Happy Holidays to everyone! Check out this new video from my world travels this year to see if you are included!
Happy Holidays to everyone! Check out this new video from my world travels this year to see if you are included!
The Mushroom Madness event last week at the San Francisco Arboretum showcased not only the infinite variety of fungi, lichen, and spores that surround us, but it also surfaced many mycological fanatics. Not mythological, but close. In case you ever wondered whether the ones growing in your backyard were edible, this was the place to rub noses with those in the know.
The society reminded me of a similar group of astronomical buffs. When we stayed overnight at Fremont Peak years ago to stargaze, the featured delicacy of the evening, aside from Saturn and Jupiter, was blue jello hidden below a frothy cloud of white meringue.
We couldn’t resist the Mushroom Soup this time either. Nothing too exotic, but we slurped and savored the mushy mess despite a few lingering trails of what looked like earthy seaweed in the broth.
December is wrap-up time for the academic fall semester. The student art show at City College of San Francisco’s Fort Mason campus brought together many new and old faces. Paper versions were displayed, while friends and family proudly gathered to admire the visual works. Below is a quick scan of a part of the Figure Drawing class exhibition’s earnest efforts.
And last night’s presentation of the SF Opera’s new and upcoming young singers from the Adler Program:
Birthday wishes this month go to Eric, Melissa, Ruth, Jeff and Sherry!
Continue reading Pick Your Poison
Visiting Chicago earlier this month already seems like lightyears away, especially with the advent of the annual year-end Holiday Season. Eleven of the mostly Fong clan gathered around our dining table for a home-made traditional feast with basic turkey and trimmings, Chinese sticky rice “stuffing”, yams, vegetables, apple pie and pumpkin custard.
To throw in a few world influences from traveling this year, I kicked off the event with Peruvian pisco sours and yucca fries followed by Moroccan zaalouk. A bit eclectic, but I couldn’t resist the yummy new recipes I learned by being in these fascinating countries with deep food cultures.
Naturally, it was fun to see everyone. We are all older and wiser, and the lone child under thirty was the highlight of the evening. Our conversations shift from children’s activities to adult careers, friends, and travels. It was a leisurely, enjoyable evening, and indeed, a very satisfying and thankful one.
I noticed this year a focus on food preparation. Ladies in my classes, on the street, and in between were into some serious food therapy. Everyone delved into and savored the minutest details beyond what was described above. They seemed to taste and smack their lips at each morsel being described.
A professional therapist would probably diagnose that these women (I did not notice if there were men engaged in the same conversations, but there could have been) are finding comfort in what little can be controlled in an uncontrollable world. It gave me a smile to think of these small pleasures, and to appreciate these heartwarming conversations.
The day after Thanksgiving was highly anticipated with the opera world premiere of the “Girls of the Golden West”. Unlike Puccini’s opera by the same name (except singular instead of plural), it is a factual account of the events during the California Gold Rush of 1849. It reveals many of the dirty little secrets of that golden era, now mystified and synthesized into a romantic vision of California’s genesis.
The opera features characters who suffered incredible brutality during that era: fugitive Black slaves, Hispanic workers, Chinese prostitutes being chased out of town, murdered, or lynched. Even the environment was not unscathed: a 24-foot wide redwood was cut to a stump and used as a stage. This formed part of the backdrop for what was a fascinating historical event in American history.
Unfortunately, converting a Ken Burns-style docudrama to opera did not translate. Librettist Peter Sellars and composer John Adams (Nixon in China fame) made a noble effort, but somehow the decent singing, decent music, and decent story–all necessary ingredients for a decent opera–did not come together. Even our upgraded Center Box Seats where you can sip sparkling wine during the performance could not salvage the evening. Hopefully time will mellow this opera like all others.
Above: Pre-Opera chat with Librettist Peter Sellars, and the curtain call with dancers. Note the reproduced tree stump and felled tree in the background.
Below: the final curtain call with both Peter Sellars and John Adams, and young cast
As the Fall Semester winds down, I am still busily preparing for final exams and projects. I continue to practice sketching at Meet-ups. The last one I attended at the Apple Store in Union Square produced an encounter with none other than Emperor Norton. Another character from the Gold Rush days, this impersonated, once-real character gives tours of historic San Francisco. I cartooned him while he anachronistically used his cell phone to schedule tours and take care of business of the day.
