Welcome to South Africa

photo(1)The airport in Johannesburg was not quite what I expected.  From what others had told me, I was bracing for an atmosphere of controlled chaos, like the  international terminal at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport. But my information was seriously out of date. The O.R. Tambo airport is clean and bright and efficient, featuring high-end shops like Gucci and Montblanc.  It feels just like dozens of other international airports across the world; the only sign of Africana was a large plastic elephant in one corner of the concourse.

The team of the No. 1 Ladies’ Opera Festival traveled in two separate groups. Bogdan Dulu, our star pianist, was flying on his own from Vancouver to Johannesburg. But I was traveling with Nani Sinha, our fabulous mezzo, and my mother, who is helping to coordinate the music program for AIDS orphans in Gaborone.

Weflew from Los Angeles with KLM Royal Dutch Airlines (or, as I like to call them, “the Flying Dutchmen.”) The seats were a bit cramped, but there was a wide selection of movies (including a performance of Aida conducted by Zubin Mehta) and copious amounts of airplane food. We spent twenty-one hours in the air, not including a dangerously tight connection in Amsterdam. I slept most of the journey, but fortunately I was awake to see the sand dunes of the Sahara Desert from 30,000 feet!

Meanwhile, Bogdan had a very different experience on British Airways — on his way from Canada to South Africa, he managed to spend a snowy day in London!

When we finally met up, it was almost midnight in Joburg, but we celebrated the beginning of our festival by going out for pizza. To our delight, we discovered that the pizzas at Cappello Pizzeria were named after world leaders! Check Nani’s blog if you want to know whether we liked the Obama pizza better than the Mandela pizza. After the global-leader-pizza-party, we called it a night.  There is much to do in the next few days.

The adventure has begun!

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Soprano in NorCal

Watch out — I just showered some high notes on Northern California!

I was invited up north for a couple of auditions. Auditioning is a funny thing. A typical opera audition only lasts about 10 minutes.

That’s enough time to sing two or three arias, and have a quick chat with the casting director. Opera singers will often travel for days to get their 10 minutes onstage!

And we plan our audition tours very carefully to ensure that we will have “a good ten minutes.”  We eat well, we sleep well, we save our energy, we warm up our voices and we focus our minds… all so that we can be dazzling when we step into the spotlight.

But what happens when the audition is over?  That’s when it’s time to relax and have fun! Whenever I audition in a new city, I just love to go exploring. So without further ado, here are my latest travel tips:

Sacramento

* California State Capitol Museum – Inside the magnificent capitol building, you can take a 45-minute tour emphasizing Californian history and politics. Unfortunately, there is no coatroom where you can leave your luggage, so I had to drag my little pink suitcase through the entire State Legislature, into the Senate, through the Assembly, up into the cupola, down into the basement, past the Governor’s office, and out into the gardens. But I had a great time.

* Old Sacramento – This historic part of town has an Old West atmosphere. There are several Gold Rush exhibits nearby; in fact, this would have been a better setting for the ill-fated Gold Rush tour that I took in San Francisco in January.

* Sacramento International Airport – Don’t ask me why there is a huge red rabbit suspended from the ceiling of the Sacramento Airport. It’s artistic, and it’s fun, and that’s good enough for me. In fact, there are a lot of fun surprises in Terminal B, including WI-FI lounges and a massage bar.  If you want a bite to eat, I can recommend the Gateway Bar, which features cushioned sofas, a selection of California wines, and a really amazing Greek sandwich (the “Icon,” a heavenly combination of gyro meat, lamb gravy, and tzatziki).

San Jose

* San Jose Museum of Art – if you like contemporary art, you’ll love this colorful collection.  And if you simply need to take a break, you can sit beneath the palm trees in the outdoor plaza, or visit the museum shop and café inside.

