"Turandot" has become regarded as a signature role for New York opera singer Caroline Whisnant. "I usually say that my favorite is whatever I'm working on, but Turandot truly is one of my favorites," she said. "I also enjoy singing 'Tosca' and 'Norma" and any of the big Strauss and Verdi pieces. I just really feel fortunate to do what I do for a living. I'm very blessed." Regulars to Arkansas Symphony Orchestra Masterworks performances may feel as blessed this weekend, when Whisnant and three other leading national opera singers and a cast of hundreds more grace the Robinson Center Music Hall stage for a concert performance of Puccini's final opera, "Turandot." In a departure from the regular Masterworks schedule, the shows are at 8 p.m. Friday, April 16, and 3 p.m. Sunday, April 18, with Saturday open. Featured soloists along with Whisnant are tenor Arnold Rawls in the role of Prince Calaf, bass Samuel Smith and soprano Patricia Johnson as the slave girl Liu. The concert choirs from Harding University and Henderson State University, the Hendrix College Choir and Central Arkansas Children's Choir also will participate along with additional vocalists. "I've usually done it in connection with an opera company, fully staged," Whisnant said. "This is a different type of animal, so to say. This should be exciting with a huge choir and really with three different groups coming together. It should bring an exciting sound to all the glorious chorus parts." "Turandot" will mark Whisnant's first visit to Little Rock. She and tenor Rawls are well acquainted, having performed "Turandot" twice before as well as other productions. And through she's never sung professional with Johnson, the other soprano, they have met in competitions and have mutual friends, she said. Turandot, set in the legendary times of Peking, is the story of the icy Princess Turandot and the edict that any prince seeking to marry her must answer three enigmatic riddles; failing, he will be executed. An unknown prince, Calaf, is smitten with the princess' beauty and is determined to win her hand. Whisnant, who is fast becoming a major opera star on the world stage and has drawn critical raves for her performances on the East Coast and the Midwest, attended Converse College in South Carolina and got her master's degree at Florida State before migrating to the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia. She's coming to Little Rock from the New York Metropolitan Opera, where she's sung the role of Gerhilde in Wagner's "Die Walkure." Before that, she performed "Elektra' for the Academy in Philadelphia. In September, she will be moving to Mannheim, Germany, to join that city's opera house for at least two years. "That's a big, new adventure for me … Germany is a proven ground for American singers, to go and sing where they test your mettle and to experience opera in a different situation than we do in the States," she said. Growing up in the North Carolina mountains, Whisnant says she was exposed to singing and opera early. Her mother was a church organist and an aunt was a choir director; they both taught piano. Her sister, 14 years older, sung and attended summer sessions at the renowned Brevard Music Center, where Whisnant saw her first opera. "I always knew I wanted to be an opera singer," she said. "I was a little bit of an unusual child. But even at 5 or 6 years old, I knew that was what I wanted to do." Her voice teacher, Bill Schuman, is friends with the ASO's music director, David Itkin. "David is also friends with another friend of mine, and they speak very highly of him. I'm very excited about working with the symphony." The whole package of the opera's drama, the orchestration and the soaring choruses should make for an exciting show, Whisnant said. "Turandot" marks the fourth concert opera the ASO has performed. This version will include the final two scenes that were completed by Franco Alfano after Puccini's death. "It's one of those operas that if I was marooned on a desert island, that's one of the operas I'd want to have with me," Whisnant said. "It's one of those you can really listen to." Itkin will lead the "Concert Conversations" free lecture program in rooms 101-102 of Robinson Center 45 minutes before each show. Single ticket prices for "Turandot" range $15 to $40. Call the ASO box office at 666-1761.