The Flying Medicine Cabinet

Because I’m a singer, I am often asked how to get rid of a cold.

My personal remedy is very simple: SLEEP!  9 times out of 10, I can fight off a cold virus by taking a nap.

But when sleep doesn’t work, I do have some favorite products.  And since I’m a frequent flyer, I travel with my own personal pharmacy.

Some singers hoard antibiotics.  This is generally a bad idea. Always consult a doctor before indulging in the meds that end in -cillin and -mycin!

But what do you do if you get a toothache on the day before an important audition in Germany? Two weeks ago, I was preparing an audition when the left part of my jaw started to ache. An impacted wisdom tooth had chosen this particular day to get infected.

So I did what anyone would do: I sent a panicked text message my dentist in Pasadena!   He texted me a prescription for Amoxicillin.  (Hooray for technology!) When I got to the local Apotheke (apothecary), I simply handed my iPhone to the pharmacist.  She squinted at the screen and asked me in German, “Is this from a real doctor?”  I was able to demonstrate my dentist’s credentials, so I got my meds. The next day, I went to my audition happy and pain-free.

Of course, it helps that I speak German. I do not speak Russian (except for phonetically, which doesn’t help in a medical emergency). When my father broke his foot in St. Petersburg in 2007, I couldn’t find the word for “ace bandage” in my pocket dictionary. So I went to the pharmacy and mimed wrapping my leg with strips of gauze. Judging by the Russian pharmacist’s reaction, it was a very entertaining performance. He was giggling uncontrollably as he went to find the bandage. But that’s another story for another blog post…

Back to business. Here is my list of favorite cold remedies:

1. Tantum Verde (one of my all-time favorites, which I discovered at a farmacia in Rome)

2. Grapefruit Seed extract (don’t ask me why it works. It’s probably a placebo. I don’t care.)

3. Sudafed (not as good as Actifed, but it will do)

4. The neti pot (if you can handle it)

5. Foods with garlic. (Seriously.)

6. SLEEP!!! and lots of tea

7. Afrin sinus

8. Zinc lozenges

If you know another product that works for you, please tell me about it in the comments section!  I’m actually very healthy, so I haven’t had a chance to sample many things! But I’m constantly asked about these products, so I like to be well informed.

Some singers also take beta blockers to deal with nerves.  I have never done this because I don’t like to play around with my biochemistry.  Avoid the powerful drugs, people!  They can affect your voice. They can affect your life. Just say no.

In the world of pharmacology, a little goes a long way. I will never forget how helpful it was to have Imodium when I landed in Kathmandu and discovered that I was allergic to yak’s milk (yaktose intolerant?).  Or the herbs that I drank when I had an unexplained fever in Tokyo. These were just simple over the counter remedies, but they made it possible for me to get onstage and sing all my concerts.

Here’s a link to a funny little video about opera singers and hypochondria. Stay healthy!

Divaesque Passport Cover

Passport covers just don’t get better than this.  A durable leather wallet with the words “jet setting diva” in sparkling turquoise letters! Those of you who read my post, “My Life in Passport Photos,” know that I was jealous of my friend Mirva‘s pink “Jet Setting Diva” passport cover.  So I got one of my own.

But these passport covers by Sicura are hard to find! I lost a bid for one on eBay and I had to wait weeks for this one to arrive. It also came with luggage tags that say, “too big to carry on” and “weekend wardrobe inside.”

 

My new passport cover made its maiden voyage to Europe two weeks ago.  I was curious to know how customs officials and airport personnel would react.

My first passport control official was very serious and stern.  Could I make him smile?  As I handed him my passport, he glanced at the cover, raised his eyebrows and scanned the passport. I waited in silence. Then as he was handing it back, he said reluctantly, “nice cover.”  (Victory!)

The next day, as I boarded a plane in London, a lady behind me admitted that her daughter would love to have one just like it.

But the best reaction ever was from a German passport control officer in Frankfurt, who asked: “are you military personnel?”  Um… no.  (?!?)

Finally, when I arrived home at LAX, the customs official got all excited:

CUSTOMS OFFICER: Jet setting diva? Whoa! What kind of work do you do?

ME: I’m an opera singer.

CUSTOMS OFFICER: Really?  Cool!

So it’s official.  Having a cool passport cover will make your voyage that much more fun. I highly recommend it.

 

London’s Little Luxuries

When I woke up on Wednesday morning, it took a moment for me to remember where I was.  Then I saw the pot of tea on the night table. Ah, yes, London!

The only problem with whirlwind audition tours is that performers rarely have enough time to really enjoy the magnificent cities on their itinerary. Like most opera singers, I build my travel plans around auditions and performances.  But I also look for little ways to experience the beauty and the culture around me.  By taking just a few hours out of a work day, I can usually find something amazing.  And these “stolen moments” make all the difference in the world! So let me share with you some of the little luxuries that I’ve discovered in London.