* Extended Stay Deluxe Hotel (San Jose) –  My suite included a kitchen, a desk, a queen-sized bed, a sofa, a TV, and a washroom with a full bathtub. I also had access to the swimming pool, the jacuzzi, the fitness room (mostly cardio, no free weights),  and free ensuite high-speed internet. The hotel has plenty of parking, and is located just one mile from the airport and two blocks from the nearest light-rail station. The Bay Area isn’t cheap, and it can be tough to find affordable accommodations in a town where it costs $15 just to open the door of a taxi cab!  But this hotel fit neatly into my travel budget.

Norman Mineta San Jose International Airport deserves a shout-out from the Globetrotting Soprano because it is the only airport I have ever seen that has live piano music in the baggage claim area! That’s pretty impressive in and of itself.

And that’s all for today. Have a great weekend!

The Day I Saw Mount Everest

Kathmandu, 2009 ~ My Himalayan adventure began very early on a Thursday morning.

It was the beginning of monsoon season, and there were some very black clouds on the horizon. I thought I felt some raindrops on my neck as we headed for Tribhuvan Airport.

We had flown into the same airport when we first arrived in Nepal on a flight from Bangkok, but we had come into the international terminal. The security check at the domestic terminal involved separating into male and female lines. To enter the departure lounge, we first had to enter a special curtained room, so that a gender-appropriate official could check us.

“Oh, you’ll love the domestic terminal,” an American friend had told me.  “It’s straight out of Indiana Jones. They sell whips and knives. There’s a snake charmer in the corner.”

He was joking, of course. When I passed through the heavy curtains, I found myself in a very normal looking departure lounge, with powder blue walls and large posters advertising Yeti Airlines and Buddha Air. The plastic benches were full of people waiting for their flights. There was a table in the corner where a man was selling instant coffee with yak’s milk.

I sat down on the floor with my mom and another friend from Hope Partnership Nepal. We had come to Nepal to create a music festival and to do some service projects.  But we had this morning off, and we wanted to fly around Mt. Everest!

We were told that our flight might be canceled because of the weather. We waited quietly for over an hour, wondering if our plane would be allowed to take off. The mood in the lounge was very somber. There was a smell coming from the restroom, which featured a hole in the ground and a bucket of water but no toilet paper. Finally, a crackling voice came over the loudspeaker.  “Buddha Air, next flight departing at 7:06.”  Everything was announced in both Nepali and English.

As we boarded the tiny plane, I tried to remember some Nepali phrases that my friend Rabin had taught me: तपाईंलाई कस्तो छ? (How are you?) मलाइ सन्चै छ । तपाईलाई नि? (I’m fine, thanks. And you?)  I could never make the words stick in my head.

Our tour guide greeted us warmly and explained that we might not be able to see much.  It was raining, after all.  If the storm got worse, we would have to return without seeing the Himalayas at all.

We ascended slowly, leaving the rooftops of Kathmandu far below. Suddenly, we broke through the clouds into a bright, sunlit world!  Nobody dared to speak.  We were in a magical place.

“Mom, we’re at the top of the world!” I whispered.

It is a strangely wonderful thing to view a 29,000-foot mountain from 30,000 feet. I felt like we were close enough to see the ice melt!  It was truly one of the most majestic things I have ever seen.

The tour guide ticked off the names of the mountains as we passed each one: “Nuptse. Everest. Lhotse. Makalu.” We took turns going up to the cockpit to see the pilot’s view, which was even more spectacular. Fluffy white clouds were nuzzled against the peaks, and the sky was azure blue. The mountains themselves were absolutely vast; you could actually feel how big they were.

Later, I tried to put that feeling into my music as I was singing, but I couldn’t make a sound that was both earthy and ethereal at the same time.

It’s been three years since I was on that little plane in the Himalayas. But I’ll never forget that breathtaking moment when we broke through the clouds. That memory helps me get through less beautiful moments.

I didn’t actually climb Everest, and I may never go trekking in the Himalayas. But I know those mountains personally, and I think about them often.

      Once again
      Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
      That on a wild secluded scene impress
      Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
      The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
                     - William Wordsworth
                     "Lines Composed A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey"

The Fear of Flying Cellos

Life just got a little easier for traveling musicians.

Last month, the U.S. Congress passed a law that musical instruments qualify as carry-on luggage, and that musicians may purchase a seat for oversized instruments (such as cellos). See the full text of the law here.

