Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Italy is a silly place.

For readers with whom I have kept in close contact during these five weeks of travel — and the preceding five months of study in Paris — the description of a place as “silly” is not new. I use “silly” to mean a variety of things, be it dysfunctional, surprising, aggravating, foreign.

But I’ll say it again: Italy is a silly place, for all the above reasons and then some.

I explained it to a friend the other day during a Skype call: it almost feels like Italy only recently decided that it wanted to be a developed nation. Granted, Italy IS a developed nation, with a very high and lovely standard of living. Their food, culture and absolutely delicious and inexpensive coffee products treated me very well during my recent week here.

And yet, somehow it still has this very casual, off-kilter approach to daily life in this Western world — any one reading any foreign coverage of the Italian political system and my main man Silvio Berlusconi knows as much.

I think my visit to Italy, the only part of my trip where I am truly traveling and lodging completely alone, came at the wrong end of my trip. I’ve been on the road for more than a month now, battling missed trains and crazy connections and changing food prices and sometimes bad operas and the like, and I’m mostly just ready to go home.

Instead of that, I got a week alone. In a country where I don’t speak the language and have really nothing to do. Which was kind of a bother.

But I still had a mostly lovely week in Milano, the second-biggest and wealthiest city in Italy, home to culture, fashion and money markets. And, of course, the world-famous Teatro alla Scala, arguably the best known opera house in the world.

After my crazy train trip here from Bavaria — see the earlier blog post for the unfortunate but still true details — I was not really into the idea of city exploration. What I wanted to and actually did do was sleep.

Upon waking, I discovered that Milano is an elegant and leafy city, with tree lined streets and (mostly) beautiful people. It should be said that, even though Milan is a major fashion capital, this isn’t always evident when walking amongst its people. For every expertly coifed young lady in a gorgeous floral print or a suave older businessman in a perfectly picked and colorful suit, there are seven less-than classy others walking by.

The architecture and layout and parks are all delicately northern Italian — an Italian friend in Paris adamantly informed me that ‘Milan is NOT Italy’ — and the coffee, as mentioned above, is TO DIE FOR. Cheap and plentiful and elevated to an art form of the quotidian and the ordinary, coffee in Italy is probably of my new most favorite things and would have made this portion of my trip worth it even if the opera wasn’t wonderful ( which it was.)

No matter where you order it — and you order and pay for it first, and then wait at the bar for your beverage — coffee of any kind is rich and exact and basically perfect; I’ve been told its because the Italians know how to roast their beans just so. And it so good. More than once, I ordered  multiple cups at a single café, mostly because it was so cheap, but also because I got the impression that Italian cafés aren’t as casual about the whole “sit here until forever” thing as their Parisian counterparts. It also made me remember how BAD the coffee is in most places in Paris.

I arrived in Milan on a Tuesday for a Thursday opera, meaning I had a few days to kill. I spent most of my time in cafés and the small but perfectly adequate central park (Parco Sempione), sitting, sunning, reading and just being generally lazy. I managed to finish Camus’ “Le Mythe de Sisysphe” in French and worked my way through some fascinating French journalism in a recent issue of my favorite French daily, Le Libération.

I also wandered around the city, seeing the beautiful Central Train station, an elegant iron-glass-and-stone shopping galleria that is considered one of the world’s first shopping malls, the famous shopping streets and many quirky and absolutely delightful miscellaneous buildings and avenues.  It was cool to see the street cars, too, a copy of which I just happened to ride last summer in San Francisco along Market Street.

I spent a few hours in the shop at La Scala, where I bought a cheap and mostly acceptable version of “Macbeth” at the New York Met from 1959, went on a run one hot and ill-advised afternoon, and got ready for my last big opera night of the summer.

First off, La Scala is probably the most beautiful theatre I have ever been inside of in my entire life. For all the ugliness and functionality of the Bastille Opera in Paris, La Scala is subtle, elegant and absolutely gorgeous. Lush, red curtains, intricately detailed wall-decor and a gigantic chandelier share a perfectly preserved opera hall as a home. It never gets old seeing the composers memorialized in European opera houses — it’s a mix of the famous and obvious with the nationalist heroes that today are not known at all.

Furthermore, La Scala recognizes its status as a tourist destination but doesn’t let that cheapen the experience for anyone. It is still one of the most serious opera houses in the world, and it seems to keep that vision at the forefront of its mission.

(Side note: La Scala has seen a series of strikes and union protests in recent months, as the Berlusconi government explores ways of trimming back the house’s admittedly generous cultural subsidy. As such, many performances this summer have been cancelled or delayed, and the director of “The Barber of Seville” unexpectedly walked out of the production in early July during the first week of the staging, calling for a sudden substitution.)

I had first level box seats to the left of the stage, and I had what was probably the best view a stage as I’ve had this whole summer. I shared my box with a Milanese couple and a couple visiting from Singapore, and I think this is the kind of audience that comes to La Scala, making it a perfect house for my project. With an audience built on popular legacy, the theatre both encourages and excites this audience by expertly staging classic works.

And the staging I saw of “The Barber of Seville” was really something. It was almost casually perfect, as if the brilliant main cast just happened to find themselves onstage together that night and decided that, since they really weren’t doing anything else, they might like to sing the hell out of an early 19th century Italian opera about barbers and young lovers and the like, especially considering the skill level of the there-assembled full size orchestra.