I’ve heard that foreign visitors to the U.S. often yearn to see the wide open spaces that are unique to America, like Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone. As Americans, we often overlook those magnificent expanses of space that we take for granted in our own back yard.
On a weekend visit to Santa Fe, New Mexico, we caught some of the excitement over such vistas that seem to go on forever. We spent the first day exploring the mesas and pueblos of the Southwest. Located about an hour northeast of Santa Fe, the Puye Cliffs and area inhabited by the Santa Clara Tribe thrived here between 800 AD until the 16th Century.
The mesas were formed by tuff, or volcanic ash that covered this area (and made fossils out of alot of plants and animals), then eroded over time to form dramatic cliffs. The pueblos are Native American villages dotted throughout numerous reservations in New Mexico. The Santa Clara originally lived in these cliff dwellings and then later, in pueblos. (Click on Photos to see captions).
The kivas, or ceremonial roundhouses in each village, were used for male rites of passage, important decisions, and festivals. When the Spaniards arrived, they burned the kivas and built Catholic cathedrals over the sites.
The cliff dwellers protected themselves from invaders in the caves. Later, they created pueblo dwellings that were two-story structures on open land. The dwellings had no doors, but they used ladders to lower levels of the dwellings from the rooftops. These entries protected residents from invaders.
At our neighbors’ recommendation, we made a special day trip the following day to Ghost Ranch. An hour’s drive north of Santa Fe just beyond the Puye cliff dwellings, Ghost Ranch is a retreat cum camp for writers and artists. The ranch offers weekly programs, seminars and workshops in the high desert.
Georgia O’Keefe’s home is near here, so there’s plenty of creative inspiration and history in this area. The landscape alone is breathtaking, with wide open views of mesas in the distance as far as the eye can see. The ranch is nestled in an oasis with a precious lake nearby.
There are archaeological excavations that date back to the Triassic Period on the ranch. You can even participate in digs. From having taken three Anthro classes in college, I became interested in Anthropology and even contemplated majoring in it.
I immediately fantasized about joining a dig until I saw real-time photos of volunteers in the program, posing on their shovels during a break. The exposed skin on their faces and arms looked as parched as old shoes and as cracked as the pottery shards they were digging up! I decided to relinquish the idea as I was reminded not to forget my nightly skin regimen.
The main purpose of our excursion to Santa Fe, however, was to attend a premiere performance of the opera, the (R)evolution of Steve Jobs. It’s the complicated, contemporary, and tragic story of Steve Jobs. While the place names were immediately discernible to those of us living in the Bay Area (Stanford, Cupertino, Los Altos), the story of this one-of-a-kind genius gives everyone a perspective on where we have been, where we are, and where we are going.
The Santa Fe Opera was an ideal venue for this premiere, with its dramatic open-air stage, setting, and architecture. Everything was perfect, including the weather, production, and food!
Here’s the final curtain call, with Edward Parks (an international Operalia Competition winner), who played Steve Jobs, the librettist Mark Campbell, and composer Mason Bates. (apologies for the overlighting).
This production was sponsored by the San Francisco, Seattle, and Santa Fe Operas. When you get a chance, see it, or check it out here:
Back in Santa Fe, art is ubiquitous and a reminder that beauty can, and should be everywhere. There are art galleries galore and tourist shops selling turquoise, carpets and pottery to numb the mind, but if you look beyond those, there are many treasures outdoors to be found. Here are a few examples of fanciful sculpture and mindful landscaping that you will encounter on a walk through town. (BTW, you can see more artwork from the Day 77-78 stop in Santa Fe from my October 2015 Amtrak trip).
Turquoise and terra cotta are the trademarks that define the American Southwest. They even use this palette to paint the overpasses along freeways so you always know where you are. As our weekend wound down, I managed to capture the mood, signature colors, and the remains of the day at the Albuquerque Airport.
Happy Celebrations to Pam C., Pam C., Karen M., and Jens U-B!!
This month gave me time to pause, gather thoughts, and enjoy reuniting with friends and family.
