The National Library of Medicine estimates that over the last 25 years, more than 20 million eyes were treated with laser eye surgery. Dr. Wang’s pioneering medical technique has restored the eyesight of millions around the world. As one of the leading experts in the field, Dr. Wang’s impact and philanthropy have been recognized in his home state of Tennessee, but his story may not be as widely known. As Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month continues, Wang, who also executive-produced the film, wants to contribute to the storytelling tapestry of this country.

“My main motivation? Asian American stories are not told in American mainstream media too often. Authentic representation is a rare occurrence. I wanted to encourage Asian Americans, Chinese Americans and all immigrants to tell our story,” says Wang. “I will say, though, it’s a humbling experience.”

Ming Wang at 14 (Ben Wang) and Lili (Sara Ye) in “Sight.”

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(Courtesy of Angel Studios)

Chen, a Canadian actor, was not only struck by Dr. Wang’s medical accomplishments, but also by the general and specific nature of his tale.

“It had nothing to do with kung fu or martial arts. It had nothing to do with being a gang member or any of the other tropes Hollywood has tripped over. And it also spoke to a larger swath of the immigrant story and the larger diaspora that exists outside of Asia,” says Chen.

Directed by Andrew Hyatt, and also starring Ben Wang, Fionnula Flanagan and Natasha Mumba, the film had the benefit of having Dr. Wang on the set. He was there to help consult on the technical jargon and operating room scenes, but many in the crew took advantage of his presence to ask for advice on medical issues. It was a welcome assurance on a 2020 set that was in the midst of working through a pandemic.

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“Dr. Wang was a great resource to have,” says Kinnear. “This is the first movie that I did, that many of us did, after COVID. I kind of had a little bit of hesitation about the journey, but I felt like when I read Dr. Wang’s story, it put everything into perspective very quickly.”

The inspirational nature of the story may have even helped the mood on the set as well.

“When you finally go and you meet everybody and they slowly peel down their masks … I have to say that in the case of this film, [the substance of the story] did trickle down. There was an inspiring good feeling on the set,” says Kinnear.

Kajal (Mia Swaminathan), Sister Marie (Fionnula Flanagan) and Dr. Wang (Terry Chen) in "Sight."

Kajal (Mia Swaminathan), Sister Marie (Fionnula Flanagan) and Dr. Wang (Terry Chen) in “Sight.”

(Courtesy of Angel Studios)

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In the film, Dr. Wang tries to restore the sight of a young girl named Kajal (Mia Swaminathan) who is brought to his clinic by a nun ( Flanagan). It is one of the many touches in the film that put faith at the center of Dr. Wang’s struggles and his triumphs. This particular case is one that led to his revelation about using the placenta to create his curative lens, but it was also a case/client that tested his resolve.

“The reason that Kajal was chosen [to be the central case in the film] was because it was a very challenging case. Her injury was so severe that I had to dig deep to find a solution,” says Dr. Wang. “People say there’s no common ground between science and faith. Fortunately, I didn’t give up and as a Christian I kept praying.”

Angel Studios, known for its faith-based films, is distributing “Sight.” But its story of Dr. Wang’s past and his desire to help uplift blind orphans are themes that are just as prominent in the film.

“I think the message of the film is about freedom and faith,” says Dr. Wang. “‘Sight’ is a movie that reminds us how precious freedom is. How much we need to appreciate America. It may just take the story of an immigrant who did not have freedom to remind us how blessed we are.”

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Movie review: Furiosa shifts into first gear

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Movie review: Furiosa shifts into first gear

Furiosa is a madcap summer blockbuster, with soul, intelligence, and a gnarly production design that together make for a white-knuckle night at the movies

Buckle up, road warriors: there’s a new sheriff in the wild, wild wasteland. Her name is Furiosa, and her cinematic epic is now blazing on screen with a blistering ferocity.

Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga comes nearly a decade after the Australian apocalypse series returned with the Oscar-winning mega-hit Fury Road in 2015. What (obviously) makes this instalment unique is that this is the first time someone other than Max gets the spotlight – true to the name, he isn’t even in the film except for a two-second cameo.

Instead, Fury Road’s deuteragonist Furiosa is in the driver’s seat, and she proves to be just as compelling and driven a lead character. After being originated by Charlize Theron nine years ago, her younger versions are now played by Anya Taylor-Joy and Aylya Brown.

The main plot sees a young Furiosa (Brown) kidnapped from her family in a desert oasis, sometime in the future when the world is nearly covered in sand, gas and grime. The rest of the film follows the growing Furiosa determined to exact revenge on her kidnapper – the warlord Dementus (Chris Hemsworth) – and return home.

