Aside from the address of the Metropolitan Opera being on Broadway, the opera is looking and acting more like Broadway. The opera has been transforming itself to appeal to a broader and younger audience. In doing so, it is getting a glitzy makeover.
Tonight’s Rigoletto felt more like a Broadway show, complete with neon signs, showgirls and a casino set. The first act was set in Las Vegas, and although it sounds hyped up, the stage sets were sophisticated and appealingly campy. Once the familiar music started, along with the stellar singing, you knew you were back in the good old opera house territory.
Nadine Sierra is an upcoming new starlet who has won plenty of awards for her singing and beautiful voice. It was one of those rare moments. Throughout the evening, you could hear a pin drop as the audience held its breath at each singing pinnacle. Sierra chirped long luscious notes and kept the audience enthralled.
Stage sets, which are often quickly covered at the end of the performance, were left exposed during the curtain call. The designer must have been very proud of this production to showcase it.
Be sure to look out for this live broadcast if it is shown in cinemas in the near future. It was spectacular, exciting, and the singing was stellar. An excellent reinvention of a popular opera.
The Armory Art Show at Pier 94 reinforced the thriving arts scene in New York City. More than 250 exhibitors were represented in a show that started 25 years ago in the Gramercy Park Hotel. you can see some of the works by featured artists below.
Traveling back and forth to Lincoln Center offered plenty of opportunity to view public art and hear a variety of musicians in the subway stations. They certainly enhanced the travel experience and gave plenty of inspiration. Can you guess the artist who produced the portraits?!?
During this Winter lull I thought I would share a few of my favorite old and new resources for interesting cultural sites. It takes a bit of wandering around the Internet, but here are a few that I found to be helpful in my development and pursuit of an “arts and cultural” education.
One of the first places I started is the local community college website. For life-long learning at any age and an opportunity to interact with motivated students of all ages, you can find plenty of courses to inspire you and to keep your brain fit! If you are in the Bay Area, try https://www.ccsf.edu or https://laney.edu or any other local community college website. I have immersed myself in Art, Music, German, and Film classes and am very impressed with the quality of the teaching staff. You might find that it’s a cost-effective way to try out new topics. You won’t be disappointed by the City’s free system, still effective for the time being. So, San Franciscans, take advantage of it now! College fees in other cities are nominal.
SF Sketchers is an active group of sketchers in San Francisco who connect at interesting locations such as going to the Embarcadero to sketch king tides, the Beach to sketch nude bathers, and the Global Climate Summit at the Civic Center. As an active participant, I look forward to Lauri Wigham’s creative ideas for a healthy morning or afternoon of sketching, both outdoors and in. An upcoming “Portrait Party” at Arch Supplies is a repeat from last year’s successful event, where small groups sit and sketch each other for five-minute poses. You can find out more about SF Sketchers at https://www.meetup.com.
A smaller, neighborhood local sketch group meets regularly on Saturday mornings to sketch at cafes throughout the Sunset District. It’s a convenient time to roll down the hill or take a brisk morning walk towards the Beach, catch a cappuccino, and do a non-verbal brain dump on paper. The group is very active and you can find their future meetings at the same site above.
The Parks and Recreation Dept of San Francisco has a healthy list of activities and programs for all ages. I realized that these are some of my tax dollars being put to good use, for the benefit of everyone. Not everyone knows what they do, or the benefit they bring to the community, until you decide to get involved. Many of the arts are supported here, such as welding, pottery, photography, jewelry making, and other general art classes in addition to sports programs. See https://sfrecpark.org.
Music for the Mind
For both American and international friends, my absolute recommendation for opera and music festivals is www.https://operabase.com. It’s a complete database for opera singers, composers, performances and opera houses throughout the world. It’s a great way to maximize your time in Europe by joining a music festival the same time you plan to visit a European city. You will be pleasantly surprised! It will support and maximize your travels.
I also follow a classical music website called bachtrack.com, a UK based organization. It covers both opera and musical concerts. You can find it at https://bachtrack.com
My favorite opera house, the Bayerisches Staatsoper in Munich, Germany at https://www.staatsoper.de offers awesome opera productions. They just presented a thrilling livestream broadcast of Karl V. That may sound a bit obscure, until you realize that it’s Charles V, a descendant of Charlemagne. It gives you a chance to catch up on European history at the same time you hear the music. A drier, but nevertheless entertaining, version of Hamilton.
Speaking of Hamilton, I managed to get the last two tickets for a performance in San Francisco last week. It was only my second time seeing the musical, but it was a profound experience–hearing rap music condensing the founding history of the US into a mesmerizing array of song, dance and poetry in less than three hours. Lin-Manuel Miranda is brilliant.