The entire cast was fantastic. The soprano lead was breathtaking, the bel canto tenor was excellent, the famed Barber was charming and roguish and every single cast member sang well and seemed to be having a great time. In true opera buffa fashion, the opera is short on plot — a disguised Spanish count woos a young girl held captive by her only slightly creepy guardian, and with the help of the cunning and lovable local barber, everything works to everyone’s best interests — but big on musical familiarity. This means that a lesser cast could have just let the work rest and sang the roles with a boring exactness.

Instead, they were positively delightful, making the whole evening fun, funny and musically superb. It wasn’t a controversial new staging like some of the other operas I’ve seen this summer, but it was pretty perfect in its classical, traditional way. It was a great ending to a madcap summer of opera, music, trains and adventure.

I’ll probably post at least one more time before my flight home from London on Tuesday morning, but know this, dear readers: it has been a pleasure to share my summer — and earlier Parisian spring — adventures with you, and I hope that you have enjoyed reading this half as much as I have enjoyed writing it.

Tomorrow, it’s Paris, with London on Monday and Detroit on Tuesday. Detroit might seem like the lesser of three cities in that travel narrative, but to me its the biggest and best of all: it’s home.

I can’t wait.

Mention anything about Bayreuth to someone even vaguely familiar with the opera world, and they’ll tell you that it’s impossible to get tickets to the yearly festival. The Bayreuther Festspiele, an annual celebration of all things Richard Wagner in the sleepy Bavarian town he once called home, is the Wagner buffa’s Mecca.

Wagner himself thought up the festival of his work, and the specifically-built, carefully designed Festspielehaus — Wagner was not known to be all that humble of a guy — and as such, the mystique of the place and the event and the work is built up so much that, coupled with an insanely complicated formal ticket application process, you have to wait at least a decade to break into the ranks of the Festival-regulars.

But not this intrepid young opera scholar. Using a string of elaborate and distant acquaintances — a magazine editor who knows an opera critic who knows a chorus girl at Bayreuth — I managed to snag a pass to the festival grounds during my recent weekend jaunt in the Bavarian hamlet, wandering around the fantastic theatre, talking to chorus members and staff, and sitting in on an unusually crazy staging of Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg,” a work which I am not entirely familiar with. It should also be said that after having seen this rehearsal, I am still not really sure what was going on in the opera.

First, a little background on Wagner, the festival and the like. Richard Wagner, an absolute giant of a 19th century composer, is most known for his very specific and very elaborate ideas on opera creation as culturally expressive art form. He was kind of a political radical — pushing for a national German theatre at a time when there wasn’t a nation of Germany to have a theatre for, being really terribly anti-Semetic, running around Europe trying to get funding for his crazy operatic visions — and today most people not familiar with opera know him for being both anti-semetic and really into vikings. (You’ve read “Ride of the Valkyries,” so you know at least some of his work.)

In the music world, Wagner is also really known for his epic four-part, 15-hour monster of an operatic story arc “Der Ring des Nibelungen,” or simply, “The Ring Cycle.” The ring cycle is full of battles between Gods and mortals, dwarves and elves and vikings and everyone else, all for the sake of this one powerful ring that will control all of the Universe. Yes, J.R.R. Tolkien is often accused of stealing his major plot points from Wagner. Go figure.

But Wagner mostly just revolutionized the way people approached opera. His works were meaty and the content was heavy stuff, making the fluffier, lighter operas of some of his immediate and preceding contemporaries seem silly at best. He was very concerned with the audience’s absorption of his work, going so far as to build a whole theatre just for the specific staging of his works — the orchestra pit is hidden beneath this huge curved shell thing under the stage so you focus on the singers and not the musicians, and the brass is stuck under the stage, giving the orchestra a rich, echoing sound. Plus, the stage appears bigger than it actually is and the audience is arranged in an admittedly unusual way for an opera house; i.e. kind of outdoor stadium seating. He also was a big anti-establishment guy in the music world, shaking things up at a time when some felt music was getting kind of ho-hum.

My favorite story of Wagner being a musical bad-ass was his premiere of “Tanhäusser” in Paris in 1861. Like all good Germans, Wagner hated the French, and especially the elitist French who were opera patrons at the time. A big group of these faux-noble patrons, called the Jockey Club, were known for their late arrivals to operas, having long and luxurious dinners beforehand and then arriving just in time for a ballet in the beginning of the latter acts.

This wasn’t just a Paris thing — for a long time, opera patrons didn’t go to the opera to see the production, they went to be seen themselves (you could make this case today as well, I realize) and rather than sit through three hours of complicated plot and overwrought singing, many frequent patrons would just come for specific parts of an opera, or open their box curtain for the ballet. (For an excellent look at this and other intricacies of the opera world, as well as a great read, I strongly recommend John Berednt’s In the City of Falling Angels, a winning book about the reconstruction of Venice’s Fenice Opera House by the guy who brought you the equally excellent Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.)

Wagner really pushed the idea of opera as a complete work, so when he staged “Tanhäusser” in Paris, he put the ballet at the beginning, forcing the Jockey Club and their friends to sit through the whole opera, which they did not appreciate. There was a riot, and Wagner had to run away and cancel the production. Basically, Wagner was kind of a musically brilliant jerk.