Until now, each airline has determined its own policy.  But this leads to unnecessary stress and confusion before take-off.

As a singer, I don’t usually have to deal with this.  My instrument fits neatly in my throat!

Cello photo by Miroquartet

But on my way to Nepal in 2009, I panicked when I realized I would need to transport a flute, a clarinet, and a viola on an airplane.  These instruments had been donated to the Kathmandu Jazz Conservatory as part of the Kathmandu Music for Peace Festival, and I was responsible for them. I was terrified I’d have to put them in cargo.

My mother, who was traveling with me, threatened to wrap the viola in a baby blanket and carry it to Nepal on her lap.  She planned to tell the attendants that her baby was named Viola Feldmeth!  (That might have worked. My mom is very persuasive.) But fortunately, Thai Airways had no problem with our viola, and it arrived in Kathmandu in one piece.

The Canadian violist Paul Casey was not so lucky.  On a fateful flight in 2006, he was forced to check his $14,000 viola.  When he retrieved it at baggage claim, it had been crushed to pieces.

I recently heard a horror story about a cellist who purchased an additional seat for his instrument. It was very expensive, but at least he had the peace of mind of knowing it would be flying next to him. Then, as soon as he had strapped the cello into its chair, the airline attendant rudely told him to remove it. Shocked, the man tried to argue, until the pilot got involved. They finally forced him to put his cello in a closet.

Which makes you wonder, “why are people afraid of cellos on planes?”  Is this some kind of cellophobia (fear of flying cellos)? I mean, what’s a cello going to do at 30,000 feet? Pop a string?

Anyway, this type of thing won’t happen again.  Violists are now allowed to bring their violas aboard. And cellists have the freedom to spend a lot of money on a second seat. These are small victories, my friends, but important ones!

By the way, I think I’m going to produce an airplane movie. It will be a sequel to that horror flick, “Snakes on a Plane.”  I’m going to call it, “Cellos on a Plane.”

Airplane Novels for Opera Lovers

“Novels and opera are like sisters. They love each other, they feed each other, they grow together.” – Antonio Skarmeta

I love to read and I love to travel.  So I need a large selection of airplane novels. I’m always looking for my next “good read.” And some of my favorite stories are about traveling opera singers!

It’s not that I’m obsessed with opera. (Well, not much.) But novels about opera usually have that intoxicating mix of glamor, romance, history, intrigue, and European locations. They are usually self-indulgent without being cheap and superficial. So if you’re looking for an operatic airplane novel, you’ve come to the right blog.

But what are the best novels about opera? This has been a popular discussion on my Facebook page. My friends and fans always have the best suggestions. Here are some of their top picks. Just click on the picture for more info:




If you love your Kindle as much as I do, you’ll be pleased to see that most of these are available for instant download.

Have I missed any great books? Let me know!  Happy reading.

Luggage Personality Quiz

What’s your luggage personality?

You can tell a lot about a person by looking at her luggage. Having spent a lot of time in airports, I’ve become an expert at luggage profiling.

Parents with small children carry a ton of extra gear when they travel. Backpackers stuff everything into one (ginormous) khaki pack. College kids have more technology in their pockets than you can find at an Apple Store. Business folk carry a laptop in one hand and a Starbucks cup in the other. And opera singers pack a bunch of “extra” ballgowns… bet you didn’t know that.

So how about you?  What’s your travel type? Take my quick quiz:

1. When they unzip your bag at customs, you blush because you know you packed too many…

a. handcrafted Aboriginal beads

b. diapers, LEGOs, Spongebob toys, remote control dinosaurs, doll clothes, pack-n-plays, pipe cleaners and hamster pellets

c. iPods

d. ballgowns

2. When you empty your pockets at security, you find:

a. a folded street map of Vladivostok

b. crumpled receipts, loose change, bubble gum wrappers, and one yellow sock

c. your wallet

d. something with rhinestones on it

3. When buying luggage, you ask:

a. “Does this have a compartment for my collection of collapsible hunting knives?”

b. “This suitcase isn’t big enough. Do you have a steamer trunk?”

c. “Do people still buy luggage?”

d. “Does it come in pink?”

