A Close Look at the Ministers Ping, Pang, and Pong
Text and translations can be found here.
Halfway through Act I, when Turandot has established its world as dark, bloody, and dangerous, just when Calàf, in love at first sight, has vowed to plunge deeper into that world, Puccini takes a surprising turn. He introduces a comic, jaded threesome: the Emperor’s ministers Ping, Pang, and Pong. Tracks 11 and 12 capture the shock of contrast.
As Track 11 begins, old Timur is pleading with his son not to go through with his plan to ask for Turandot’s hand. He wants to leave the city: “Life is out there!” “This is life here, father,” responds Calàf, before calling out the princess’s name twice. Unexpectedly, it’s heard a third time—a cry from Turandot’s latest suitor on the way to his death. “Do you want to die, like that?” asks Timur. “To vanquish, father, gloriously,” he answers, “in her beauty!”
The moment couldn’t be more dramatic. Students may enjoy guessing what comes next—but it’s highly unlikely that they’ll divine what Track 12 holds. The Emperor’s ministers leap in, in a moment worthy of the Keystone Cops: “Stop! What are you doing? Who are you? What do you want? Get out of here!” Again and again Calàf earnestly sings, “Let me pass.” Ping, Pang, and Pong literally block his way, spilling forth dark humor about full graveyards, a sufficient local supply of madmen, and a princess who is “raw meat you can’t even eat.”
At first sight, these ministers seem like coarse ethnic stereotypes—but there’s more to them than that. As characters, they are descended (as were the Keystone Cops) from the Italian tradition of commedia dell’arte—a theatrical style of broad humor mixing slapstick and satire that dates back to the 15th century. Musically, Puccini uses three different techniques to achieve their distinctive, “oriental” sound. He incorporates actual Chinese melodies. He limits his own contributions to an oriental-flavored five-step scale, rather than using the seven steps of traditional Western music. He then includes unexpectedly merry harmonies and instrumentation in their accompaniment. The comedic style and the musical specificity come together as Ping, Pang, and Pong pass melodic lines back and forth like footballs, overlap in canon form, unite in three-part harmony and interrupt themselves with bursts of bitter laughter.
As Calàf’s obstinate journey toward the fatal gong continues, Ping, Pang, and Pong become more interesting. Puccini allows the audience a glimpse of the seriousness beneath their public personae. In Track 13, they somberly agree to confront Calàf with one voice. They recommence their tirade, their warnings now grave, not humorous. Their rapid-fire delivery peters out. They cannot dissuade him.
Act II opens with the ministers preparing for the ceremony in which Turandot will confont Calàf with her riddles. Before long, however, Puccini reveals yet another side of the sardonic trio—and a different application of his quasi-Asian approach. Exhausted and frustrated with their roles as “ministers of the executioner,” they recall their homes in the provinces. Track 14 finds Ping, Pang, and Pong still singing in a pentatonic (five-step) scale, still taking turns, stepping on each others’ lines, doubling and tripling. But here, accompanied by measured strings and woodwinds rather than rhythmic and harmonic playfulness, their tone is wistful, even dreamy.
Ping, Pang, and Pong are last heard from in the middle of Act III, not long after Ping, under Turandot’s direction, has ordered the torture of the devoted slave, Liù. This brief appearance, heard in Track 15, marks a first for Ping—“the first time,” he says, “that seeing death hasn’t made me laugh derisively.” As might be expected, Pang and Pong speak at the same time, but the harmonic combination is finally a mournful one.
Ping, Pang, and Pong, it turns out, do have feelings. This last tragic moment sees their masks fall away. In the Shakespearean manner, the buffoons emerge as the cracked moral compass of the empire. Fittingly, these are some of the last lines of music Puccini wrote; he left Turandot unfinished after the ensemble that follows. The three ministers exemplify both his virtuosity and the complexity of his musical characterization.