Now, I’m not a real particular fan of Wagner — his politics kind of disturb me, to say the least, and I don’t like his music. I’m a fan of the Mozart / Verdi / Bizet school of opera, and I don’t speak German — but I couldn’t pass up the chance to stop in Bayreuth on my way from Berlin to Milan on my summer opera adventure. Even I couldn’t see an opera there, I could still see the place.

But, thanks to the above-mentioned connections, I did get to see part of a work, and the orchestra pit and the backstage and meet all sorts of interesting singers and stage workers. The Festspielehaus is absolutely beautiful and kind of the centerpiece of the entire town, and I have to admit I had exciting, nervous chills as I walked through the fragrant park up to the theatre.

Sharona, the perfectly lovely British chorus girl, had procured me a day pass, meaning I could wander around freely, talk to people, sit in on the rehearsal — which was very bizarre: as in, giant paper mâché heads of German leaders, modern costumes, rows of identically dressed choristers, a naked man lying in a pile of dirt on a table with wheels (who passed out during the rehearsal from heat stroke!) and other such lovely elements. Needless to say, I didn’t know the plot —  a singing contest in Nuremberg — but sitting through the 3 hour rehearsal didn’t teach me much about the plot, either.

Talking with the choristers, I was shocked and pleased to learn a lot about the crazy politics of the festival. The director of the production I happened to catch, Katharina Wagner, is the great-granddaughter of Richard Wagner and co-director of the festival, and apparently, her works are not well-received. Her premiere of “Meistersinger” in 2007 was loudly booed, and someone threw a seat cushion at her during curtain calls, meaning that particular patron would never return to the house again. There’s a real disconnect in the festival between old-line, traditional performers and the crazy, modern stylings of people like Katharina. One chorister told me that Bayrueuth audiences, while older and more conservative that normal opera audiences, are willing to take things up to a certain point, but it’s hard to figure out about disappointed patrons because they buy their tickets a decade in advance. He said he was worried about the future of the festival if things kept going they way of Katharina and her ilk.

But that was that. I was a very happy and very excited opera dork the entire day, and early Monday morning, I hoped on the Deutsche Bahn for my 11-hour train trip to Milano, Italy for the last leg of my opera adventure.

Today, after having traveled for more than 21 hours, I can say that I am not a big  fan of Deutsche Bahn anymore.

My train day was going fine: I caught my first train, and made my first quick connection easily, but around mid-afternoon, things started to go wrong.  We were running a little late between two of my connecting cities — Stuttgart and Augsburg — and suddenly the conductor came on to say that we were 15 minutes late. It didn’t seem like we were that far behind, but I believed the conductor, mostly because he said almost everything in German and his English and French announcements were limited to the simplest of informational pieces.

Then, pulling in Augsburg only 2 minutes later than my planned departure to Zurich, the conductor announced that “all passengers to Milano via Zurich should stay with us until Mannheim, and then connect there to Zurich and later to Milano.” Okay, I said, I believe you conductor. You have specifically signaled me out for mention, so I will follow your rules.

In Mannheim, I ran to the connecting platform, only to discover that the train to Zurich was 30 minutes behind schedule. Which became 40 minutes late. Which became 50. Which turned into more than an hour’s delay. Okay, I said, I’m already off-track. I’ll just keep going and be open to changes.

I had no real seat on the train to Zurich — thank you kind first class passengers for giving me a jump seat — and we pulled into the largest Swiss city a full hour behind schedule. (Note: It was then 9:00 pm. I was supposed to be in Milano on my original scheduled train by 10:50 pm. I ceased believing this far earlier in the day.) I wandered around the elegant central train station until I found some dinner, some internet and most importantly, some help for connections to Milano.

“Oh no,” the kind Swiss train official told me. “You’ve missed the last train to Milano today. You’ll just have to take this connecting train to the Italian border town of Chiasso, and then take a train to Milano in the morning.”

Which I did. Meaning that I took a train at 10:13 on a Monday night to Nowhere, Switzerland, where I arrived at 1:46 a.m. I then hung out around this sketchy, quiet and nearly empty train station until 5:17, when I hoped a suburban commuter train to Milano.

Time left Bayreuth: 11:11 a.m. Monday.

Time arrived in Milano: 6:23 a.m. Tuesday

Distance Between Cities: 427 miles

I could go on and on about the craziness of this epic day-long travel adventure, but I’m hungry, and I haven’t eaten anything in a long, long time. I did sleep in my hostel for a brief time, however, and it is a perfectly suitable — albeit very, very warm — place to sleep and stay during my now truncated week in Milano.

Thursday is “The Barber of Seville” at La Scala — and then I begin my westward trek homeward.

And trust me, I can’t wait.

Note: I am fortunate enough to have simple train connections from Milano to Paris and later to London. I hope.

There are many ways to stage an opera. In fact, part of my research this summer has been about these different staging methods, exploring how different opera companies use innovative — and often controversial — productions to draw in audiences and get people talking about the (some say) dying art form.

But at the same time, there are also many bad ways to stage an opera. I was (un)fortunate enough to have the opportunity to see one such difficult production in Berlin last week.

As part of an epic 10 day visit in the once and former and current capital of the German republic, I took in Beethoven’s one and only opera, “Fidelio,” at the Komische Oper Berlin, one of three opera houses in Berlin.

And said production, for a variety of reasons that will be laid out in the following blog post, was very, very bad.

