Starving Artists in Moscow

This is another “blast from the past” blog post. For some reason, I’ve been thinking about all the travel adventures I had before I ever started this blog! In my last post, I took you on a wild ride through Nepal, and this time, I’d like to take you to Russia…

There’s a certain mystique about the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. It’s a prestigious classical music contest, and it has a very old-school Russian atmosphere. But Americans have been quite successful there. Famous gold medalists include Van Cliburn (piano) in 1958 and Deborah Voigt (voice) in 1990.

So I felt humbled to be the only American vocalist invited to compete in the XIII International Tchaikovsky Competition in 2007. This is, after all, a serious international medal competition with several events (piano, cello and voice) and it only happens once every four years. I felt like I was going to the Olympics!

We were even treated like Olympians.  Our travel and housing expenses were covered by the competition. (Even my pianist’s expenses were covered, so I invited Ayako, a friend and colleague from the Mozarteum in Austria, to perform with me in Moscow.) We received free T-shirts, tote bags, commemorative pins and magnets. We all lived in the same mega-hotel, right outside the center of town, just like an Olympic Village.

The officials posted intricate schedules, where hundreds of competitors were organized by name, instrument and nationality. (“Lindsay Feldmeth, voice, USA & Ayako Watanabe, piano, Japan” — I learned to recognize our names in the Cyrillic alphabet.)

The competitors traveled into the city together by bus. (Well, Ayako and I often escaped and used the subway instead, but we’re rebellious like that.) We even took a group field trip to the Tchaikovsky Museum in Klin!

So when they announced that we would also receive a certain number of free meals, we were delighted. Like most young artists, Ayako and I were on a tight budget, and good food can be expensive in Russia. We were issued several blue “meal tickets,” for use at the cafeteria in Tchaikovsky Hall.

On the first day of the competition, we landed in the cafeteria after a long and exhausting rehearsal. I surveyed the dishes underneath the glass and pointed to a delicious dish of lamb. But the man serving the food shook his head emphatically. “Nyet.”

“Oh!” I said, looking down at the blue ticket in my hand.  “Well, that makes sense,” Ayako whispered to me in German.  “After all, it’s a free lunch. They can’t give us all lamb.”

I nodded, smiled, and pointed at a smaller dish of chicken breast. “Nyet.”  Hesitating, I indicated a corn salad.  “Nyet.”  Confused, I looked to see what the other competitors were eating. When I saw what they had chosen, I pointed sadly to a burnt piece of meat that resembled beef tongue.  “Da!” said the man happily, scooping it onto my tray.

We were still grateful for the free lunch, but it really wasn’t the best meal of the year. After that, Ayako and I ate out as often as possible. Restaurants are pricey in Moscow, but there are a variety of good places to eat within steps of Red Square, if you know where to look.  I can recommend this website.

But even if the food was underwhelming, nothing could match the experience of singing onstage at Tchaikovsky Hall.  It was a magic moment.  Afterwards, I gave a backstage interview (in English, thank goodness!) for a Russian radio program.

Throughout the experience, I was deeply touched by the Russians’ love for classical music.  I could not believe how many spectators showed up to watch the preliminary rounds of the competition — even on weekday mornings!

After the quarter finals, I went out to the lobby to get some air.  I had only been standing there for a few minutes when I was approached by an older Russian gentleman.  He pointed to my picture in the program.  “Leensee Fyeldmet?” he asked hopefully.  “Yes, that’s me,” I said. He pressed a pen into my hand and asked me to autograph his program.  Then he threw his arm around me and had his son take our picture! It was a sweet moment.

I didn’t win any medals at the Tchaikovsky Competition. But I will always consider Moscow my “Olympic” experience. до свидания!

Traffic Jam in Kathmandu

I never thought I’d say this, but I actually miss Nepali traffic jams.

When I’m sitting motionless on the 405 freeway in Los Angeles, I occasionally flash back to my experiences in Nepal.  And I think, “driving would be so much more exciting if I were back in Kathmandu!”

I never expected to travel to South Asia until my good friends at Hope Partnership Nepal started telling me thrilling stories about life in Kathmandu.  And then in 2009, I had an incredible opportunity to create the Kathmandu Music for Peace Festival, funded by Davis Projects for Peace and hosted by the Kathmandu Jazz Conservatory. I felt so privileged to visit that beautiful country and meet such wonderful people. It was the experience of a lifetime.

But my first taxi ride in Kathmandu left me feeling a little shell-shocked! Suddenly, I was at the mercy of my taxi driver; I felt like I was trapped in a video game, with all kinds of vehicles whizzing past (and honking) as we careened around tight corners.  I winced whenever I saw five people hanging off the back of a bus, or a baby strapped onto the back of a motorcycle. I instinctively held my breath whenever I thought we were going to smash into a van, a building, or a cow.

Now, I first learned to drive in the concrete jungles of Los Angeles when I was 16 years old — and that was stressful enough! — but nothing could have prepared me for Nepali traffic.

And yet, at the end of my first week in Kathmandu, the traffic started to feel normal. In fact, I developed huge admiration for Nepali drivers! Driving is an art form, and they have mastered it.  We always got where we were going, and we never hit anyone else (well… we didn’t hit them very hard). Best of all, I never saw anyone get angry; there was no “road rage.”

Driving in Kathmandu can be terrifying, but it is never boring. So just occasionally, when I’m stuck on the freeway in L.A., staring at the same old license plate for ten minutes, I get a little nostalgic for scenes like this:

Valentine Playlist

Buon San Valentino!