In the past few months since I had been away from San Francisco, two high rise towers rose from the ashes downtown. The long-awaited Transbay towers are the tallest in The city’s short skyline, but minuscule compared to other cities I recently visited. The header shows the view of the towers in the distance, just below the sun. The view is taken from our house in the Sunset District.
This month I started a Brain Research study as a participant. Sponsored by Dr. Adam Gazzaley’s Neuroscape Program, the study looks at older adults and their ability to focus. In addition to an MRI, hooking up to electrodes on a skull cap, saliva swab and a blood draw, we do videogames to test our level of concentration or distraction. The study hopes to develop exercises to increase the ability for older adults to focus better.
You can join the study if you are in the Bay Area:
The research clinic is located in the Neurosciences Building that I developed as Project Director at UCSF. Located smack in the middle of the Mission Bay campus, it was designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, San Francisco. I love going there to see the building in its full glory and fulfilling its mission to find cures for neurodegenerative diseases.
After my Moroccan sketching trip and the inspiration from the culture and food there, I decided to try a few recipes from the cooking class I took in Marrakesh. It took a bit of research from Paula Woolfert’s cookbook and a few trials before organizing and gathering friends together to try out an entire meal.
I couldn’t stop thinking about the intriguing tomato base tagine, or casserole, tucked under a plate of fresh eggs for lunch after our drawing expedition to the market outside Marrakesh.
When it was presented to us at lunchtime, I stared at it for quite some time before I realized the trick to getting it into your stomach was with your right hand. The bread was scattered around the table, readily available to assist. After the awkward start, it became second nature. (You can see photos of the dish at the table in Day 54: Meet me in Mogadur)
You can compare the homemade version in the featured photo above. It was a joint achievement, with friends helping to prepare side dishes. From the bottom center, counter-clockwise: chicken smothered in homemade tomato jam and topped with eggs and olives; seven-vegetable casserole (okra, cabbage, green beans, onions, potatos, and carrots) with home-made preserved lemon; thrice-steamed couscous; beet salad compliments of Carmen); carrot salad (compliments of Royee) hummus; home-made harissa; and lentils. not shown: zaalouk, an eggplant dish, compliments of Susanne); a dessert bastiya made with apricots and almonds; orange slices with orange blossom water; and fresh mint tea!!
Organizing friends to share in the production of a complex meal is a great way to engage and invest everyone in the process and the outcome. Especially for what might be less familiar, everyone is more interested in trying each other’s craft.
I could focus my attention on more challenging parts that I may not have tried on such an ambitious menu. And doing it this way serves as a great ice-breaker to boot! Try it with a menu you’ve never tried before! Think of it as a shared cultural adventure.
If you find cooking Moroccan food too challenging, you can try out the new Moroccan restaurant Khamsa at 15th and Mission in San Francisco. It just opened so we dashed down there last night to try it out. All the good dishes are represented, including a fish tagine, chicken bastiya, zalouk, Moroccan wine and even mint tea!
For other dining experiences in San Francisco, our family celebrated recently at the Progress (Workshop) Restaurant. It’s next door to its Michelin-star cousin State Bird and Provisions. We chose dishes from the prix-fixe menu consisting of chickpea and oregano dumplings, quail quarters and black cod.
Here’s a quick tip for our opera fans: you can follow performances at festivals this month (including the Salzburg International and Verbier Festivals) free for ten days on medici.tv.
Thanks to all for answering last month’s survey. You can view results posted in the previous “Day 72+3: Return to Sender” at the bottom of each question. A quick note on videos: I try to use them judiciously, to avoid frustration. According to WordPress (the blog platform), the ability to see videos is based on the device you are using and your service compatibility. The videos may not load properly if you are reading my posts directly from email notifications on a smartphone. In that case, you may need to use a computer to see the videos. My apologies for these technical glitches. While I’m getting a request to see more videos, I’m afraid that many of you are unable to access them. Let’s keep trying to pursue solutions to these problems in the future.
For those who have been asking: yes, I am planning my next trip. It will be shorter, and soon. Stay tuned.