1. Royal Walking Tour

My hotel was located in Bayswater, just a few miles from Buckingham Palace.  This inspired me to create my very own royal walking tour (with some help from Google Maps)!  I picked up my morning coffee and pastry on Queensway, and then I proceeded to have a picnic breakfast in Kensington Gardens.  (Now you have to admit: that’s a great way to start a Wednesday!)  Then I set off on my merry way,  visiting Westminster Abbey and window shopping at Harrod’s before taking my lunch at an Italian cafe outside Buckingham Palace.  A perfect royal morning.

2. Soaking up Art

Then on Thursday, I had a few hours in between auditions.  I needed a good place to rest and recover my energy. So I decided to go to one of my favorite places in all of London: the British Museum.  I have spent many happy hours there in the past. For me, walking into the great court feels like coming home!

Museums are great places to relax because they have so many benches.  I really needed to recharge my batteries, so I slipped quietly into the ancient Assyrian room and chose a bench in the back, near the famous sculpted reliefs from Nineveh.  But eventually, I grew weary of Assyrian lion hunts, and I wandered into the Ancient Greek rooms.  Suddenly, two dozen English school boys from St Paul’s School were all around me, pointing out the details of the Parthenon Frieze. They were adorable, but they were loud, so I retreated to medieval Europe, where I found a nice comfortable bench in front of a video about Sutton Hoo.

When I was fully rested, I decided to do some shopping. Museums are great places to find classy and original gifts. The British Museum offers everything from refined objects d’art to unsual kids’ toys.  You can get bejeweled earrings or cufflinks for the medievalist in your life. Or a rubber sphinx for the toddler who is also a budding Egyptologist!  (I considered getting one of these for myself, but I’m not usually in the mood for riddles at bath time.)

Incidentally, the museum restaurant also offers a full afternoon tea between 3 and 5 PM, where you will find a heavenly combination of scones, pastries and tea with clotted cream.

3. Joining the Circus

After my final audition on Thursday evening, it was finally time to relax and celebrate with friends.  I needed to decompress after nine days on planes and trains and automobiles. So I took a walk up Charing Cross Road from Trafalgar Square into Leicester Square.   And finally, I hit the bright lights of Picadilly Circus!

Well, now I’m back at good ol’ Heathrow Airport and I’m ready to return to Los Angeles.  But it’s been a good tour — thank you for coming along!

A Soprano in Bayreuth (an epic tale)

It was a dark and stormy night.

I couldn’t see anything out my window as the train chugged along. And because there are no fast trains to Bayreuth, I was traveling at about the same speed that Richard Wagner did back in 1870s. 

As a Wagnerian soprano, I was pretty excited about seeing Bayreuth for the first time. This is the town that hosts the famous annual Wagner Festival.  And it’s the place where Wagner himself spent the last decade of his exciting and highly controversial life.

Wagner’s music set the world on fire, and I just couldn’t wait to see the place where so much music history had happened. But when I arrived, it was too late to go exploring. I checked into the Golden Lion hotel and fell into a deep jetlagged sleep, with visions of flying Dutchmen in my head.

By the time I woke up, snow was falling softly on the picturesque Bavarian streets. So I put on my hat and gloves and hit the cobblestone road. But Bayreuth is very quiet on snowy Saturday mornings! It was several minutes before I saw another human (of course, I did see three Norns, a couple of valkyries and a talking bird… Just kidding. Wagnerian humor.)

The snowflakes didn’t stick to the ground, but I could hear the crunch of frozen leaves under my feet as I walked around the Hofgarten. First, I went to the Franz Liszt Museum (the great Hungarian composer was also Wagner’s father-in-law), where I studied handwritten manuscripts of Liszt’s compositions (!) and stood quietly in the room where he spent his final hours. And then I visited Wahnfried, the historic Wagner family villa, although the house itself is being refurbished and will remain closed until 2013.

Finally, I arrived at the Festspielhaus, the opera house that Wagner built to his own specifications in 1876. This is the site of the famous summer opera festival, the Bayreuther Festspiele.  I walked the length and width of the enormous stage and tested the hall’s spectacular accoustics. I would dearly love to spend more time on that stage.

But you don’t have to sing at the Festspielhaus to experience Richard Wagner in Bayreuth. The town is peppered with subtle references to his operas. Need directions to the station? Take a right on Meistersinger Street. Want to go to the festival? Meet me on the corner of Nibelungen and Tristan! If you want to relax, you can enjoy the local spa: Lohengrin Thermal Baths. (I wonder if they have any swans there?) And if all this talk of opera is giving you a headache, just get some aspirin at the Tannhäuser Pharmacy!

Nevertheless, this city is not just about Richard Wagner.  As I walked around the Old Town today, I started to get a vision for what Bayreuth had been like before its most famous (and somewhat infamous) resident arrived.  There is a beautiful 18th century castle as well as several charming Baroque churches. Best of all, there’s another opera house! The Markgräfliches Opernhaus is a breathtaking example of German Rococo.