Dear readers, I made you a gift for Valentine’s Day. It’s a romantic playlist of amazing operatic love songs.  45 minutes of classic opera arias and love duets on YouTube.    I hope you enjoy it. Baci, Lindsay

 

Photo by Dragan Todorovic

1. Meine Lippen, sie küssen so heiß

2. Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix

3. En fermant les yeux

4.Trahir Vincent

5. Habañera

6. Che m’ami, deh, ripetemi!

7. Nessun dorma

8. O mio babbino caro

9. O soave fanciulla

10. Nedda! Silvio!

11. Winterstürme… Du bist der Lenz… O süsseste Wonne!

Voice Lessons by Kobe Bryant

Everyone’s still talking about the Superbowl.  But I’m thinking about basketball, mostly because I got to experience my first Lakers game last week.

Since I’m a native of Los Angeles, it’s a little embarrassing that this was my first trip to see the boys in purple. But basketball tickets are more expensive than opera tickets! And I do spend a lot of time in other cities.

As a newcomer to the Staples Center, I was dazzled by the spotlights on the basketball court.  And I enjoyed seeing “my” team in action. But I was most impressed by the Black Mamba himself, Kobe Bryant. (Photo courtesy of http://ambasketball.com)

In fact, I learned a lot about singing from Kobe.  (Just by watching him play basketball!)  Here’s what I took away from the game:

3 lessons that opera singers can learn from Kobe:

1. Make it Look Easy

Kobe Bryant is an elite athlete.  He has extraordinary talent, and he has put in thousands of hours of hard work. But he makes it look easy.

And that is the kind of effortless athleticism that makes a great singer.  To be a professional opera singer, you need to train your body like an athlete, train your mind like a scholar, and train your imagination like a painter. But the greatest challenge is to pursue excellence in all of those areas without ever getting tense!

Kobe manages to stay relaxed under tremendous pressure.  If he were coaching a young opera singer, I think he might say: keep your standards high, but stay loose. Don’t worry about anything. Sing with the same confidence that you have when your team is 40 points ahead.

2. Have Fun

Of course, Kobe exudes confidence on the court because he’s actually having fun.  It’s obvious that he loves this game. That playful feeling is often lost by opera singers, somewhere around their third year of conservatory training, when they become obsessed with vocal technique and forget why they started singing in the first place. But to an audience — even the most sophisticated audience — there’s nothing better than watching someone who simply loves to play the game.  Never lose the joy.

3. Be a Diva

The word “diva” has some negative connotations, and with good reason! Nobody wants to work with someone who is demanding and self-centered, whether it’s on the stage or on the court.

But let’s be honest: it’s no fun to work with artists (or athletes) who have no personality, either. There’s nothing less exciting than an opera where every singer has exactly the same sound, produced in exactly the same way.  We can do better than that!

I’m a pretty cheerful person, but I don’t want my life to be entirely “drama-free.”  I’m not advocating selfish or unkind behavior; that is never appropriate. The first rule of the theater is to respect your colleagues! But I think that opera singers should live boldly. If you’re too frightened to “make a scene,” how can you ever produce a gran scena onstage?

It’s true that basketball stars’ salaries are inflated, and opera stars’ egos are inflated. But we do need stars.  We will always need leaders who have the audacity to take risks and, yes, the self-indulgence to say something original. That’s the kind of energy that makes magic, on every playing field.

Kobe is a bit of a divo, and that’s part of his appeal. He even speaks Italian, which definitely makes him more operatic. So I am grateful to Kobe for giving me an excellent voice lesson, and I hope you enjoyed it, as well. Ciao!

Beach Music

I love falling asleep to the sound of waves crashing on the beach.

When I was growing up, my family went beach camping every summer, so I remember falling asleep to that glorious noise. There’s nothing quite like it.

And that “beach music” stays with me, even when I travel. But when I’m away from home for too long, I start to  miss my ocean.  I feel like my body is calibrated to the rhythms of the Pacific.  I can’t really appreciate the sultry, salty water of the Mediterranean, or the quick and nervous tempo of Atlantic tides.  I crave slow, powerful waves that take a full 7 seconds to breathe in … and breathe out.

We have had “bikini weather” here in Los Angeles over the past few days. On Saturday, the sky was so blue that I decided to hit the bike path in Hermosa Beach. The path extends from South Torrance all the way to Malibu, and it’s a little slice of Americana, all by itself. Everywhere you look, there are people having fun: roller blading, walking their dogs, selling sunglasses, sitting in outside cafés or playing beach volleyball in the sand. This is true beach city culture.  California cool.

And as I pedaled along the bike path, I tried to think of all of the operas that are set on beaches.  Oberon comes to mind immediately.  I once had the chance to sing Rezia’s aria to the ocean, “Ozean! du Ungeheuer,” while aboard the Queen Mary!  And how about Ariadne auf Naxos?  Ariadne has been abandoned on the Greek island of Naxos and sings her aria from a large rock.  Perhaps it could look like this?  And Amelia’s aria from Simon Boccanegra is also sung on a beach.

What is it about beaches that inspires people to sing?  There must be dozens of Italian and German songs that praise the sun and the sea and the sand!  And then there’s always the Beach Boys. 😉

Anyway, I think there should be more opera on the beach!   There are some logistical issues, and some acoustical issues, but it can work. In 2009, I sang at the Hawaii Performing Arts Festival, and we performed a full concert at a beach resort on the Big Island.  I sang Puccini under the stars with my feet in the sand.  It felt wonderful, and I later found out that the ocean had carried my voice down the beach, so that Butterfly’s aria could be heard half a mile away!

I now live on a hill above the ocean, and from here, I can’t quite hear the pounding of the surf.  So as I drift off to sleep, I’ll just have to imagine a beach opera.  Buona notte.