Art has been elusive in Düsseldorf, until I made a point to seek it out. Works by Luther promoter Cranach and German Expressionist Otto Dix were in town but hard to get to even though they were only a stone’s throw from where I lived. I discovered the Kunst (Art) Academy, where Gerhard Richter, one of my daughter’s favorite artists, studied and taught. The sobering words carved at the entrance seem daunting, for both student and teacher.
I originally came to the area seeking art supplies, and was delighted to find a tidy art store complete with what I needed for my sketching class in Morocco. It’s scheduled to begin at the end of the week, and I hadn’t stocked my bag yet. I sent all my German books home so I could fit and replace the new materials in my carry-on.
I enjoyed the experience so much that I decided to lay everything out for you. Just like ingredients for a soup, these are going to be the base and the flavor for my upcoming sketches. I loved all the quality German-made sketch paper, colored pencils, pastels, graphite pencils and holder, and even the UHU glue stick. After further inspection, however, I discovered that the gray pliable art eraser (in a plastic case) came from Malaysia and the markers from Korea. Oh well.
And just so you know I have my priorities straight, I stopped at the German bakery Heinemann’s for a kirsch cake over a Chocolate sponge and chocolate biscuit. They even packed the whipped cream with tender care “to go”.
Over the weekend, friend Vladimir was visiting and we made a stop at the Neanderthal Museum. Not one of my favorites, but here’s a tiny description of the 2,500,000 years of Migration, described as a “river”, with ebbs and flows”:
The burial discovery of a family of 14 showed how they were hacked by axes, where blows to the head were visible. The museum is the site for a discovery of Neanderthal man that was dated to 40,000 years ago, but earlier discoveries of Neanderthal man were made in Belgium before then. A number of artifacts and copies of archaeological finding were duplicates used to explain the evolution of man.
We made it back in time to see an innovative and clever version of the “Magic Flute”. The Germans are experimenting with new ways to present and appreciate the classic operas. In this one, they used the Buster Keaton silent film era graphics and period style as the backdrop for the beautifully enduring music. It worked well, the graphics and animated portions were original, creative, and thoroughly enjoyable. Don’t be surprised if you start seeing more of these interpretations as opera becomes more widespread and appealing to younger audiences.
For those interested, here’s a clip of the performance at the Opera on the Rhine in Dusseldorf:
As I close this month’s visit to Dusseldorf, I am sorry to leave. The attention to art, music and culture is clearly evident, albeit subtle at times. In addition to promoting fashion, media, and trade fairs, the city has a bright and forward-thinking approach that will continue to make it a leader in these industries.
Addendum: a preliminary sketch of a static and well-behaved model that served as prep for my sketching class (photo was taken after the sketch!)
And the music legacy lives on as well…here’s the parting music and dance that took place on a casual 90 degree afternoon on Konigsallee around the corner from my apartment:
In Düsseldorf, you can hear year-end recitals by students at the Robert Schumann Musikhochschule free of charge. The piano recital I attended had a dozen or so students. Watch for these world-beaters in the upcoming years. The majority were Asian students. It will be interesting to see how they can influence Western music in their own countries.
I’m off to Morocco tomorrow, to meet with a sketch group organized by an art teacher at City College of San Francisco. Join me for some first-hand, and first-time experiences and adventures! I probably will post around the end of the week after getting acclimated, so stay tuned!
Essen always had a curious name, since it sounds like the German word for “Food”, or “to eat”. There doesn’t appear to be any connection. I was tempted to feature the food we ate in town, but it wasn’t anything remarkable. A side trip from Dusseldorf to nearby Essen takes only a half hour by train, so friend Helena and I planned a full day excursion there.
At the recommendation of a fellow architect and German student, we spent the afternoon exploring the massive Zollverein, a coal mine converted to a museum for explaining the extraction, production and transport of black gold. As a UNESCO world site, this was the heart of the famous Ruhr Valley.
Like the African-Americans who migrated from the Deep South to the San Francisco Bay Area after World War II, many migrants came from Poland at the end of the 19th Century to this rapidly developing industrialized area. In the 1950’s and 1980’s, many new migrants from Italy, Spain, Portugal, Turkey, Russia and Romania arrived in this area and other parts of Germany to search for a better life.
