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?!?
Before the year closes out, I wanted to combine a number of videos and photos that I collected during this year’s travels. The selection includes a life-changing trip to Iran, first-timers to Korea and Hungary, and regular mainstays in Germany, Austria and China.
These travels entailed detailed planning and visits to friends and family. While most of the visits were with those who follow or are aware of my intrepid travels, fresh new friends taught me bout the hardships and endurance needed to survive the complicated political and economic world we live in. Shared laughter helped to offset an arduous year and to renew hope for the future.
I hope you will enjoy this quirky video. I’ve culled material from travels this past year, based on Barbara Streisand’s moving song, “Imagine/What a Wonderful World”, from her album “Walls”. Let’s hope that we can resist building walls and find ways to build trust and friendship instead.
Here’s the video:
The video includes clips from Shiraz, Persepolis, Isfahan, Yasd, and Tehran in Iran, as well as a few from Seoul, Korea. There are clips from my month-long sojourn at the Goethe Institute in Munich, Germany. Featured friends include Lisa from New York City, Alberto and Miki from Crema/Elba/San Diego (our fellow travelers to Hungary and Austria), Helena from Lucerne/Wallins in Switzerland, and former student Xiao Lin and his wife Susan, who live in Guangzhou.
If you are interested in reading more about Iran, you can find the blog posts from April 2018.
I’m still debating about whether I will extend the blog into 2019. Traveling to Italy with daughter Melissa starting on New Year’s Day may help to inspire me to continue, so stay tuned if you are interested. We are also planning to go to the Caucasus in April (can you guess which three countries?)
Have an overwhelmingly, delightfully unexpected, fruitful, and HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!
A delightful concert with the San Francisco Symphony playing Beethoven’s Ninth was a moving and timely experience. The full chorus sang the final Fourth Movement blasting the message from Schiller’s Ode to Joy in English: “Give a Kiss to the Whole World!” It was a much needed reminder of our dependency on each other.
During Intermission, the highlighted dome of the City Hall was gracefully poised behind and traffic crawling outside the Symphony Hall. Symphony goers were reflected in the windows as the two scenes melded into one.
KCET, a broadcast television station from Los Angeles, featured Mr. Jiu’s Restaurant on the Migrant Kitchen. Daughter Melissa works there as pastry chef in San Francisco’s Chinatown and was featured in it along with Brandon Jiu, the owner of the restaurant. This was a pretty decent coverage explaining what drives young chefs into what they do, why they do it, where they go, and where they come from. I hope you will have time to watch the entire show posted here:
You can also watch it on KCET at the following times this weekend and after:
SundayDec2 9:00 AM PT
SundayDec2 4:00 PM PT
TuesdayDec4 10:00 PM PT
I have been sketching and drawing around the city, at various cafes and venues. Sometimes I join SF Sketchers, other times alone, wherever I happen to be catching some java. It’s great art therapy and a way to engage with humanity.
Although I was considering throwing in the towel at the end of this year, I may continue for a bit into 2019. I am planning a trip to Rome for a quickie in early January, so look for a post coming from there soon!
The Global Climate Action Summit (GCAS) 2018 was launched this weekend in San Francisco. The urban sketching group I belong to, San Francisco Urban Sketchers, is actively participating by sketching attendees and interviewing them for personal statements about their thoughts on climate change.
As co-chair of the GCAS, Governor Jerry Brown helped to launch California’s commitment and up to 90 cities throughout the world are joining hands to bring greater awareness to global climate change. Michael Bloomberg from New York City is also bringing attention to the cause and John Kerry has been invited to speak this week. Numerous events are planned throughout the week in San Francisco and other cities throughout the world.
For those interested in reading about this further, here’s the link to GSAC: https://globalclimateactionsummit.org
I had not realized the intensity of the effort by organizers and participants. First it started with a march from the Ferry Building to Civic Center. The afternoon was filled with information booths, spontaneous conversations, and networking. I saw Sierra Club, Grandmothers for Future Generations, and Native American groups joining in a peaceful demonstration. The day was friendly, inspiring, and perfect for getting out and getting active.
Fellow sketcher Karen made an eye-catching sign about the Emperor’s New Clothes, while other marchers dressed up and dressed down. Thanks to my figure drawing class, nothing was startling to me.