It may have been the steamy July evening on which the opera was presented — the night of the World Cup semi-final between Germany and Spain, which Germany happened to lose. It may have been the work itself — an unusual and sometimes clumsy opera that has been published in many different versions, many of which fail to fix the opera’s narrative flaws. It might have been the opera house — the least prestigious of Berlin’s three state-funded houses, known for its bizarre stagings of mostly German works.

But no matter what the initial reason, the conclusion I must come to is this: “Fidelio,” as presented by the Komische Oper Berlin in June and July of 2010, was not good.

The opera details the trials and tribulations of Leonora, wife of Spanish political prisoner Florestan, and her efforts to free her beloved from the corrupt prison of the evil Don Pizarro and avoid detection as she disguises herself as male prison worker Fidelio.

The Komische Oper Berlin decided to go out on the proverbial limb in their staging of the work and set it in what looked mostly like a junk yard, replete with a big, metal dumpster full of trash. (Many of the reviews I read — or rather, had my German friend Tim read to me — mentioned the trash as indicative of the work as a whole).

Okay, you might say, so you’re setting this in a junk yard. That’s kind of creative. I buy that.

But no. Do not check out of that opera setting store just yet. The Komische Oper decided to take their kind of decent idea and murder it horribly, bringing on actors in costumes from various time periods and revolutionary struggles, making any conclusions about the production’s modern tendencies misplaced or just wrong.

Most of the actors were okay, and some were better than others, but the direction called for such unusual and unfortunate things— none of the main cast left the stage after entering for the first time, melting into the piles of trash when not involved in the action, playing with weird, headless mannequins scattered about the stage and making exasperated hand gestures when things got slow. Maybe it was supposed to be innovative, but this constant presence mostly just came off as annoying.

The soprano who sang Leonora did not have the greatest voice, to say  the least, and the direction called for her to fall down — a lot. Anytime things got rough for Leonora — she got tired, people asked her questions, five minutes passed — she would collapse and curl up into the fetal position. She even delivered a normally moving Act II aria from this position, straining her already poor voice and making the aria kind of unnecessarily comical.

I could go on, but know this: the production was not good — it was comically bad, actually — but even so, it was helpful for my project. The people in the audience with me seemed to really enjoy the production, and the fact that a pretty large number of people managed to show up for a unpopular opera on a night when the national soccer team was playing a big important game says a lot about the cultural relevance of the art form in Europe.

And bad opera is still, after all, opera.

Of course, I did a lot of other things in Berlin with my friend Tim. We biked along canals, swam in hidden lakes, stayed out all night and watched the sun rise over East Berlin at a club that also featured a beach and pool, heard crazy underground music at a secret amateur open mic, ate delicious food – DONER KEBAB — saw movies, cooked a lot, drank coffee and generally enjoyed each other’s company.

I was reminded how much I absolutely LOVE Berlin — the people, the U/S-Bahn, the food, the huge sprawling crazy multi-generational architectural scheme, the silliness of the language — and it was really fantastic to be back there for a relaxing week with Tim.

(Tim, a former Cranbrook classmate, is spending his year of federal public service in Berlin, looking after shut-ins and generally being awesome.)

But all good weeks and bad operas must end, and so I hopped on the Deutsche Bahn rail service yesterday morning, riding the rails — and getting nearly completely lost on a random line in the middle of Bavaria — all the way to Bayreuth, Bavaria, home of famed German composer Richard Wagner and the yearly festival celebrating his work. I’m only here for the weekend — Monday, I leave for Milano, Italy — but I was lucky enough to get access to the festival. (More on that in the next post, coming soon!)

This post is long and rambling and probably reflects the fact that I slept too much today and spent the entire day listening to obscure German opera without context or subtitles, so I’ll end it here.

Catch you in Italia!

Two years ago, when I first wandered around the weird and hilly streets of Brussels / Bruxelles / Brussel , Belgium — have to include the French and the Flemish spellings in there, in true Belgian fashion — I was pleasantly surprised by the charm and grace of a city so often called “boring,” “ugly” or “unfortunate” by the international press, reporting from the city to cover the European Union’s administrative arm based there.

I loved the odd, overlapping architectural worlds of 18th and 19th century northern Europe classicalism and mid-1970s international brutalism, lining the cobbled streets of the capital city of an imaginary country created for European political neutrality. I loved the people, then as now embroiled in a political crisis of looming devolution threatened by a complicated language-based system of power sharing between regions and parties, and yet still constantly amused by their king, happy about your visit to their country and ready for the next glass of beer.

So I was rather surprised when the train pulled into the station at Bruxelles-Midi last week after a short and rolling trip through the French, Walloon and Flemish countryside and I found myself face to face with a simple and undeniable fact: Brussels IS ugly. Brussels IS a ridiculous city. NOTHING seems to be happening here late at night / in the middle of the day / ever, really. I could NOT have spent the six months I spent in Paris here, a choice which I had originally  pursued when I made the decision to study abroad in the spring of 2010.

It was a remarkable discovery. I reflected on the conditions that could have made my first visit to Brussels so magical — its status as the first French-speaking, non-German European city I had ever visited at that time — and I decided that six months in Paris was the right decision.