The museum had a you-name it-we have it approach to anything and everything to do with coal and beyond. The plant area was so extensive, it could be a quarry for humanity. Integrated with the coal production factory itself, the collections included dinosaurs, Roman ruins, Greek urns, geological rock samples, and memorabilia. It felt a bit like the Tate Gallery and the High-Line concept in New York City thrown into one gigantic area, but it tries very hard to not be a theme park.
I amused myself by looking for the oldest fossil and located coral imprints that were 600 million years old!! My favorite though, was just a tender young fish print checking in at a measly 60 million years.
In addition to the actual production lines, scaled models were used to demonstrate the work flow. The tidiness and efficient Bauhaus-designed buildings didn’t reduce the cast of sadness and grueling work that must have taken place there. Work conditions were so poor that many workers did not live long. Below is a short clip of one of the videos presented (unfortunately in German only) that shows how the coal could be delivered from the shaft to the ground in 30 seconds:
In the evening, Helena and I saw Romeo and Juliet, the ballet by Prokofiev. The music was stirring and the performers expressive. We experienced a rare standing ovation by a primarily local crowd (i.e., no tourists), so it was definitely worth seeing. Recognition by the audience in such a warm way has been a rarity in my experience in Germany, but when it happens, you know you have seen something amazing.
The ballet was performed in the famous theater designed by Finland’s namesake architect, Alvar Alto. The flat panels of granite covering the building seemed strange on curved surfaces. He didn’t seem to think that poured-in-place concrete would be acceptable for such a noble building.
I couldn’t resist sharing this photogenic shot of Helena, my friend and traveling companion from Switzerland. Every year, we attend music festivals in Germany or Switzerland. Some of you may remember seeing her in previous posts in Dresden. We keep threatening to tackle Salzburg together, or maybe a music festival near where she lives next. She prefers ballet over opera, but we compromise and go to both as well as concerts.
As a physician and therapist, she has traveled the world and lived in many places. She has an admirable life, from moving to Switzerland in high school from the States, to studying in China (where she and Gee Kin met), building a hospital in Mozambique, and working at a sleep clinic in Switzerland! She also has an amazing outlook on life that is energetic and contagious. She kept me on my toes (literally, trying to keep up with her pace), and fit enough for a queen.
At the end of the weekend Helena and I went to another local event at Düsseldorf’s Oper am Rhein with a joint Russian and German concert. The program included arias from many popular operas, including Eugene Onegin, Don Giovanni, and Puccini. If that weren’t enough, we were in for another standing ovation.
The warm crowd (maybe a lot of passionate Russians?) clearly loved the performers and the music. We did too. But two in a row? If I don’t watch out, I will have to amend my comments on the rarity of standing ovations among German audiences. I could swear I didn’t detect any over-enthusiastic Americans or their accents prompting or provoking the crowd. In any event, it was a very satisfying weekend of walking, talking, listening, watching and enjoying life.
(Forgive me for cheating: the dish on the feature is from Düsseldorf, not Essen! We searched high and low for an American Breakfast on Mother’s Day, but only found a fancy hotel on the way serving yucky healthy food. Ironically, the scrambled egg on salad with sweet potato chips was delicious).
The eagle has crash landed. After an eventful day traveling from London via Brussels and Köln to Düsseldorf, I settled down to my “home” for the entire month of May, 2017. Reporting on Pretty Yende was irresistible. I apologize to those non-opera fans for obsessing on someone you might not know. But if you have heard of Pavarotti, you will soon hear Pretty Yende as a household name too.
So, Düsseldorf. My first introduction to the concept was quickly corrected by my AirBnB hostess. When she watched me unsuccessfully enter the internet access password she had given me, she reminded me that Düsseldorf needs to spelled “DuEsseldorf” to be correct. No E, no Entry to the Magic Kingdom of the Internet.. OK, right, as they say in the U.K.
The drizzly week didn’t help to motivate me to see much if the city, except to hang around the train station and the Goethe Institut, where I am taking a one month German course. This is my fourth course in four years (refer to the travel itineraries under the header for each year).