And of course the Metropolitan Opera in New York is the grand dame in the US at https://www.metopera.org. for combining music, art, costumes and drama. You can catch Donizetti’s La Fille du Regiment next Saturday, March 3, and a followup Wednesday, March 6 in theaters near you. Pretty Yende is the star. The METOPERA’s new season is already posted, so plan an opera visit the next time you are in NYC!
Hopefully some of the resources and websites above will be useful to you. Let me know if you have trouble locating any of them or have comments.
In a quick trip to Los Angeles a couple of weekends ago, we saw “Buddha Passion”, a stimulating premiere of Tan Dun’s opera concert featuring six Chinese performers. The choir and children’s chorus sang in Mandarin, and the music was beautifully reflective of the Dunhuang Cave environment in Northwest China. It was one of my first visits along the Silk Road a few years ago, so I had a particular fondness for the subject matter. I was surprised and delighted that Gustavo Dudamel led the orchestra for this new work by a Chinese composer.
We had just enough time to slip into the Broad Museum the next morning to oogle at the wealth of big-name artists such as Beuys, Koons, and Roy Lichtenstein, and to admire the new museum. After all, what’s the point of doing art without seeing art?!?
Addendum: Check out these two food websites: https://www.chefsfeed.com and https://www.exploretock.com if you are looking for alternatives to opentable.com. They are more discriminating and provide a more professional approach to restaurant dining experiences from award-winning and innovative restauranteurs.
It may have been a shock back in 1975 when Zaha Hadid, a world famous Iraqi architect who died recently, won her first international competition in Hong Kong. Hadid proposed to place a hotel on the top of Victoria Peak by polishing the hilltop granite down to bedrock. Appalled as I was at the idea of this self-inflicted environmental disaster, Hadid managed to convince the jury that her bold move would, as it was, be a world-wide attention-getter. Fortunately the project was never built. Needless to say, nor was the project I entered with two other architectural students a winning entry.
Despite a spate of unbuilt designs from crazy-rich ideas, Zaha Hadid eventually settled down and managed to complete some sizable design projects. Among them are the Guangzhou Opera House, the BMW Factory in Leipzig, a museum complex in Baku, and the Maxxi Museum in Rome. Below are photos of the Maxxi Museum we visited last month.
Her wavy gravies were never among my favorite buildings and trended toward the Gehry-esque camp. But I have to admit that the staircase in the Maxxi Museum was impressive and much more successful that Snohetta’s version at the SFMOMA. The overall design seemed well suited for the video installations displayed in the museum. I missed posting these last time, so I hope you enjoy seeing the interiors. Make a plan to go there next tine you are in Rome. It’s a refreshing antidote to the Renaissance and ancient architecture.
Matera and Plovdiv starring as EU Capitals of Culture
The cultural heritage cities designated by the EU for 2019 are Matera and Plovdiv. Each year, they highlight undiscovered gems. Do you know where these cities are in Europe?
Daughter Melissa learned about Matera just before we flew to Rome, so we carved a day from our itinerary and flew to Bari. After that, it’s only an hour away by car. We covered most of the main hill town by walking. Locals are intent on managing tourism responsibly to preserve the natural beauty of the area developed over many centuries. You can see more photos of Matera in the previous post.
Both Plovdiv and Matera will feature open-air operas this summer. One of my favorites, Cavallera Rusticana will be presented in Matera in August, and in July the Roman Amphitheater in Plovdiv will present Aida and Rigoletto. This is a good chance to visit either city or both as they are filled with fascinating history and architecture. Here’s a good resource to learn more about both cities: https://europediplomatic.com/2019/01/04/matera-and-plovdiv-starring-as-eu-capitals-of-culture/
Ralph Steadman Restrospective–San Francisco
Back in San Francisco and thanks to SF Sketchers, I found my way to the Ralph Steadman retrospective presented by the Haight Street Art Gallery. Although primarily a political cartoonist, Ralph was highly appreciated for both his skill and wit. Although I had never heard of this artist before, I loved learning about his life’s work. I particularly liked the typically dry humor in the sketch about the Pastry Chef!
Steadman was fascinated by famous artists or political characters and traced their footsteps meticulously. He became the characters as he absorbed their psyche. Each scene he depicted seemed to represent a play he had written in his mind. He imagined Michelangelo throwing a fit in the Sistine Chapel, Nixon “discharging” Spiro Agnew, and one of Freud’s clients receiving therapy on the couch in the stuffy office where the psychoanalyst practiced. He even lampooned Trump.