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When the title promises this will be a “saga”, writer/director George Miller isn’t kidding. Just as Fury Road was about a man (Max) finding his quest and purpose in a woman’s odyssey, the inverse is realized in Furiosa, which is about a woman finding her pursuit within the male-dominated wasteland. 

Taylor-Joy and Brown get nearly equal screen time following Furiosa from childhood to grown woman, and they each dominate scene after scene showing their tactics, efforts, fears and discoveries through stunt after remarkable stunt in mountains, storms, and through every sort of dune buggy and truck you can imagine.

But because they split the film’s (maybe overlong) run time, the actor who we spend the most time with is Hemsworth’s Dementus, who shifts from graceful and brutal to giddy and manic. The degradation of the two main characters are fascinating: like their surrounding world, it’s like watching two warriors fighting the threat of literally wasting away.

George Miller has become famous for the meticulously evolving Mad Max series just as he has for family films like Babe and Happy Feet (yes, really!), but his regular detailed world building are in full force for Furiosa, with excellent production design, cinematography and editing sharper than the on screen spikes. It’s brutally beautiful.

The only real downgrade from Fury Road, which draws several easy comparisons, is that the first two chapters of the film are a bit slow, with the story’s engine only really revving once Taylor-Joy begins her scenes. But this is a small critique.

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Furiosa is a madcap summer blockbuster, with soul, intelligence, and a gnarly artistry that all builds to several white-knuckle scenes. It’s well worth the ride.

Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga

9 out of 10

14A, 2hrs 28mins. Action Adventure Epic.

Co-written and directed by George Miller.

Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Chris Hemsworth, Tom Burke and Lacey Hulme.

Now Playing at SilverCity Burlington Cinemas and Film.Ca Cinemas, 5 Drive-In.

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Nicki Minaj apparently arrested in Netherlands on suspicion of drug possession

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Nicki Minaj apparently arrested in Netherlands on suspicion of drug possession

Nicki Minaj was apparently arrested at an airport by Amsterdam police upon her arrival in the Netherlands on Saturday on suspicion of carrying drugs in her luggage. The rapper filmed herself being questioned by police who detained her before she could leave the airport for her show in Manchester at the Co-op Live arena for the next stop on her Pink Friday 2 Tour.

In the video, which she posted to Instagram Live, the 41-year-old rapper whose real name is Onika Tanya Maraj-Petty tells the authorities she was not carrying any drugs. Despite her denial, she was told she needed to go to the police station in video captured on her live recording.

Minaj was “arrested … at Schiphol Airport because of possession of soft drugs,” a spokesperson for the police in the Netherlands told NBC.

According to Minaj’s recording, a man in a police uniform explained to her that she “would get a lawyer at the office” and they would go “as fast as possible.” She was then told “to get into this [police] van and go into the precinct with no lawyer present.”

During the verbal exchange, Minaj alleged that airport security asked that she make a “statement with no lawyer present” after “pre-rolls” (ready-to-smoke joints filled with marijuana) were allegedly discovered in her luggage.

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Before the supposed arrest, the “Anaconda” hit-maker made a series of posts on X (formerly known as Twitter) about her bags getting searched at the airport.

Nicki Minaj attends the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute benefit gala celebrating the opening of the “Camp: Notes on Fashion” exhibition in 2019 in New York.

(Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

“They’ve been trying everything they possibly can to TRY to stop this tour,” she wrote in one tweet. She also accused authorities of trying to “plant things” in her luggage.

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Minaj also shared a recording on her Instagram of her verbal exchange with a man who told her that police were going to be searching her bags.

Minaj then asked: “But wasn’t that what you planned on doing from the get-go? Why didn’t you guys search it before it went on the plane?”

The man responded: “They did just a random quick check, but now they want to open it” and said Minaj choosing to film the authorities resulted in them wanting to search her bags.

The rapper replied: “ ‘Do I have any more in those purses’ and I said, ‘No,’ and I asked him where are my bags.” “They took my bags and put them on the plane before I could know what bags are on the plane.”

The airline crew member simply said he was “so sorry for that.”

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Minaj replied “OK, of course,” before the video ended.

Minaj also tweeted: “they said they found weed…they took my bags without consent,” seemingly admitting that there was marijuana in her luggage that may have belonged to her security staff.

In Minaj’s caption on Instagram, the rapper wrote “they took my bags before I could see them” then “put it on the plane…This is what it looks like when ppl are paid big money to try to sabotage a tour after all else failed. Everything they’ve done is illegal.”

In her final post on X, Minaj tweeted that she was being told she had to “go 5 mins away to make a statement about my security to the police precinct.”

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