Some of my former German class buddies may be curious to hear how my class is shaping up. Students are diverse in age and nationality. One or two Koreans, Chinese, Japanese and Indonesians; Ukrainians, South Americans, Saudis, British and Americans. It’s best to avoid groups of three or more students from the same country as clumps and gangs form! I’m pretty satisfied with the collection for now, but we’ll see.
Our first German class topic was about the brain and learning. It was a great introduction to the up-to-date, state of the art German education. It quoted the most current research, citing numerous examples of ways to retain new information. I reflected on the brain research studies Gee Kin (husband) and I will be participating in after I return to San Francisco: part of superstar Adam Gazzaley’s research on distraction and brain landscapes.
We have devoted our lives to multi-tasking to the point of distraction. While hipsters can manage and focus, it’s a bigger challenge for those of us who have built multiple careers on prior knowledge. It gives us little time to clear out the attic and the clutter is evident.
As part of learning new German vocabulary, our class was taught all the various learning styles: seeing, hearing, speaking, and a combination of speaking and movement. We should vary exercises and not be fixated on only one method. For instance, walk around and recite seven new words, but no more, for very short periods. They didn’t say it, but these suggestions are based on brain studies and the most effective ways to retain information.
We also learned in class that men learn quickly but also shut down information quicker than women. This started a lively conversation stereotyping men’s and women’s learning styles. It was too tempting to resist judgment between the sexes: one student claimed that men were smarter while women paid more attention to detail.
This naturally caused a call to arms between my new kindred English woman architect classmate and me. We exchanged some rapid eye movement and eye rolling and began to dispute the claim.
Initiated by a couple of male students from “not-so-liberated” countries, we stepped up and did what would have done Gloria Steinem proud. But in the midst of it, I felt a sad mood descending on our spirited encounter.
A few months back, I had seen a program about the Flüchtlingen (refugee) experience in Germany on Deutsche Welle, Germany’s version of Voice of America. A recent immigrant interviewed expressed his gratitude for free and public education, housing, and health care, but he noted how he was not accustomed to going to training classes with female students. I couldn’t help but flash on this observation.
I wondered what experience one of these male students had in classes with women students. While I don’t consider myself a super-feminist, I saw the huge canyon between my perspective and this classmate.
Should nations of Western Europe and the US strive to convince the world to go our way? Or are we imposing our might on others? I felt as if there was a mountain of work convincing this student that women were as good as men. Maybe women in his country just don’t ever get a chance to take men to task. Where does that put Angela Merkel, a chemical engineer, running a major country? Or maybe we should just back off?
I was grateful that I lived in the US, where you are at least free to enter the ring.
We assume that Diversity means other races and cultures but in some cases we have to remember to include women on the list.
Later that day in Frankfurt, I met a nice African-American woman, Carol Lynn. She had been working and living in Germany for over 35 years. She came from DC, so I couldn’t help but rave to her about the NMAAHC. She listened politely, then told me briefly about her life. Her family was already 5 or 6 generations traceable, back to the original slave owner. Her family of 9 siblings promoted many offspring, numbering over 100 members in the family and with 50 nieces!
She had many jobs working both as military and civilian personnel supporting our American presence in Germany.
I began to realize how many Americans are in Germany. Until now, most of my travel had been concentrated on Eastern Germany or in the countryside, so it was less evident. This conversation gave me perpective. Particularly for African Americans, I wondered if it wasn’t a more positive experience abroad than at home.
It’s important for all cities to embrace its members in a multicultural society. It isn’t enough for struggling minorities to merely “parallel play” and be marginalized. All cultures must be engaged in a common goal and feel that they are contributing collectively to the vibrancy of the city to which they belong.
Apropos to all of these observations and experiences, I had asked husband Gee Kin to reflect on our recent travels. Here are his thoughts, and please send us yours.
Diversity in the World’s Great Cities by Gee Kin Chou
San Francisco is considered one of the great cities of the world. However, it’s a mere village compared to two other great cities on the list: New York and London.
I’m not talking about size; I’m talking about diversity.
Within the 64 square miles of San Francisco proper, White and Asian faces dominate. Yes, Latinos and African Americans become a larger part of the picture when you expand the geography to the greater San Francisco Bay Area, but many are marginalized; African Americans in particular live in increasingly segregated communities. Africans from Africa, and Islamic headscarves are rare.
