• Turandot Classroom Activities

Fateful Decisions:
A Close Look at Calàf's Big Gamble



For this activity, each student will need photocopies of the printed resources found here.


STEPS When we think about decisions that affect the lives of others, two concepts come into play: morals and ethics. Morals refer to principles of right and wrong. They may differ from one culture to another or from one individual to another, but they’re essentially non-negotiable. Ethics are a different story. They concern situations where right and wrong are not so clear—where reasoning must come into play. The study of ethics goes back thousands of years and can involve complex philosophical thinking. But there are also straightforward, practical methods of ethical analysis that your students can learn and practice with respect to the story of Turandot. Ethical analysis offers a fun way for students to think about the characters in Turandot. The opera, on the other hand, can serve as a compelling case study in ethical decision-making.

(For more information on the approach taken in this activity, please visit www.learner.org/series/ethics2/about.html, the website for a project of the Fred Friendly Seminars, a not-for-profit educational organization.)

Step 1: Acquaint students with the central problem of Turandot. You may want to distribute copies of the synopsis found on pages 3 and 4 of this guide, or you may prefer simply to tell the story. Students might also enjoy an early taste of the opera: In Track 1, discussed in the Musical Highlight: What’s Her Problem?, Turandot herself sets forth the gist of the drama: to avenge one of her ancestors, she has sworn never to marry, devising a difficult three-riddle challenge for her suitors. From the point of view of decision analysis, Turandot is taking the risk that her riddles will protect her from marriage. Calàf, for his part, is taking the risk that he can solve the riddles and win her.

Step 2: Raise the issues behind the activity with a short discussion: do students think Calàf’s decision to take up Turandot’s challenge was wise? What were the risks involved? What would they have done in his place? What about Turandot? Was there a risk in announcing that she’d marry anyone who could answer her riddles? Students need not come to conclusions; the point here is to float the issues.

Step 3: Introduce the concept of ethical analysis—a process for figuring out how to “do the right thing” in situations where it is not obvious what the right thing might be. Here’s an example: a baby is near death. The parents can’t afford to buy medicine, but a friend offers to steal it for them. What should they say? What would you need to know in order to do the right thing? What should you think about?

One useful approach for ethical analysis is the DISORDER method. The letters stand for Dilemma, Information, Stakeholders, Options, Rights, Decision, Effects, and Review:

  • Every ethical decision begins with a Dilemma.
  • The first step in addressing the problem is gathering Information about the situation. 
  • It’s important to consider all the Stakeholders—everyone whom the decision will affect. 
  • All Options for possible action have to be identified. 
  • What are the Rights of each stakeholder? How will a decision respect or abridge those rights?
  • Considering all of the above, a Decision is made. 
  • The Effects of your decision need to be identified.
  • Finally, Review the process to determine whether you believe you acted ethically.

Step 4: As a group, the class can work through the first three steps of the DISORDER process with respect to the story of Calàf and Turandot: 

  • What’s the dilemma? Should Calàf accept Turandot’s challenge and seek to marry her, risking his life in the process?
  • What information is available? The terms of the challenge. The failure of all previous suitors. Calàf has just been reunited with his father and Liù.
  • Who are the stakeholders? Calàf himself? Turandot? Timur? Liù? The Emperor? Ping, Pang, and Pong? The people of China?

In this case, the fourth part of DISORDER—identifying the options—is straightforward:

  • Calàf can take up the challenge.
  • Calàf can stay in Peking with Timur and Liù, but not try to marry Turandot.
  • Calàf can leave Peking—with or without Timur and Liù (which would be a separate ethical decision).

Step 5: Now it’s time to think of the rights involved. One approach is to consider the stakeholders’ own perspectives on their rights.

Divide the class into small groups—one for each of the stakeholders who have been identified. Each group should discuss its character’s rights in this situation, then prepare a statement for the whole class. Note that this statement should not be a statement of advocacy for one decision option or another. It’s a presentation about the character’s point of view on the situation and his/her/their rights. The idea for now is to analyze the ethical problem, not to advocate.

Step 6: Bring the class together and distribute the Stakeholders’ Rights reproducible found at the back of this guide. One by one, have each group make their presentation to the class. (Again, groups should not make a case for any of Calàf’s options or try to lobby the class. They should only state their own character’s understanding of the situation, the decision, and its possible consequences.)

While the presentations are being made, the rest of the class can take notes on the reproducible. Students should record both the claims the stakeholders make and their own thoughts and feelings about those claims.

If time allows, after the presentation, students may enjoy returning to the question of Calàf’s options in an open class discussion. Now what do the consequences seem to be? Have any new options for action come to light? At this point, students should feel free to make a case for one option or another.

At the conclusion of this discussion, write each of the options on the chalkboard or a large sheet of paper. Number each option so students can vote.

Step 7: Distribute the Ethical Decision Ballot reproducible and have students vote on what Calàf should do. Have one student count up the ballots and announce the decision.

Step 8: If time allows, conduct a whole-class discussion to brainstorm the effects of the class’s decision. How will each of the stakeholders be affected? Will anyone’s rights be infringed upon? What will be gained and what lost? List all the effects on the chalkboard or on a large sheet of paper.

At this point, your class will have completed 7 of the 8 steps in the DISORDER ethical decision-making process. The eighth step, Review, is reserved for the follow-up.

FOLLOW-UP: At home or in a second class session, students can review Calàf’s ethical dilemma and the class’s decision. Upon considering all the effects identified at the end of class, do they agree with the decision? What new ethical dilemmas might arise as a result of the decision, involving which stakeholders?

This activity can also be done focusing on Turandot’s ethical dilemma: should Turandot accept Calàf’s offer of a second chance to kill him even though he answered her riddles correctly? Follow the same steps to analyze her dilemma.