An alternative opera libretto.*
A street inside the walls of the Imperial City in Peking, now known as Beijing. A crowd of people fills the stage. Beneath the ancient gate, all gold and purple, hangs an enormous bronze gong. Next to it is a reed basket filled with decapitated heads. On a small podium stands the Town Crier in Mandarin dress.
Town Crier (banging the gong): People of Peking! Listen up! On this day the emperor announces: Another refugee from a distant land is arriving here, to try his luck!
Crier: He too wants to be an ambassador!
Executioner (leaning on a large ax, in a whisper): I’m drooling already.
Crier: And you all know what became of his predecessors, by order of our glorious Emperor!?
Crowd: We know! We know! Off with their heads! Off with their heads! Long live our glorious Emperor! (and so on, loudly and in unison, for the next 15 minutes).
(The crowd slowly disperses. The moon rises, and onto the stage stride three imperial ministers in golden robes: Ping, Pong and Pang).
Ping, Pong and Pang (together, in comic staccato): Hoo-ha, oh boy! It must be the new envoy!
Ping: He must surely be skilled in the ways of diplomacy, and all of its finest nuances ...
Pong: He must surely be overflowing with charm, if he was sent here from afar ...
Pang: His tongue must surely drip with honey, surely he must be a great master of subtlety ...
Ping, Pong and Pang (together, happily): No one here does this man know / but here in China the saying goes / Would this ambassador be as dear / as the lovely Ora Namir! (repeated five times)/
The Imperial Palace. It is very grand and ornate, with dragon statues and big paper lanterns. The Emperor sits on a raised golden throne. To his right stands the executioner. To his left, in a silk-covered palanquin, sits Princess Turandot.
Emperor (recitative, in a deep baritone): People of Peking! Today another refugee has come to us − someone who fled that same political party, and that same electoral system, and that same land of great hardship from which came to us that living legend whom every inhabitant of Peking knows and loves.
All the people of the court (in chorus): Ora Namir! Ora Namir! / The one we love! The one so dear!
Emperor: Before we let him claim the chair, let us make it perfectly clear: If with us it’s refuge he seeks / and he is not some hapless geek / three riddles answer us he must / otherwise − his head hits the dust!
Executioner and crowd: Three riddles answer us he must! Otherwise his head hits the dust! (and so on, nine or 10 times, until interrupted by three powerful bangs of the gong).E
mperor: Bring him in!
Crier: Bring him in!
Crowd: Bring him in!
(Tall and bald, clutching a letter of appointment rolled up like a scroll, with a red tassel hanging from it, knees wobbling and surrounded by Ping, Pong and Pang − former Israeli minister for home front defense and MK Matan Vilnai enters, stage right).
Ping, Pong and Pang: Make way! Move back! Though Ora never looked like that!
Crowd (in chorus): Make way! Move back! Though Ora never looked like that!
(Silence descends. The vague sound of a gong is heard from a distance).
Princess Turandot (slowly rising from her place, to present the first riddle): Who can answer my riddle? “A garment it wears even if late grows the hour / At the very same time that it is devoured?”
(A long silence)
Vilnai: Uhhh ... Under duress I shall venture a guess ... Could it be ... umm ... an egg roll?
(A clash of cymbals and beating of drums. The Emperor gives a thumbs-up. The crowd cheers for a long while. Finally, quiet prevails again. More bangs of the gong)
Turandot: A second succinct riddle: “There among the sands does she hide / forlorn and sad, without a show of pride.”
(a long silence)
Vilnai: Umm ... uh ... Is it ... the Chinese Farm?”
(A clash of cymbals and beating of drums. The Emperor gives a thumbs-up. The crowd cheers. The executioner seethes. Now an even more tense silence descends.)
Turandot (frozen in her spot, delivering the final, fateful riddle in a sharp soprano): Here is my riddle. Who shall answer it with cunning art, and who from his head shall part? “Formerly in need of some wide berth / now with just a tiny girth / still the brow above the eye / casts shadows over what in the plate does lie.”
(Vilnai strains to answer. A long and tense silence. The crowd starts to murmur. The executioner looks hopeful.)
Ping, Pong and Pang: O poor man! No longer top brass! / Shall this trip to Peking be your last?
Ping: Who will have mercy upon the army chief / who took with him a Knesset seat?
Pang: He who left the citizenry’s neck on the line / shall now feed his own to the guillotine.
Crowd (growing increasingly loud): Off with his head! Off with his head! Just like our glorious Emperor said!
(A very long silence. You could cut the tension in the air with a chopstick)
Vilnai (trying to pull himself together, clearing his throat, speaking even more slowly than usual): Uh ... I would say ... Could the answer be ... Israel Aharoni?
(A tremendous banging of the gong. Cymbals clash. The Emperor gives a thumbs-up. The crowd breaks into riotous cheers).
Crowd: Long live our glorious Emperor! And cheers to you, O lucky dog! (21 times)
The courtyard of the Imperial Palace. Nighttime. Vilnai in an elaborate and glittering robe, a thin braid down his back, performs a recitative and aria beneath a star-filled sky
Vilnai: On this night no one shall rest
here or in Israel, back in the West.
For who can live with this load of crock
being cooked up by Mr. Ehud Barak
For me and for everybody
with his pathetic pseudo-party?
Home front-shmome front, is that all?
May we live to see the fall.
Tea and rice has this China, a remote area
While we have heat waves and malaria
Such was the conclusion I did make
About whether this job I wished to take.
Ora Namir (appearing behind a partially transparent curtain, illuminated in a bluish light, joins the duet): Heat waves and malaria / Such was the conclusion I did make / About whether this job I wished to take.
*A lost version of the opera “Turandot,” whose plot takes place in China and which Giacomo Puccini did not finish. But a few pages − apparently from the alternative libretto − were discovered this week in one of the Home Front Command’s abandoned emergency shelters, and are transcribed here in full.