In New York, and even more so in London, a random day is likely to include contacts with several ethnicities. The shop assistant may have emigrated from Egypt, the bank teller from Nigeria, the hotel clerk from Bulgaria, the waitress in the upscale restaurant from Colombia and the electrician from Barbados. Every day encounters with ordinary people doing ordinary things. It may seem trivial but this is not the daily Bay Area experience.
I had always thought the “diversity” of the Bay Area was the future and the role model for the rest of the world. But visiting New York and London after a long hiatus has reminded me not to get too smug: San Francisco is not where it’s at. New York and London are truly GREAT cities.
Finally, a few shots of the Frankfurt Opera interior (the new one, not the old opera house and the evening performance “Three Operas”:
It’s worth seeing something at the opera house as the intimacy, sight lines, and acoustics were fantastic.
Header Image Above: Can you guess where and what this is? It was too significant to pass up as one of the largest Gothic cathedrals in Europe. You’ll have to wait for more Dusseldorf sights next week, when friend Helena and I will do the town and attend concert events here and in Essen!
Plus: Happy Happy Birthday today to Isa!!
Last night I attended a concert with Pretty Yende at the StaatenHaus am Rheinpark at 6pm in Koln. She is the hot new South African opera star adored by the Metopera whom I wrote about earlier. I found an under-the-radar, one-shot performance in Koln and I managed to get myself a ticket several months beforehand. Pretty (that’s really her name, she owns it) was partnered with Eric Cutler, a tenor, and Igor Golovatenko, a baritone, singing arias from Romeo and Juliet and Lucia de Lammermoor. She had performed these recently at the MetOpera in New York.
Naturally, as I do at each performance, I study the audience. Asians are not yet a significant part of the classical music crowd in Europe. There are normally a sprinkling of Asian attendees, but few and far between.
Let’s face it, I look Asian. I AM Asian. And I also look to see if there is any other representation. There are even fewer of any other ethnicity. Sad but true. I have adjusted myself to being the only one in the audience as I was tonight, and didn’t really mind, considering who I was about to see.
Occasionally I feign myself as being a former crown princess of some ancient city. I strut about royally during the pauses, disdaining the cheap champagne and decayed mushroom puff pastries being served at the bars. I peruse the huge bouquets of lilies and roses, and imagine that they were being sent to my hotel room as an acknowledgement of my attendance. I update my fantasy to being a wealthy, thirty-something owner of an internet empire. I idylly drift in and out of world-class performances and bummel around elegant Baroque castles, wineries, and fineries of Europe.
I return to my Row 1, Seat 1 proudly. I could observe every twitch and turn of both conductor and star performers and detect what was really going on in their minds. You are so close to them you can see their temples pulsating as they reach their climaxes (musical).
But back to the performance. Stellar. Stellar. Stellar. Pretty Yende was poised and perfect. Every note was chiselled with the finest of singing tools and the wind going through her throat melted like honey.
I breathed every breath she took, as her trills and curls gave me tingles like lightning up my hairy arm. I imagined drawing her as a model in my figure drawing class, and saw the shapes and triangles on her face and body. Her costumes were an extension of her inner beauty and strength, and her name. I was captivated.
A couple of men in the back of the audience shouted “Bravo!! Bravo!!” Mesmerized by her delivery, I suddenly discovered myself yelling the same. I couldn’t believe it was me—that quiet Asian wonan, who can never raise her voice loud enough to be heard answering questions in German class, suddenly turning into Katy Perry and shouting as if “you can hear me R-O-A-R???” while both disregarding and commanding attention?!?
Hey, it’s easy when you are congratulating perfection. Timing my call was perfect too, like what a percussionist does to nail that single triangle stroke or clash of gongs. Could it have really been me? The polite German woman next to me looked taken aback and perplexed. (If you know German audiences like I do, they never give standing ovations.**)
I started to like this new-found powerful image of myself. Why stop?
At the end of the next piece, I suddenly heard a different shout.
Oh God, THE WORD IN ITALIAN HAS GENDER!
Did I really shout what I heard the first time, or did I follow like a lamb what I heard??