And to record a few sketches made in the past week:
Be sure to catch a summary of travels for this year in the 2019 tab in the header at the top of the page!
Korean Cooking School
Our cooking class surpassed all other activities in Seoul. I heartily recommend the experience of learning how to cook Seoul food. It’s a great way to immerse yourself in the culture. We met our guides at the metro station, then headed to the local market. It was a lively, tidy, well-managed environment, with plenty of new discoveries.
The abundance of root vegetables told us that Koreans were kept alive in a harsh, cold environment by these necessities. The chile for spice, garlic for health, freshly made 100% sesame oil for lubrication, and full sides of pork for protein were readily available. And of course, fish from the sea, a few dried lizards, and agave were among the specialties for variety and comic relief.
Our cooking class, taught by a capable local Korean chefin (as they would say in Germany), introduced glass noodles, bulgogi meat, Korean pancake, kimchee vegetable soup, and stir fried vegetable flavored with kimchee to our Asian group hailing from Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Hawaii, San Jose, and San Francisco. We bonded by working in two teams to dice, slice, and prepare the food per our capable guide’s instructions.
And the final result:
The Royal Shrine, National Museum and Bukchon Hanok Ancient Village
In the blazing saddles heat the day before, we visited the Royal Shrine and the National Museum in the historic center of Seoul. The crowds were decked out in their rented Korean costumes, to take selfies of themselves and each other. I tried my best to avoid the indulgent ones, so here are a few that were caught off-guard before taking photos of themselves or causing selfie-blight.
The UNESCO world sites surprised us, as many of the Chinese characters were recognizable. Korean culture borrowed from the Chinese language, Confucian education and ancient Chinese customs, like Buddhist rites and feng shui.
Many of the cultural elements of combining nature, architecture, and design are similar to those in Chinese culture. Calligraphy, scroll painting, and ancestral worship are also borrowed from the Chinese.
The ancient Bukchon Hanok village reflected the Japanese hill towns, with well-made wood frame gentry housing, wood details, heavy ceramic tile roofs, and integrated landscaping.
Our highlight was the Korean version of the Changing of the Guard. The bottom line of the spirit of Seoul: borrowing from ancient Chinese culture wasn’t such a bad idea, blaring horns included. Koreans added alot of color and style that the Chinese missed.
Chinese Opera Museum, Foshan
Among the hidden treasures in Foshan where we are staying in China, is the Chinese Opera Museum. I was coming to Guangzhou to do some research on Chinese opera, so I was delighted to find an entire complex devoted to my research! Below are only a few of the highlights that I poured over.
On an evening walk to dinner, we found another treasure. A huge temple complex was on the other side of our development.
Zumiao Temple, Foshan (1796)
Outside, the temple was teeming with retirees playing cards, mahjong and go under the lush green trees that provide shade and shelter for the day’s activities. A large stone turtle with a snake on its back was accompanied by a host of live turtles stacked back to back on the wooden dock of the pond.
The GF Line stands for Guangzhou-Foshan, one of the new mass transit extensions within the massive Guangzhou Pearl River Delta. Guangzhou is now a city of 13 million. Including Foshan to the west and Zhongshan to the South, Guangzhou is one of the largest conurbations on the planet.
Ling Nan Tian Di District
We are staying in Ling Nan Tian Di, a brand new development in Foshan. Our good friend, professional musician and Chinese opera performer Sherlyn Chew invited us to stay at her apartment in this burgeoning new area. Foshan is known for its Shiwan pottery, but the new development is as sophisticated as Xin Tian Di in Shanghai. High rise residential development, office towers, and a major shopping district are combined into a lively mixed use development.
Here’s a gallery of the renovated traditional village development for tourists:
The Tian Di district in Foshan is developed by Shui On, a single, large Hong Kong developer. In comparison, the San Kai village development in Zhongshan (shown in previous post) is a much more small scale, ad-hoc enterprise. Renovations are left up to each business owner-developer. The area feels more like an artsy live-work district with cafes and bars like what you would find in Oakland or Berlin’s industrial districts.
Below, a somewhat repeat-performance of the dishes from Zhongshan (by choice): Steamed crystal prawns, shaved bitter melon with pork slices and gingko nuts, and roasted goose. The bowed tofu strips topped the braised pork belly underneath. I love the delicate Cantonese style of flavors, that are clean and unadulterated. If it is too salty, it isn’t true Cantonese cooking.