4. When the airline attendant tries to check your carry-on because there’s not enough space in the overhead compartment, you reply:

a. “Can you check it all the way through to Abu Dhabi, or do I have to re-check it in Amsterdam?”

b.”It’s heavier than I am. You’ll never get it off this plane.”

c. “But it fits right under my seat!”

d. “Je m’excuse! Je n’ai pas compris, madame. Parlez-vous français?”

5. When the lady at the check-in counter tells you that your luggage is “overweight,” you reply:

a. “This one bag contains everything I need for the next 189 days.”

b.”Yeah, my suitcase always gains weight on vacation.”

c. “It only weighed 16 ounces at home. You must be leaning on the scale.”

d. “I’m carrying the full orchestral score of the greatest opera ever written. Can’t you make an exception? The world needs this music.”

 

ANSWER KEY:

If you chose mostly A’s, then you’re a SUPER NOMAD.  You can travel the world with a few handy items and the clothes on your back.  I would be just like you, except that I wouldn’t know where to put my extra ballgowns. But you should check out this post about how to pack for the Western Sahara.

If you chose mostly B’s, then you are a BLOATED FLOATER.  You have a lot of baggage, and I mean that literally. Are you traveling with young kids?  (If so, you’re doing great! Keep up the good work.)  Are you setting sail for the New World with all your worldly belongings?  (If so, you’re doing great! Keep up the good work.)  But if not, then you’ve got way too much stuff!  Before you park your U-Haul at the airport, think about what you really need.  Organize. Simplify.

If you chose mostly C’s, then you’re a CARRY-ON CAPTAIN.  You know how to fit everything into a compact space.  You breeze through security with no extra hassle, and you disembark a full thirty minutes before that poor family with the twin toddlers.  I envy you.

If you chose mostly D’s, then, congratulations! You are a true JET-SETTING DIVA.  You understand that luggage has to be both functional and fabulous. Your suitcase might be heavy, but at least it’s pink. You are a savvy traveler with a sense of dramatic flair. You should probably order this passport cover by Sicura.

Now that you know your luggage personality type, you’re ready to board. PanAm image courtesy of ScreenRant.

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.

 

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.  😉

Best of 2011: Favorite Airports, Airlines & Hotels

On the last day of the year, it’s traditional to look back over one’s travel itineraries and choose the year’s best airports, airlines and hotels.

Having experienced 21 airports, 10 airlines and 12 hotels this year, I made a cute “word cloud” of my itineraries at Tagxedo.com  (see left)

Of course, travel writers have different opinions about what constitutes the best of the best.

My good friend Mirva Lempiäinen, a Quality Hunter for Finnair, has already published her picks.  I especially liked her hotel ratings!

Hong Kong International Airport won the Skytrax World Airport Award for 2011, and Qatar Airways ran away with Best Airline.  I did not spend much time in Asia this year, so I have not yet experienced the joys of HKG or Qatar Airways.

My own travels focused more on Europe and North America. While luxury is important to any jet-setting diva, I also look for the best prices, and I place a lot of value on personality and flair.  So without further ado, here are the Globetrotting Soprano’s Most Outstanding Airports, Airlines & Hotels of 2011:

AIRPORTS

1. Vancouver International Airport: I was utterly charmed by the rustic British Columbian decor which I described in detail here.

2. Amsterdam Schiphol Airport: This snazzy Dutch airport is comfortable and convenient, featuring easy access to public transportation and an enthusiasm for giant television screens!

3. Long Beach Airport (Long Beach, California):  I usually prefer the big international airports, but there’s something special about Long Beach. I love its simplicity and 1950s style. You won’t have to wait in long lines here. It’s quiet airport with a hometown feeling, and yet there’s free WIFI!

AIRLINES

1. British Airways: this “4-star” airline continues to provide good seat comfort, great entertainment and high-quality tea!