But that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy this second visit. As the first part of my summer opera adventure in which I would be staying with someone I didn’t know — Huzzah CouchSurfing! — I was looking forward to meeting new people and being somewhat self-suficient again. And the production of Verdi’s “Macbeth” that I saw at the La Monnaie / De Munt Royal Opera House was perhaps the most exciting and captivating performance of the summer thus far.

My perfectly accommodating couch surf host, Damien, lived in a pretty, residential area south of the city center, close to a lively Portuguese / student / cultural area and a lovely series of ponds and parks, making for nice evening walks, afternoon reads in the sun and early morning runs.

My days in Brussels were spent as such: wake up early, shower and eat, leave the apartment by 8:20 — Damien had to go to work and only had one set of keys — spend three hours in the café down the street with delicious, cheap coffee and free wifi, wander into the city center for lunch in a park or the Royal Gardens or on a terraced café patio, visit some sort of historical site and then wander back “homeward” for whatever evening activity I had planned.

Those included: dinner by the pond, “Macbeth” at La Monnaie / De Munt and a thank you dinner chez Damien in which I made the now-famous / infamous rosemary fig tart of wonder — sans figs, unfortunately.

In between this obviously “busy” schedule, I also had time to drink a lot of coffee, read two books, including a rather interesting discussion of urban growth problems written by Eliel Saarinen, the architect who built my high school, and see “L’Illusioniste,” the latest film from French-Canadian director Sylvain Chomet, who also just happened to direct my favorite movie — and the background for this webpage — “The Triplets of Belleville.”

“L’Illusioniste” followed a similar format as that of “Triplets” : little to no talking, angled and odd old-style animation, lonely old people helping sad young people reach their potential, wild music and fat family pets — in this case, it was a rather vicious yet ultimately lovable magician’s white rabbit.

It was a lovely film, albeit a sad one made even sadder by the fact that I saw it alone in Brussels in the middle of a lovely late June afternoon, but it was a nice way to spend a lazy day in Belgium.

I also tried — and failed — to set up a meeting with members of OperaEuropa, a Brussels-based European cultural organization that coordinates Europe’s opera scene. Clearly a perfect and obviously relevant match for this intrepid research student, but the director was out of town and his assistant was out with some debilitating illness. I’m still trying to pick their brains via email, but it was rather unfortunate that a choice opportunity like this to sit down and talk opera with some people who know the business well.

But that sad scheduling failure did not prevent me from seeing “Macbeth” at La Monnaie / De Munt, which — as stated above — was the best thing I have seen thus far on this trip, and a truly relevant example of modern stagings of classic opera at their weird and wonderful finest.

According to the program I purchased — in French AND Flemish, for your reading pleasure. Attention Readers: If you ever wanted to read the Italian libretto of Verdi’s “Macbeth” in silly, sing-songy Dutch, come find me. I have that libretto for you — the production’s controversial and avant-garde Polish director decided to stage the work along a “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder / Apocalypse Now / Modern Cultural Failings” type line, resulting in a visual overload of artfully placed thematic clues, omnipresent video installations and creepy, porcelain-doll-mask-wearing child-witches.

The set most closely resembled an American middle school gymnasium, and the costumes, rather than from any particular period, included such winning outfit ensembles as army jackets, fish-nets and high heels — this was on a man — and elegant, mid-60s British royalty formal attire for the titular Scottish would-be king and his conniving Lady.

The work is flawed in parts, likely stemming from its unusual and convoluted status as a Scottish legend told by a English playwright and subjected to the standards of mid-19th century Italian opera, but it is usually highly regarded as a true Verdi masterwork, and some of its arias and larger group numbers — including the haunting Act III Macduff aria “O figli! O figli mei!” — are well-known throughout the world of classical vocal music.

La Monnaie / De Munt ‘s production relied heavily on obvious recurring motifs, including Macbeth’s clear insanity, his wife’s instability and greed, the fatigue and fog of war, film noir, Vietnam, chess, the supernatural and white trash. In a surprisingly moving opening bit, a man reads a letter — in English — about coming home from a gruesome war zone to his beautiful wife. A closer inspection in my program revealed that this letter was, in fact, a real letter from a Vietnam soldier in the 70s home to his wife in the States. It was a but much, sure, but it worked, like so much of the extremely high concept, high art production.

In a lesser production, these elaborate visual elements might have overwhelmed and distracted, but in this particular one, they absolutely worked. The vocal cast, including an always off-stage and ever-powerful chorus, was phenomenal, and the leads were a revelation. The best example of this came at the end of Act I, when Macbeth, his Lady, Banquo, Macduff, Malcolm and their respective servants lead the chorus in an a cappella group mourning session for the fallen King Duncan.

It was an eerie, moving and powerful moment, and I’m not just saying this so I can italicize things and use complicated, art criticy type words. The whole house was virtually silent, and the vocal tension was so stirring and so beautiful that I swear I heard the audience collectively catch their breath when faced with such a powerful musical moment. It was absolutely wonderful.

Macbeth and his Lady were also fantastic, singing their roles with complicated psychological nuance and skill, and Macduff / Banquo / Malcolm / the servants were great, too. The whole thing was just that great, and it probably would have been that great regardless of the complicated visual imagery shoved down the audience’s throats at every spare moment. The fact that these visual choices were so disturbing, arresting and yes, meaningful was a lovely side bonus.