But at the end of my magical weekend in Bayreuth, it still seemed like I had forgotten something. So I went through my mental checklist one more time: Festspielhaus, Baroque opera house, castle, Liszt Museum, Wahnfried… but I didn’t slay any dragons, marry any mysterious knights, or steal any golden rings.   I didn’t even immolate!  I guess it doesn’t matter.  After all, you should always leave something for your second visit to Bayreuth…

Pavarotti Airport

A few minutes ago, I landed at the Lindbergh Field San Diego Airport.

And that got me thinking about cool airport names. Why stick with a prosaic name like LAX when you could name your airport Sky Harbor (Phoenix) or Le Bourget (Paris)?

Many airports are named after military heroes. Consider Charles de Gaulle Airport (Paris), King Shaka International Airport (Durban), and my favorite, Alexander the Great Airport (Skopje, Macedonia).

Just occasionally, airports are named for artists. There’s Charles Schulz M. Airport in Sonoma. And in Malaga, they named one of their terminals after Pablo Picasso (c’mon, doesn’t the guy deserve a whole airport)?

The Italians certainly know how to name their airports.  Leonardo Da Vinci Airport (Rome), Cristoforo Colombo Airport (Genova), Galileo Galilei Airport (Pisa), and of course, Giuseppe Verdi Parma Airport are great examples.

Hey, want to play some airport trivia? In which cities would you find these airports:

a. Mohammed V Airport
b. Franz Josef Strauß Airport
c. George Bush Interncontinental Airport
d. Chapatri Shivaji International Airport
e. Bob Hope Airport
f.  Robin Hood Airport

{You’ll find the answer key below. Just scroll down.}

Some great musicians have also been “airported.” We have Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, John Lennon Airport in Liverpool, the Warsaw Chopin Airport and, best of all, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Airport in Salzburg.

But here’s my question: why not name airports after opera singers? After all, opera singers spend a lot of time in airports! And we sing stratospheric notes! Besides, naming an airport after a diva gives it a touch of class. Just imagine the dramatic effect of a Maria Callas Airport in Greece. Or a Joan Sutherland Airport in Australia. Or … how about the Luciano Pavarotti International Airport of Modena? Wouldn’t that be cool? Dare to dream!

Answer Key:

a. Casablanca
b. Munich
c. Houston
d. Mumbai
e. Burbank
f. Doncaster/Sheffield (you guessed Nottingham, didn’t you?)

Well now it’s time for me to fly to an airport that was once called the Great West Aerodrome… located in a little English hamlet named Heath Row.  😉

Panning for Gold in San Francisco

“What better way to celebrate the New Year than by going back in time?”  I thought as my plane touched down at SFO on Monday morning. “Instead of doing all the usual touristy things,  I’ll take a Gold Rush tour!”

I’ve always pictured Old San Francisco as a wild Western town. My mental image of it was a cross between Puccini’s opera, Girl of the Golden West, and that scene from Seabiscuit where Charles Howard tries to open a bicycle shop on Van Ness Avenue.

I couldn’t check into my hotel right away, so there was time to indulge this fantasy. And with visions of cowboys in my head, I rolled my little pink suitcase down Market Street, in search of the Old West.

Thus began a comedy of errors. First, I attempted to download an audio guide to the Gold Rush, but it would not play on my iPhone. So I hunted down the Wells Fargo Museum, which turned out to be closed for New Year’s. Then I searched for the famous Belli building, only to discover that it was invisible under its scaffolding. I did manage to find the old headquarters of the Pony Express, but in the absence of any ponies, it just wasn’t that exciting.  Finally, I spotted something quintessentially Western: a saloon!

Curious, I peered inside.  There were a bunch of guys at the bar drinking whiskey. But as soon as my shadow fell across the threshold, everyone stopped talking.  I guess they don’t serve a lot of blonde girls with bright pink suitcases? By this time, I was tired and hungry, and I felt like a bedraggled 49er! So I pulled up my sleeves and sidled up to the bar.  But when I asked for a menu, it became clear that this was not the kind of saloon where a tourist can get lunch. One bearded fellow gestured at the TV and said meekly, “we don’t actually have food but we can change the channel to the Food Network if you want.”

So I gave up and indulged in a more typical San Francisco experience: a bowl of clam chowder and a loaf of sourdough at the Fog City Diner. By this time, I had hiked all over the historic Jackson Square district, as well as Nob Hill, Chinatown, Little Italy, the Financial District and Fisherman’s Wharf, while enjoying spectacular views of the Bay Bridge. So I was ready to call it a day.

But my journey isn’t over yet. I did not actually come to San Francisco to learn about the Wild West.  The Bay Area is home to many fine opera companies and I am here to audition for one of them. Maybe I’ll strike gold, after all?