2. Air Canada: this year’s surprise favorite offers transatlantic flights at an affordable price.  They also feature good classical music in the in-flight audio program!

3. Austrian Airlines: deserves kudos for friendliness and hospitality.

HOTELS

1. Penta Hotel Leipzig (Leipzig, Germany):  As a soprano, I have a weakness for sparkly things, so I went wild over the disco theme! If you like mirror balls in the lobby and glittering gold floors in the elevator, this is the hotel for you. You can enjoy the breakfast room, high-speed internet, fitness center, and indoor swimming pool without spending a lot of money.

Honorable mentions go to two other German hotels with bold personality: Artists and designers will love the surprising colors and shapes in Cologne’s unique Hotel Cristall. I also enjoyed the NH Düsseldorf City with its vast lobby, high ceilings and glass elevators.

2. Hotel Astor (Zurich, Switzerland): Clean, comfortable, and central.  It’s not the most exciting hotel from the outside, but Swiss hotels aren’t cheap, and it’s hard to find a better value for money in the very center of Zurich.

3. Hotel Milano (Modena, Italy): Quaint Italian style within walking distance of the train station and the Old Town.  I enjoyed a quiet, spacious room with a queen-sized bed and an oversized bathtub.  The thick wooden shutters opened onto a lovely view.

So what are your favorite airports, airlines and hotels? I’d love to know what you think. Please share!

My Life in Passport Pictures

My parents must have known that I would become a world traveler: I was issued my first passport at the age of 4 weeks!

I was born in Hollywood, but my family moved to Scotland a few weeks later so that my Dad could earn his PhD at the University of Edinburgh. This photo tells a whole story: my Mom looks like a supermodel (she still does.) My sister Heather is obviously not thrilled about the whole passport picture experience. But I appear to be sleeping through it.  In fact, I’m told that I slept through the entire transatlantic flight!  Perhaps this explains why I am still able to sleep on planes: early conditioning.

But I almost didn’t survive that first flight to London Heathrow.  My mother tells this story:

As we boarded the plane, I followed after Heather, clutching a purse, a diaper bag, an overstuffed carry-on case and wearing a backpack designed to carry a toddler.  At barely two months of age, Lindsay was only a sleeping bump in the bottom of the backpack but as I edged down the aisle, one of the shoulder straps broke! The pack began to sway gently from side to side behind me.  Unable to even turn around, I went white and yelped!  An attendant quickly figured out the problem and helped me re-fasten the strap while I started babbling that we were moving to Scotland for three years and, and, and…. “I didn’t think you were going for three weeks, Luv,” he said with a wry smile as he helped me limp to my seat with the baby and the luggage.  We were seated next to an elderly lady in a black chador who seemed terrified, gripping a row of beads, rocking back and forth and softly chanting prayers throughout the take-off.  That was our first flight to Europe.

It’s quite fortunate that I didn’t get dropped on my head before I’d even had a chance to travel the world. But my real passport drama occurred in Rome, twenty years after that first international flight.  I was in Italy for the very first time, and as a naîve young music student, I managed to get my passport stolen before I had even laid eyes on the Colosseum!  So I spent my first day in Rome at the American Embassy on the Via Veneto.  I ducked into an automatic photo booth to get this photo for my temporary replacement passport.  After the blinding flash, I staggered out and handed the picture to the Italian man behind the desk. He glanced at the photo, did a theatrical double-take, kissed his fingertips and exclaimed, “Ma che bella!  È venuta bene, la foto, no?”  I smiled and blushed. It was a very Italian moment.

My “Roman” passport served me well. I got it extended at the U.S. Embassy in Vienna and filled it up with stamps (and student visas) from Austria, Italy, Spain, Japan, Russia and a host of other countries. But then before I went to Nepal and Thailand in 2009, I decided it was finally time for a new passport.

Just a couple of days ago, I discovered that my friend Mirva Lempiäinen (a world-traveling journalist who writes a fabulous travel blog for Finnair) is in the possession of a pink passport cover that reads “JET SETTING DIVA.”  Seriously.  Yeah, I gotta get one of those.  Happy travels, everyone!