I could say more about the reasons was this production added much to my summer research goals — the full house on a Tuesday, the theatre’s interesting status as the only opera house funded by the Belgian national government as opposed to regional governments, the theatre’s recent controversial and provocative stagings of other classic works — but I’ll save that for my final report. Mostly, I’m just in awe of the great work of art that I was fortunate enough to see last week.

I’m in Berlin now, getting ready to take in both the operatic drama of Beethoven and also of the German national football team, playing Argentina tonight in a tense quarter-final game.

Brussels may be an ugly, funky and strange city. But it gave me an evening of such power and beauty, that I can forgive it for all of — or most of — its failings.

So, let me start off by saying this: I’m so happy to be Europe during the World Cup. Even though I won’t be in a country where the home team is playing a match again until Thursday and my arrival in Berlin, it has been a real wild ride, especially watching our American boys win — and subsequently lose — down there on the pitches in South Africa.

Even better was reading the French newspaper headlines when Les Bleus lost to World Cup host South Africa in the last match of group play. Every paper — even Le Libé, the French socialist/leftist daily — had such lovely post-loss headlines as “Les bleus: L’honte” (“The Boys in Blue: The shame”) and “Pourquoi la France est le pire au Cap” (“Why the French were the worst in Cape Town”). The federal government even ordered a controversial review of the French Football Federation.  It was truly a wonderful moment in French history — VIVE LA FRANCE!

But of course, the best thing about watching the World Cup in France was watching the America v. Algeria game in a bar that just HAPPENED to be an Algerian bar. As in, the bar owners and frequent clientele were all Algerian — Algerian flags, jerseys and cheers. Chris, Char and I — and the awkward American family sitting on the terrace in front of the café — kept our cheering to a minimum, until the American boys scored that great stoppage time goal that sent them on to the next round…only to lose to the Ghana Black Stars, again.

Still, it was a great time, and even though Belgium — where I currently find myself — didn’t qualify for Le Mondial, it still has plenty of vuvuzela-blowing, horn-honking fans of such great remaining teams as Brazil, Portugal and the Netherlands, meaning that night time here is hardly the right time for sleeping. I understand the lingering media fascination with the vuvuzela — it is an obnoxious, grating and all too exciting instrument of fandom, and you can’t help but notice when you hear it, and suddenly you feel like you are taking a direct role in the game, even though it is taking place far, far away.

HOWEVER…

…I am not in Europe to observe the lingering effects of World Cup Football Fandom, as fun as that may be — GEHT DEUTSCHLAND — rather, I am in Europe to see opera and write about it, which is just what I am continuing to do.

Besides visiting such old Parisian favorites as L’As du Falafel, the Caféotheque and my old friend, the Canal St. Martin, as well as spontaneously deciding to march in the Paris Gay Pride Parade,  I also saw Leoš Janáček’s delightful little opera, “The Cunning Little Vixen,” at the Opéra-Bastille.

The Opéra-Bastille is one of those unfortunate buildings that makes you realize anew that no one should have been allowed to build anything between the years 1968 and 1980. Almost any building constructed during that hellish period — please see the UNC-Chapel Hill Pit area and the always disgusting, riot-proof Hamilton Hall — is pretty much ugly and soulless as a rule. It was in one of those buildings that the opera was staged last Friday night.

Fortunately, the whimsical opera was full of life, making the dead space surrounding it lively and joyous. The opera, with a libretto written by the composer himself, is based on a beloved Czech folk comic about, what else, but a witty little fox. The way I’ve explained it to people is that the opera is akin to an operatic adaptation of, say, the American “Garfield” or “Peanuts” comics.

There really isn’t a plot — it’s just a series of colorful sketches featuring the fox, her woodland creature friends, and the hunter who chases her around — but that was okay at the Bastille, because a large chunk of the audience was probably under 13, meaning the usual elaborate operatic type plot lines would have been wasted, anyway. But the set was beautiful — Sunflowers! Train tracks! Oppressive Soviet-Era Chicken Farming Collectives! — and the costumes were really nifty. My favorite were the mosquitos — dressed like macabre milk men with giant syringes and milk bottles full of red liquid. The bourgeois chickens were pretty cool, too, as was the titular Vixen herself — who sang her role quite well.

The youthful nature of the audience was great for my research project; it seemed the Opéra-National de Paris was trying out creative, child-friendly operas presented in cute, inventive ways as a method to launch the opera going careers of younger people. Plus, the ads for the opera were everywhere, complete with a picture of the happily triumphant Vixen and all her cunning animal friends celebrating their takeover of the grumpy old Badger’s house. It looks like a true picture of summer fun, full of zest and wine and vigor. Personally, I’d want to see that opera if I hadn’t already, so I suppose the ad campaign is working.

With my remaining time in Paris, I also got to explore the beautiful Viaduct des Arts, a renovated train viaduct now used as a beautiful  rose-line and trellis-filled park. It was a wonderful discovery on my last day in Paris — until I return in late July, of course — and I’m glad my friends and I decided to explore another side of the city I thought I knew so well. I suppose that’s how Paris works — you think you know it well, and then it surprises you with a new park, a hidden side street or an artfully tucked away public monument to a bygone artist or political leader or scientist.

For now, I’m in Brussels, Belgium, where I’ll be taking in Verdi’s “Macbeth” tonight at La Monnaie de Bruxelles. Brussels is a funny city — but more on that in my next post. Until then, aideu!