See photos, above, from left:
- A video of a musical created by Mozart when he attended the gymnasium, or high school, in Salzburg. This production provides insight to his early operatic talents
- Stone sculpture from ca. 300AD, found in Salzburg
- Mosaic tile from Roman excavation, ca. 300AD in Salzburg
- An intriguing painting, “the Last Cavalier” by Albert Birkle, 1925
- One of the first architectural designs for a festival theater proposed in Burglstein to honor Mozart (1918)
- Not a painting, but a drizzly view from inside the museum of the courtyard outside
- An excellent presentation of the National Socialist period in Salzburg and puts the city in perspective with Austrian modern history.
Salzburg International Music Festival
From the Sound of Music fame and since 1920, the Salzburg International Music Festival includes classical concerts, opera, and drama. This year we saw a modern interpretation of “Salome” by Richard Strauss and “Pique Dame”, or “Queen of Spades” by Tchaikovsky. The photo below shows the massive open stage used for Salome. The video below that is the conductor’s curtain call for “Pique Dame” and the cast of thousands, including American star Brandon Jovanovich, in red. (Apologies for flooded out light quality).
Reflections on Budapest and Salzburg
After spending a few days back in “Western” Europe, we had a chance to reflect on our short foray into “Eastern” Europe.
We learned from our trip to the Salzburg Museum how tourism developed in the city. Salzburg has been a tourist city ever since an English couple in the early 18th century sought the living relatives of Mozart. They made a pilgrimage to the birthplace of the already famous musical genius. For over four hundred years, Salzburg has managed to hone its skills in receiving, processing, and satisfying tourists from around the world.
Accommodations, food, activities and access are all handled with utmost skill. Despite the crowds you can’t help but feel happy to be rubbing shoulders with other tourists in this picture perfect environment. That having been said, Budapest and other cities with rich histories and natural wonders can and should follow Salzburg’s model. Why wouldn’t a city promote and encourage tourists to visit its treasures?
Budapest has thermal baths, music, and a diverse cultural history, yet is appears to be uninviting and grumpy. The recent no migration policy reinforces this view. The economy is down and they seem to be stuck. There is little warmth and few smiles on the street. Granted, people have their problems to overcome.
I think about recent travels in Iran where its people rise in the face of adversity. Everyone smiles at you and they smile at each other. It’s the greatest restoration of humanity that we have witnessed anywhere. You get the feeling that they care about you, and each other. It left a profound footprint in our minds.
Even though they were once joined politically and are no longer, today there’s an even greater difference culturally between Hungary and Austria, and the cities of Budapest and Salzburg.
Onward and Out…
After a week traveling by car with friends from San Diego, California from Munich to Budapest, and back through St. Florian and Salzburg, Austria, we have sealed the Italian-American-Chinese diplomatic relations forever. We learned alot about these fascinating cities, and even more from and about each other. Our thanks to Miki and Alberto for all their caring, love, and laughter.
Gee Kin and I are on our way east to Guangzhou and Korea. We are preparing for the culture shock…stay tuned.
Budapest is a city split in two by the Danube. The river is the longest in Europe, discharging not into any ocean but the Black Sea. The St. Gellert’s Thermal Baths and dinner at the New York Cafe were among the highlights of our visit with friends Alberto and Miki in Budapest.
Budapest conveys a by-gone era, with once-grand buildings deteriorated, unkempt and unkept. You struggle to look for meaning and points of reference: When was it? Who did it? How did it happen? Why? Many of these questions are left unanswered. Without a local guide and more substantive conversation with locals, the history is hard to decipher.
The grand market presented some interesting finds for goose liver, paprika, and lavender. A commotion drew us to a crowd apprehending a man who had just knocked down a female tourist.
Last but not least are the finale to our 72 hours in Budapest: dinner and delightful jazz.
The National Socialism Tour hosted by the Goethe Institute was one of the most stimulating tours I have ever taken. Given by Dr. Christoph Engels, the guide provided the overview of Hitler and how Munich was a central control and rallying point for the Nazi Party.
Using Hitler’s creations for the flag, logo, and uniforms, he combined propaganda and design to seduce the populace with fanfare and drama. The frequent marches down the main thoroughfare from Marienplatz to the Odeonsplatz were displays of might and staging trials for the military. I was a bit chilled to realize that the very backdrop for the Greek Festival I attended on my first day in Munich was where Hitler conducted many ceremonies.
The monumental boulevards reminiscent of Paris contributed to the public parades of the military. Billions of dollars were donated to the Nazi Party by private citizens, who saw the salvation of Germany led by Hitler. The original headquarters of the Nazi Party still exists, and while not open to the public, it continues to host activities of the Neo-Nazi Party members.
