Interpreting the Character of Liù


Liù is probably not yet in her twenties. She thinks of Calaf in a young girl’s romantic way, idealizes him as her reason for living, and is willing to die for him to allow him to live and love another. She is sister in spirit to Mimi and Butterfly, in that her fragility and sensitivity are matched by a strong belief in a love that transcends death.

For quite some time (“quanto cammino” – “how many roads” ) she has guided and cared for Timur, once a king and now just an old man with a delicate grasp on reality. She has found food and shelter for them both and kept a vigilant eye out for the people who deposed him and who are still persecuting him.

She defines herself to Calaf in this way: “I am nothing: a slave, my lord.” The social and cultural difference between a servant and a slave are considerable.

A servant is hired for service, paid a comparatively small wage and given board and shelter. A slave is bought and paid for, a captive prisoner of a stronger race or culture, with no human rights or privileges. Liù, therefore, may not be of Chinese origin at all, unlike the other characters in the opera. She could be from any of the Asian cultures: Japanese, Burmese, Thai, or Philippine, for example. She would have been assimilated into the culture but would not be born into it.

Slave as she is, nonetheless she possesses a strong Eastern philosophy about life: that destiny determines one’s way, that one yields to its decrees, that suffering is the lot of some in life and privilege the destiny of others, and that death is the ultimate release from life’s journey.

She would firmly believe that she is less than Calaf, not only in station, but also in destiny. That she loves him is perfectly clear, but she would not in any way think that he would return her love.

This would not be considered a matter of loss and heartbreak for Liù. It is not part of her consciousness to think that her love for him is anything but a duty, and she would not be able to conceive of it being returned by the prince, nor indeed by his father, the exiled king.

The greater her love, the greater the fulfillment of her destiny and her duty. However, she speaks to the prince in this aria with a great deal of boldness.

To directly address a superior in this way, to plead for him to do something other than what he wishes for himself, takes a tremendous amount of courage and an equally tremendous amount of love and concern.

Motivation and Intention:

Calaf has seen Turandot, and like her other suitors, has fallen under the spell of her beauty. He means to strike the gong, which will announce his willingness to try to answer her riddles and risk dying if he fails.

Timur, his father, tries to dissuade him, telling Liù to take Calaf’s hand and lead him away. Timur has learned from experience that Liù, though a slave, is loyal and strong, and he has helped him when he was as weak and powerless as he perceives his son now to be.

The prince is carried away, calls out Turandot’s name, and is moments away from striking the gong when Ping, Pang, and Pong quickly enter and try every way possible to discourage Calaf. Nothing will change his mind; no argument makes an impression on him.

Liù now dares speak up. She wants him to hear her own reasons why he mustn’t risk his life for Turandot. Her intention is to make him understand what consequences his actions will have not just for her, but more importantly, for his old father who has been seeking him for so long.

She tries to persuade him to resist, singing with a conscious and deep humility. She doesn’t call attention to herself as being the worthier object of his love.

She speaks of herself as weak and fragile, that her heart is already breaking before his rash act has been committed. Her love is intensely based on the idea of his name, and his name alone, which has been constantly in her soul and on her lips, as she and his father endured incredible hardship and danger.

She doesn’t ask him to feel sorry for her because she loves him. She is self-effacing and diminutive in words and in tone of voice. She appeals to his great and noble strength, as a man, as a prince and as her superior.

This is not a sentimental aria sung by one whose love is unrequited. Her intention is noble as well, and her daring to ask the prince to listen to her is more heroic than Calaf’s willingness to forget everything for the sake of a beautiful woman.

Aria Setup:

The aria takes place in a public square, in front of the great palace of the emperor. Not only has Turandot come out on the balcony to give the signal that the Prince of Persia, her last unsuccessful suitor, should be beheaded, but the ghosts of previous victims have appeared, hovered and moaned.

Ping, Pang, and Pong, court officials of this imperial palace, have exhausted themselves trying to convince the Prince to yield. Timur, Calaf’s father, has entreated his son to resist his foolhardy quest. All of these characters have a right to express themselves to him because of their own rank and privilege.

Liù, as a slave, would never raise her voice to be heard by a superior, but she is as desperate as they are. Everyone else has tried to dissuade Calaf with every possible argument. Therefore, it is up to Liù now to get him to listen to her.

She loves him out of devotion, out of duty, and out of the romantic affection of a young girl. He must be made to hear reason, and she must find a way through his stubborn infatuation. She must repress her true feelings for him, for she cannot present herself as a rival to the Princess Turandot.

She is not alone, but among others who feel that Calaf is risking his life and certain to lose. She has been encouraged by his father to speak. It is by this very risk that she takes to address him thus, that she means to demonstrate the difference between risking for love and risking for impetuous infatuation.

Aria Overview:

The words are simple, direct, and honest. The music is hauntingly persuasive. There is a beguiling “Oriental” sound to the music, not only in its melodic line but also in the colors of the orchestration. Muted strings, solo flute and oboe play wisps of Liù’s vocal line, either doubling or echoing it.

The celesta sounds a few chords of angelic delicacy, and a solo harp adds sweet ascending glissandi to the fragility and the pathos of her persuasiveness. She calls only subtle attention to her own feelings by referring to herself as “Liù” twice but as “I” once, and that simply to emphasize his father’s superiority and her own insignificance.

The aria rises to A-flat above the staff four times:

• on “Ahimè,” indicating her breaking heart.

• on “destino,” to explain that the prince’s decision is a matter of life and death.

• on “morrem” to speak definitely as to his father’s and her own destiny, over which the prince is in control.