Our job as sketchers was to tell each individual’s story. We asked them why they came, what types of global warming they experienced, and what they were doing personally to help reduce global warming. We worked in pairs, taking turns interviewing and sketching. Our preparations and training the week before paid off, thanks to SF Sketchers organizer Laurie Wigham.
It was especially nerve-wracking for me as a new sketcher to sketch and color quickly (5-10 minutes all-in), nail the contours and features of the individual accurately, and stay calm while friends of the model watched intently! It was not unlike being a portrait artist in a tourist area. If you ever wondered what it was like, try it some time. I now know how difficult it is, but it was still fun pretending to be a professional for an afternoon!
Opera in the Park, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco
Our Sunday was graced with the San Francisco’s Opera In the Park. It is a free annual event to kick off the new opera season. Sketch buddy Karen was already staking out a couple of picnic blankets early in the day for the free event, so I was lucky enough to join her and company for the afternoon.
It was an unusually windless, warm but not hot, rare perfect day in San Francisco. We lolled to my favorite music from Cavallera Rusticana, the Drinking Song from La Traviata, and O Sole Mio by three soon-to-be famous operatic tenors. I even managed to sketch in between (See header above).
If you’ve been following me during my sojourn in Munich this summer, do you detect any difference in style and culture between the SF Opera audience and the one in Munich?!?
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.
The first idea we had after checking into the hotel in Seoul, Korea, was to look for Gangnam style entertainment or Kpop. I’m not a true fan, so I wouldn’t know the difference between the two. Other than flicking back and forth between Kpop stations and PBS every now and then, I don’t really follow Korean trends. Upon realizing that we were headed to an unfamiliar territory for the first time, we discussed what we could do in Korea for five days that would be different from other parts of the world.
We brainstormed over what is quintessentially Korean. We decided to dispense with the usual museums, historic sites, and cultural events for the time being. We concurred that Korean entertainment should be our primary endeavor, especially since today was our only Saturday night in Seoul. So KPOP here we come!!
Under advice from the hotel manager, we headed over to Hongik University. It’s the hub of the twenty-something crowd. Streets were strewn with throngs of kids intently watching lip syncing street dancers. It was a very orderly and satisfied crowd.
Here’s a pretty good real-time clip of some KPop performers:
And a future Kpop performer:
Since this is our first exposure to Korea and Koreans, we are looking for the differences between the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean cultures. So far we are very impressed by the civility, safety, and straightforwardness of the Korean people. There were no electric bikes or scooters along the pathways to stress your pedestrian skills, so it was calmer. We were able to get around by subway to most of our destinations, far and wide.
In the morning we headed to the fish market. We indulged in picking our own fresh, live crab, clams, abalone, and scallops for lunch. The market is extensive, with several floors for wholesale and retail sales as well as a line of independent restaurants that cook the food you choose. I couldn’t help but think about Anthony Bourdain’s love of fish markets and street food from places like this all over the world, and how he made them respectable.
A few specialties shown above included stingrays and sea urchins.
At the end of the day we headed over to the Dongdaemon area for dinner. I’m not sure just yet what is the soul of Seoul, but a soothing cafe with live music is everywhere and definitely part of the soul of Seoul that doesn’t exist in San Francisco.
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.
My weeks have been filled with German classes and opera. Classes begin at 1:15pm and go until 5:30pm. Homework assignments keep me busy in the morning and I haven’t ventured out much, except to the local neighborhood hangout in Rosenheimer Platz near the S-bahn station.
On the opera end, you will all be relieved to hear that the call has been answered. Tonite was the finale of the Ring Cycle. Götterdämmerung, or the “Twilight of the Gods” completed the saga of the search for wealth, love and happiness with the destruction of the world.
Earlier in the week, the third opera, “Siegfried”, began the story of Wotan’s grandson.The featured photo shows the curtain call after the first act. Siegfried was raised by one of the dwarfs who held and coveted the ring. Without his real parents, he was brash, confident, and belittled his adopted parent. It isn’t until he goes through life and discovers setbacks, challenges and love, that he becomes a real man.
I was discreetly placed in the King’s Box for the last two performances, after asking the concierge if I could change seats in order to see the English translation. Up until that time, my view was obstructed from seeing the English supertitles and I was relying on the German text. Seeing both gave me the maximum benefit.