(Almost) Everyone knows that old Josephine Baker song — that’s been covered by Madeleine Peyroux and many other similarly francophile type ladies and gents — about her ongoing love affair with Paris and the States.

J’ai deux amours…mon pays et Paris

And what’s absolutely wonderful is that absolutely lovely song perfectly captures my feelings at the current moment. Readers of this blog will know that, towards the end of my term in La Belle Paris, all I really wanted to do was go home to America again. But now that I’m back in Paris, I realize how much I truly love the city, and how it feels kind of like home, and how perhaps that while I love other cites in America a little bit more than Paris, and I truly love my country, I’ll always hold a special little place in my heart for Paris.

The feeling of coming home, of coming back to Paris after only two weeks away was indescribable, or at least in English. Je suis ici, encore, et tout mais tout va bien.

The parcs, the people, the metro, the language,  the BREAD, the wine, the twisty, tiny streets; everything was here, just as I left it, and it felt so wonderful to see it again so soon.

But I didn’t come back to Paris just to gush about being ‘home’ and get rid of the artificial sense of homesickness that I thought I felt — which I actually did, so no artifice there.

I’m here to see opera, goddammit, and opera I have seen. And maybe some friends and falafel and all night music festivals, too.

I arrived Saturday morning to a chilly and cloudy day in Paris. I wound my way through the all-too familiar city and out to my friend Victoria’s adorable 8éme apartment, where on a fait la bise (cheek kissed) and caught up on all the things in our lives. Victoria is in the city for the summer after a year abroad, working on her senior thesis in art history. Her apartment, and her roommate, are positively lovely, and together we cooked up tasty meals and laughed a lot and had dessert adventures and pleasant late night wanderings and an epic Falafel Off, where we compared different types of delicious falafel in the Marais.

But my stay with Victoria was not to last, as she had other guests to host and a lot of work to do before she leaves the city next weekend. So yet again, I trucked across the to the apartment of a fellow Tar Heel here in the city, where I found a welcome couch to surf and a new friend to show all I know about the hidden side of Paris.

Monday night was the first day of summer, and apparently in France that means La Fête de la Musique: a country-wide, all-night celebration of summer and music and the outdoors. There were concerts and performances and crazy goings-on all over the city, and the metro stayed open all night, which was the most surprising thing of all. We tried to go to one such event, a techno party by the Eiffel Tower, but it turned out to be like a whole bunch of teenaged Euro-trashy kids dancing awkwardly to bad 90s techno music — we’re talking “A Night at the Roxbury” type bad. So, we wandered off into the night, looking for open bars and better music crowds.

We found the former, not the latter, and sat around in the Marais on a cozy little side street full of cafés called Rue de Tresor, talking politics and journalism and absurdity and laughing until we burst and the clocks struck 3 (in the morning, that is). Recognizing that music or not, we had had quite a fête ourselves, we called it a night.

Tuesday was the day for my first of two Parisian opera experiences, this one at the Opéra-Comique, a storied hall of French music legends where such great works as “Carmen” and “Pélleas et Mélisande” (the work I just happened to be seeing) premiered in the past. The Opéra-Comique was mounting a big festival surrounding “Pélleas,” celebrating the 108th anniversary of its first performance. There were talks and discussions and other such things, but the only thing I got to see was the opera itself.

“Pélleas et Mélisande” was Claude Debussy’s only opera, and it isn’t hard to see why. It’s a moody, melodramatic work, and not exactly full of the most tuneful of musical tidbits. In fact, it isn’t a traditional opera in the sense that one would normally think — there really aren’t any arias or duets or chorus pieces or anything. Rather, it is a dark, impressionistic piece full of angst and anger and simmering passion. Staged well, I’m told it can be quite unsettling and moving.

It’s the story of Golaud, Prince of the fictional kingdom of Allemand, and his marriage to the waif-like, mysterious Mélisande, a girl whom he finds crying half-naked by a fountain. She’s crazy then, and she never really gets less crazy, but Golaud is old enough to think to himself that he should just marry her and take her home with him, since his old wife died and he doesn’t expect to do much better than a half-crazed naked girl whom he found crying in the woods.

Careful readers will note, however, that the opera is not called “Golaud et Mélisande,” so of course Mélisande falls quietly in love with Pélleas, Golaud’s beloved — and far more attractive — half-brother. The two conduct a long and drawn out love affair, with lots of lust and angst and unrequited loving very little actual affair — they really only kiss in Act IV, and Golaud makes them do so just before he stabs Pélleas — but Pélleas does have a brief, erm, ‘personal’ moment tangled up in Mélisande’s insanely-long hair as it dangles from her tower window. Mélisande then has Golaud’s bound-to-be unfortunate daughter and dies, crazier than is her usual habit and without forgiving Golaud for killing the only man she ever loved.

Fortunately, the current über-modern production, a new one, was rather stirring, with a pretty great cast and an unusual but effective set of tilted surfaces and a labored lighthouse motif. Not all the cast was good — guy who sang King Arkel, I’m talking about you — but Pélleas in particular was stellar, and Mélisande was annoying and distant enough to make her a completely unsympathetic character, which I think is kind of the point; she doesn’t want to be touched in the first scene or ever, she’s crazy, she never talks about her feelings, so the tragedy that she brings is really everybody else’s fault for taking her from the woods and putting her amongst a kingdom of normally perfectly happy people.