I lambishly shouted and mimicked again, but quickly disregarded my first faux pas and claimed this time, “BRAVA! BRAVA!”
After all, why kill a good thing coming?
Sorry, Pretty Yende, if you are reading this, you really were Pretty Awesome. And I was thrilled to meet you.
*I noticed that the title of this post was used by the NY MET in their press releases but I tagged mine before seeing it. So hopefully I wont be accused if plagiarism! You can also find the smashing cover of Opera Magazine UK with Pretty Yende on it here: http://www.opera.co.uk/, along with many others to come!
And here’s an interesting discussion I found on the web about the use of Brava, Bravo, Bravi, Brave, Bravatissimo, etcetera…etcetera…
A quiet moment in Koln just before the performance, just so I can remind myself that I was really there:
**There were no standing ovations at any opera performances that I attended in Germany, except once for Nina Stemme in Tristan und Isolde in Berlin’s Deutsche Oper. Normally, as they did for Pretty Yende, Germans stamp their feet sitting down in lieu of standing up and clapping. As an architect, that makes me cringe–not so much because of concern for the weight or stress on the structure, but for the abuse on the floor!! OMG!
Following our side trip to Washington DC, we are back in New York staying at The Beacon Hotel on the Upper West Side. It provides convenient and walking access to the next three days’ events at Lincoln Center’s Metropolitan Opera: Aida, Der Rosenkavalier, and Eugene Onegin. You might find that worse than doses of cod liver oil, but for me, it’s like dying and going to heaven. You’ll hear more of the gory details later.
We started off the day with the Fairway Supermarket across the street from the hotel. We loaded up with fresh Mediterranean fare (see photo above)–fresh fruits with yoghurt and granola, cucumbers and tomatoes, and veggies with protein. We are taking a break from restaurant food everyday by booking a hotel with kitchens in the rooms to cook and eat healthier.
A quick walk within a half-mile radius of the Beacon Hotel yielded a wealth of new finds. Many shops are individually owned, mixed in with community gardens. Sandwiched in between Central Park on the east and Riverside Park, the Upper West Side is stocked with plenty of greenery and O2 to replenish the body and soul. A couple of retirees in Riverside were racing their model sports car through our feet as we gingerly tiptoed through the racetrack and the tulips.
What more can you say? Food is everything in New York. You can find just about any type of cuisine or ethnic cooking, including crossovers like my favorite example of Uzbeki-Korean food. Not to beat that over a dead horse, but that level of complexity ain’t in foodie-snobbie San Francisco.
The evening performances at Lincoln Center are dazzled by sparkling chandeliers inside the operahouse that modestly excuse themselves from blocking anyone’s view as the concertmaster plays A on the violin, the lights dim, and they retire to the very top of the ceiling.
All seats are good. The ones I selected for the series of three this time were side-saddles with box seating at the dress circle level. The $25 tickets I purchased at the very top row of the balcony in the past aren’t a slouch either. You have the option of ditching the performance if you don’t like it or incentive to get creative with a wild one.
What follows is our raisin d’etre for coming to NYC this time. The string of operas with curtain calls, synopses and my subjective opinion of the performance (all in: singers, staging, music, etc) for those interested:
My Rating this performance: ***
Der Rosenkavalier (Renee Fleming’s swan song/final performance and curtain call as an opera diva, along with Elina Garanca)
My Rating this performance: **
Eugene Onegin (with Anna Netrebko in Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece)
My Rating this performance: *****
Let me know if you have ever lived on the Upper West Side or on the Lower East! What was your experience? We had been pretty stuck on Midtown or Upper East Side in the past but found that trying out these new neighborhoods gives us a very different dimension to New York City. We’re encouraged to try a different neighborhood each time we come to this magnificent, multi-cultural city. I hope you will consider doing the same!
As a final tribute to our being in New York, we toasted our anniversary and a birthday with a dear friend whom we met in Hong Kong and who is a New York City native. At a rehearsal of the American Ballet Theater’s upcoming Don Quixote, we caught a glimpse of Misty Copeland! What more could you ask for in a sendoff from New York City??
We’re on to London, so be prepared for a British accent to the next post! (Fewer operas, Queen’s Gate, then on to Bath and Blenheim)….