The third opera started at 5:00pm, and I wasn’t out of there until 10:35pm! The last two operas are the same duration, so if you are contemplating going to the Ring, be prepared.
Here’s the curtain call for the final performance of Götterdämmerung, with thunderous applause for magnificent singing by superstar Nina Stemme. As Brunhilde, she sang for half of the performance in a strong, powerful, perfect voice! Notice the empty orchestra seats. Everyone heading home after performing six hours?!?
And most of the credit for the entire Ring Cycle at the Munich Opera Festival this year goes to Krill Petrenko, musical director of the Bayerische Staats Opera. His orchestra justifiably joined the stage and relished the kudos from the audience for the final curtain call. It takes a generation to cultivate these performers. You will be hearing more about this amazing conductor as he emerges into the world class arena.
And yes, it was worth it all. Time, place, and money.
Okay, so most of you haven’t been to the Ring, Right?!? The only person I know who has been to one is my German classmate Royee, who attended the Bayreuth Ring last year. It’s not for all, as you have to either book a hundred years before you were born (similar to applying to pre-schools in San Francisco), or know the scene director personally before he was fired, to get tickets.
Germany decided to spread the wealth around and stage this year’s Ring in Munich instead of at Bayreuth. This was much more palatable, so you can enjoy a major city and still get a double dose of music and culture at the same time. I booked my tickets in November the year before so I could take German classes and see the Ring, a series of four operas, over one week. The saga searches for meaning in life, love, and happiness.
So here’s the typical setup for each opera. They start you off with the 2.5 hour version, no bathroom breaks (Das Rheingold). (see previous post). Then it progresses to 3.5 hours (Die Walküre), then 5.5 each of the last two. (Sigfried and Götterdämmerung, in the following week). You progress up to 2-40 minute breaks for good behavior.
You go in. Check out your neighbors. Decent looking, well-dressed bunch, but not too stiff. They’re not going to snore (nor are you), and each person will fit compactly into the seat they are assigned. Otherwise, it’s like getting on a 17-hour flight with you in the middle seat. The music begins and unfolds exquisitely. You are enraptured by Wagner’s ability to transcend sounds into music, words into poetry.
And then WHAT!!!???!!! A stage full of bodies and maidens prancing around the stage, as a backdrop to the principal singers’ prologues, arias, and dying laments?!? A gaggle were nude or nearly-nude, with exposed wire-strapped bras and saggy body suits. Uh-oh, it’s that German Freiheit thing again. But now they are stomping in Gothic River Dance Doc-Martin boots and shimmery, raggedy tunics as angry sisters of Brunhilde protecting their heroine (with an e)?!? Whatsup!!??!! Someone was unveiling a supposedly dead body in the background on a gurney as the singers in the foreground sang fervently to each other.
My point: Hollywood has done alot for entertainment. Granted, it’s very showmanistic, but it has simple logic. The absence of it makes you homesick even for the glitz. The Germans are intellectual, stark, and blunt. They want to make sure you get the message about the suffering. They prefer to use resources on paying personnel to be the stage props, rather than to design, plan, and build stage sets. Sorry, but the interpretation didn’t work for me.
The singers would have done better on a bare stage. It was clear the audience felt the same. It was so bad in some parts that the audience literally booed!! Despite the stellar principal singers consisting of Jonas Kaufmann (one of my favorites), Nina Stemme (from Tristan and Isolde fame at the NY Met), and Wolfgang Koch (from the Bayreuth Festival), being the primary focus, the staging distracted the audience, and nearly destroyed the beautiful music and singing. Several times I closed my eyes to block out the visuals, and wished that the message had been better delivered.
I’m not saying that I would rate the SF Opera production higher than this one, because the music and the singing was not strong. I would love to see the two companies collaborating together one day to make the most of each company’s talents, and to give the audience a performance that Wagner would be proud to see.
Here are the staid curtain calls, that don’t reflect anything expressed above, with (1) Kiril Petrenko, the highly regarded conductor of the Bayern Staatsoper:
and (2) my favorite tenor Jonas Kaufmann taking his well deserved curtain call as Sigmund:
As for more mundane activities this week, I lost my glasses and left my keys in the apartment where I was staying. I went to two “found” bureaus and discovered a treasure trove of “found” items, all neatly classified and categorized. I didn’t find my glasses, but it was a pleasure to see German efficiency at its best.