My seats were good, and cheap (!) — 6 euros, really — so I bought a lovely program. This, coupled with the nice program I received for free at Covent Garden, might force me to buy all the programs from my trip. If anything, they will make a nice bookshelf collection that narrates my summer travels.

Next up for me is “The Cunning Little Vixen,” an odd Czech opera opening Friday. I’m seeing the first performance of this production, so here’s hoping it turns out to be a good one.

Until then, you can probably fine me at la Caféotheque, or perhaps Le Select, drinking coffee, reading Le Libé and loving on some midsummer Parisian vibes.

À bientôt!

Hello loyal blog readers! I know that many of you have been coming here in the last few weeks, expecting glowing, exciting reports from the summer opera trail.

Well, up until last Monday, the only thing you would have read would be my impressions of my brief and chaotic return to the States (lovely, quick and overwhelming) and reports of my incessant jet lag out of my decision to make said return home (probably one of the worst travel decisions I have ever made in my life — this is why I don’t like / don’t know how to travel).

BUT

Now all that changes. Here I am, on the floor of my friend Victoria’s lovely apartment in the 8éme arrondissement of Paris, getting ready for another week of opera exploration and viewing.

Monday night, I bid goodbye to my parents after a whirlwind weekend in Metro Detroit — MOTOWN AND THE 313 GET IT —  and got on what I am going to call the smallest plane I have ever been a passenger on and travelled to not scenic and not lovely Newark, New Jersey, where I awaited my flight to Heathrow Airport in London, England.

Flying into Newark, one cannot help but feel bad for New Jersey. Not only is it a state that everyone loves to hate, it also is right next door to New York, a state and city that is breathtakingly magnificent — it is the Empire State, after all — making the lousiness that is New Jersey all the more apparent. Newark’s airport? Passable. Newark’s skyline? — especially when compared to the staggering skyline that is downtown Manhattan Island — Pathetic.

But I was on to bigger and more European things. I landed in London early Tuesday morning, and groggily wandered through British customs — incredibly Hellish, by the way. I do not recommend flying into England unless you absolutely have to — and took the famous London Tube to meet John, my roommate from my first two years at Carolina. He is staying the city studying British approaches to Imperialism, so he generously offered to let me stay with him during my brief sejour in London — by offered, I mean, I begged him and kind of forced him to accept my request.

Even though I was completely exhausted and felt the need to take an unforeseen four hour nap, I managed to force myself to go for a jog through London, running by Kensington Palace and through Hyde Park. I have to say that, after fiveish months in Paris, I was not prepared for the casual, comfortable sprawl of British parks. French parks are carefully coifed, delicately maintained and full of fierce and furious gardiens, who make sure that visitors don’t use the park in an incorrect way — i.e. walk on the grass or touch a flower or something that disturbs the natural beauty of le beau parc parisien. London? Pish posh. You want to walk on the grass? Go ahead! You want to touch a flower? Hell, pick the damn thing. It’s a park! Admittedly, as a result London parks did seem a little less polished than those in Paris. But it was a wonderful and a good thing to do after flying all day and night.

We then went to a Thai pub — literally a traditional British pub that served Thai food in the back under an awning of fake flowers — with John’s British and Australian roommates and some Carolina friends in town for the summer, and wandered around expensive neighborhoods in Kensington.

Wednesday was my big opera day, so naturally I slept most of the morning. Hooray jet lag! I woke up in the early afternoon, dressed in my very best, and prepared to walk all the way to Covent Garden, taking time to wander though a beautiful and eerie cemetery — albeit one where people were LITERALLY SUNBATHING SHIRTLESS AMONG THE GRAVESTONES — and along the surprisingly tidal Thames River.

It was a great walk, and I got to see both Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, which were at the moment hosting the wonderful weekly Prime Minister’s Questions Session, but it turned out to be a little too far for my 5:00 meeting with the communications director of the Royal Opera House, so I hopped on the tube and rode the last couple of stops to Covent Garden.

Unlike Paris, the London Opera House is tucked away in a weird little alleyway. Granted, it’s big and impressive and beautiful and all that jazz, but it’s hiding in the corner when the Paris opera houses are huge central gathering places — one even has a major metro stop named after it.

The communications director was wonderful, and he gave me a fantastic start for my project. We talked for over an hour, and he gave me some great reading material about the Royal Opera House’s annual budgets and projects and audience outreach efforts. I ran out for a quick dinner alone — in a French restaurant, of all places — and returned for the 7:00 curtain of Bizet’s great “Carmen.”

The opera was pretty wonderful. They did so many things right — the fast-moving Act III, the brilliant Michaela, the quietly serious Carmen — but also did a lot of unnecessary things, too — a live donkey and live black stallion, a not so brilliant Don José, weird rock climbers in the mountains in Act III. It was a great time, and “Carmen” is perhaps the work I know the best out of the 6 that I will see this summer, so I was very happy to get a chance to see it live in such a historic and beautiful setting.

After two more days of London wandering, including trips to the fabulous Tate Modern Museum and the exquisite Kew Gardens in Greater London, I boarded the Eurostar to Paris and returned to that place that I thought I was ready to leave: Paris, France, my home for the last five months.

It’s great to be back here, but I’ll save that for the next post. Until then, my dear readers, know that I am safe, happy and living a life full of beautiful music. This is what summer is meant to be.