There were three phases of recovery by the German people after the devastating reign of terror. First, there were those who experienced it, followed by the children of the war survivors. They experienced a long period of “Scham und Schuld”, or Shame and Guilt. After 1968, the third generation began to ask the grandparents what role they had in the war. These questions were difficult discussions that needed to be answered by each family.
When the official statistics about the Holocaust victims at 6,000,000 people was mentioned, a couple of my classmates from Russia and the Ukraine noted that there were many more Russians killed by Stalin before and after WWII. They wanted to put history in perspective with their experience and knowledge. They also noted that the war itself saved many Russians from starvation and death caused by Stalin.
Munich Opera Festival
The Ring by Richard Wagner is a 17-hour epic, presented in a series over four days. The 2.5 hour, no-break opera in German subtitles was a challenge. I had prepared myself for the “real thing” after seeing my first Ring at the SF Opera last month.
The difference between the two? San Francisco spent alot more effort in the production, the acting, the stage sets, but the singing was weak. Munich was the opposite. The stage sets were minimal, but Munich delivered some of the best singing I have ever heard. The opera house is smaller than San Francisco’s, and the singers must have their voices perfectly calibrated to the acoustical capabilities of the house. It didn’t hurt to have estatically beautiful music for both, thanks to Wagner.
And here’s a clip of how it looked from the audience during the curtain call. You would have to turn your sound up to full volume (but don’t do it!) to capture the thunderous foot stomping that Germans do in addition to clapping. The gesture is highly successful because: 1. you don’t have to stand up and drop the program in the process while still being able to respond spontaneously; 2. you don’t block others behind you who don’t want to stand or have a different opinion; and 3. It gets your entire body stimulated and the blood flowing so you can remember to get up to leave!
Last week, good friend Helena had suggested going to the Lenbach Museum during her visit here. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to fit everything in. She has pretty good taste in choosing museums, so I decided to venture there on a free morning. I combined a trip to load up on German sketch books at an art supply store near the museum area with a visit to the Lenbach.
I could only remember that Helena had told me about something Blue that was on display there. After all, Helena and I had just seen Vermeer’s Woman in Blue Reading a Letter the week before, right? At first, I thought it was the Blue Wonder, then I remembered, no, that’s a bridge in Dresden. After I ripped through a gaggle of galleries searching for the missing identity, I finally asked the guide where the Blue Rider was located. His answer: they’re everywhere! I was perplexed at first, then realized that its…a movement.
The collection generated a lively FaceTime conversation with my German language partner in the Bay Area. Being an art history aficionado, he set me straight. The text may be hard to read, but if you are interested, you can view it on a monitor. They’re all yours, Jim!
Being in Germany every year gives me a deeper understanding of one of Germany’s beloved authors, Goethe. I wrote about him in 2014 during our trip to Weimar, where Goethe and Schiller both lived. This exhibition in Munich gave me another opportunity to explore the work of this Romantic writer, biologist, philosopher and philanthropist.
“Du Bist Faust”, or “You are Faust” is a multi-media collection of paintings, artifacts and operatic stage sets at the Kunsthalle. An excellent guided tour inspired most of us to explore, learn and read and more about Goethe.
Goethe introduced Mephistopheles (Mephisto) as a devil who cuts a deal with Faust. The first volume attempted to define pure love and beauty. Faust was set to die when he found the perfection of love. Other artists portrayed the idealized woman drawn from the Goethe’s story. In the painting of the couple below, they are determining that awkward moment in life with the daisy and “…he loves me…he loves me not…”
The next area in the exhibition dealt with the “Fallen Maiden” or the realization that love is flawed and broken. The heroine gets pregnant out of wedlock, her mother dies from the potion she was given during her daughter’s fling, and the baby dies. Tragedies strike from all sides. The male who drank the Viagra-induced love potion and messed up in the first place now has to pay for everything big-time with his guilt.
The second volume of Faust was alot more philosophical and difficult for the average, non-German reader. The exhibition chose to focus instead on the operatic versions of Faust. I was delighted to see a section of the New York Metopera stage set for the opera with music by Gounod. A cool hologram of one of the actresses who performed Faust stood at our side and gave us a quick introduction to her role. Goethe’s dramatic ability was yet another dimension of his many-faceted career.
The point of the exhibition was to challenge you to the moral dilemmas that Goethe tried to address. If you could make a deal with the devil, what would you do?!?
If you want to read my previous post about Goethe, you can read it here:
Now that the World Cup fever has ended, I chose to reorganize my life and capture a few quiet moments in nearby Rosenheimer Platz.