• on “strada,” the unsheltered, hostile, open road of the old beggar, bereft of his son and his hope, shared with him by only a slave girl.

Aria Paraphrase:

“Hear me, my lord and master! Liù can’t bear it any longer. Her heart is breaking, alas! How many roads have I walked, with only your name in my soul, with your name on my lips as encouragement? But if you die tomorrow, we will die as well, on the lonely road of the homeless. He will lose his son, and I the shadow of your smile. Liù can bear it alone no longer. Have compassion and be moved!”

Suggestions for Interpretation:

Signore, ascolta! My lord, listen!

Ah, signore, ascolta! Ah, master, listen to me!

The stage direction printed in the score indicates that Liù “approaches the prince, pleading, weeping.” The light rise of the opening lines is broken with a 16th rest after “Ah,” and an 8th after the second “ascolta.” Her phrases are broken by her anxiety for the prince and communicate the gentleness of her meaning.

“Ascolta” is the personal, familiar form of the imperative: there is no “please” or “I beg you” in the phrases, so her urgency to be listened to is tempered by the way she delivers the words. Persuade him to listen to you, by the quiet urgency of the vocal line, coupled with a sound of being on the verge of tears. The rests are pauses caused by the greatness of her emotional reaction to the fear that he will die.

Liù non regge più!
Liù can bear no more!
Si spezza il cuor! Ahimè, ahimè,
The heart breaks! Alas, alas,
quanto cammino…
how much road (how many roads)…

A growing sense of urgency, yet tempered with humility and simplicity. Breathe in before “Liù non regge più” with the extreme emotion you want to show on the A-flat of “Ahimè”—don’t wait until you get to the end of “Si spezza il cuor” to express it. This is one continuous line; therefore, the emotion you are expressing begins before it, before you put it into motion. “Quanto cammino” is a triplet and a simple descending line to A-flat an octave lower.

The fatigue, the hardship, the long journey in exile with Timur, but not meant as a complaint, because the next phrases indicate that her intention is to tell Calaf that the hardship and suffering were worth it, because the thought of his name, just the thought of him, kept her going. The second line “col nome tuo” is marked piano, and use that softer line to express your reverence for his name, the unspoken devotion and love he inspires in her:

Col tuo nome nell’anima,
with your name in the (my) soul,

col nome tuo sulle labbra!
with your name on the (my) lips!

In the following lines, the phrase lies higher than the previous one:

Ma se il tuo destino doman saràdeciso, But if tomorrow your fate will be decided,

noi morrem sulla strada del l’esilio!
we will die on the road of exile!

The 16th notes and the A-flat on “destino” come from Liù’s intention for speaking to him. If he dies, then his father and she will as well, for there will be no hope any longer to keep them alive. This is what she needs him to understand; this is how she hopes to persuade him not to risk his life. Hence the two A flats in these two phrases.

Ei perderà suo figlio, He will lose his son,

Io l’ombra d’un sorriso! I, the shadow of a smile!

The music repeats what was sung before at “Col nome tuo nell’anima, col nome tuo sulle labbra.” Different words, same feeling—the simplicity of her meaning: “your name kept me alive” becomes “hope for us will die with you,” made clear by the repetition of the gentle phrasing of the tune.

Liù non regge più! Liù can bear no more!

Ah, pietà! Ah, pity (mercy, compassion)!

The delicate octave, managed by a subtle portamento, suggests the extremity of emotion, the desperation that he listen, that he heed her. It is not he alone who will certainly die. The appealing to his noble self, by this soaring way right up to B flat on “pietà,” is her telling him that it is not his life alone he holds in the balance, but hers as well. She is at the end of her strength, physically and emotionally, and the octave span is as if to tell him that her soul is already floating away from this life because of him.

Physical Expression:
Liù is not necessarily small and diminutive. Her basic physicality would be the result of her fatigue from the long journey she has undergone, and undoubtedly her hunger, her thirst, her want. She is a young girl, so her movements would also be that of a younger person than old Timur or virile Calaf. Her extreme emotions would also inform her movement.

Gestures would come out of the need to physicalize what she is expressing. Primary moves would be, initially, pleading for Calaf to hear her. She is a slave, so touching him is out of the question, but the urge to stop him, to make him listen to her, would nevertheless be strong. She might reach her hands out to him, but gently, the elbows kept close to the body, the palms perhaps up, or facing each other, the fingertips to him.

She might open her hands in despair at “Ahimè, ahimè!” with a gesture of helplessness. “Col nome tuo nell’anima, col nome tuo sulle labbra” expresses the idea of his name as her hope, an abstract concept, so she might sketch the air with her fingers on “nome” to show this. If he rings the gong in front of the palace, if he calls Turandot’s name, he will be taking a fatal step. Liù might indicate all of that coming from the palace to swallow him up, with a strong gesture towards it, to emphasize the enormity of what he’s contemplating. “Ei perderà suo figlio” could be illustrated not by indicating Timur, but his son, whom she is imploring. After “pietà,” the score indicates “she falls to the ground, sobbing and spent.” Certainly she is crying, for Calaf’s reaction to her aria is “Non piangere, Liù…” so she could simply cover her face to hide her tears, a typical Asian gesture, used to hide extremes of emotion.

Marc Verzatt has directed for many opera companies throught the USA. He teaches acting at Yale University, and maintains a busy schedule as a private coach in NYC. He can be reached at

Marc Verzatt

Marc Verzatt has directed for many opera companies throughout the USA. He teaches acting at Yale University, and maintains a busy schedule as a private coach in NYC.