Hawaii: Opera in Paradise

The Big Island, 2009 ~ I stood outside the Kona International Airport, squinting in the sunlight.

Just a few days earlier, I had been walking around Kathmandu, in the shadow of the biggest mountains on earth. Now I was on an island in the middle of the Pacific.

Talk about culture shock.

This was my first trip to Hawaii.  I had come to the Big Island to sing at the Hawaii Performing Arts Festival, but my heart was still in Nepal. Here I was in a tropical paradise, but I could barely take it in.  It felt like I was dreaming.

I rented a small convertible and started driving north along Queen Kaahumanu Highway. The ocean sparkled in the sunlight.  When I glanced up the lush green hills, I caught sight of the biggest and brightest rainbow I had ever seen! Everything seemed so surreal.

The road twisted up a steep hill, away from the ocean. Suddenly, I found myself in a new sub-climate with cattle ranches and pine trees. The air smelled like wet grass and eucalyptus. I parked my car outside a little chapel and checked my wristwatch.  It was 6:29 PM.  I was on time for the concert!

The legendary Wagnerian singer Jeannine Altmeyer was about to sing an excerpt from Die Walküre, right here in this church on the Big Island of Hawaii.  And I was going to hear it live.  Just for a second, I leaned back on the headrest and closed my eyes. “This is the most amazing life,” I thought to myself. Then I rushed inside to hear some opera.

Over the next two weeks, I got to perform all over the Big Island with my new friends from HPAF.  We sang Mozart under the fir trees. We sang Puccini on the beach.  We sang Kurt Weill at a little theater in Hilo.

We also met the famous American composer, Ricky Ian Gordon, and performed one of his operas, The Grapes of Wrath. And I even got to sing some Wagner arias for Ms. Altmeyer! The Hawaii Performing Arts Festival was a truly amazing experience.

But by the end of July, I needed a vacation! Singing is a dream job, but it’s also a lot of hard work. As soon as the festival was over, I decided it was time for a little rest and recreation.  First, I took my convertible all over the Big Island. And then I hit Oahu with my friend Karina. It was the trip of a lifetime.

So here are my tips for the Ultimate Hawaiian Vacation:

#1. Meet a Volcano

Kilauea is one of the world’s most active volcanoes.   It’s a pretty exciting day trip.

#2. Stand in A Waterfall

I loved exploring Akaka Falls State Park.

#3. Surf the Waves in an Outrigger Canoe in Waikiki

Yes, it’s a tourist trap.  But this is more fun than you can possibly imagine. If you want to to experience the rush of surfing, but you can’t control your own surfboard, this is your sport:

#4. Go Snorkeling 

I met a gorgeous yellow butterfly fish just under the surface of Hanauma Bay.

#5. Go Horseback Riding in the Jungle

My horse really just wanted to eat the rainforest. He kept munching on the scenery. But what a beautiful ride!

Oh, and here I am on the “set” of LOST.

Needless to say, I had a pretty good time in Hawaii.  I made my Facebook friends so jealous that some of them started boycotting my status updates. 😉 It was an amazing adventure. I will never forget the summer of 2009.

My one regret is that I did not get to see a production at the Hawaii Opera Theatre in Honolulu.  I guess I’ll save that for my next trip.  Aloha!

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.”

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.

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?

the City of Angels (and how to use it)

Having lived in some of the most beautiful places in the world, I never get tired of returning to Los Angeles.

L.A. has so much natural beauty! The people are friendly. The weather is beautiful.  There is access to all of the resources of a major metropolis. There’s a good reason why millions of people want to live here.

Of course, there are disadvantages, too.  The city sprawls out over more than 500 square miles, which means that it can take a lot of time to get from here to there.  There is smog (although the air is usually crystal clear at the beach) and there is traffic (although it is generally predictable and therefore avoidable, if you know the short cuts).

But in general, I find that Los Angeles is misunderstood. So often, people will tell me: “I was in L.A. once. It took us forever to get out of the airport and there was so much traffic on the freeway.  Then we went to some conference center in a sketchy part of town.  It was terrible. I could never live there.”  When I ask them if they visited the South Bay, or the foothills, or the art museums, or the sports stadiums, or the university campuses, or the Hollywood Bowl, or any of the beaches, they look at me blankly and mumble that they were in Malibu for thirty minutes but they didn’t actually go to the beach. Uh-huh.  Yeah, you haven’t really been to L.A.

When planning a tip to L.A., imagine that you are visiting a wild and foreign landscape!  Los Angeles is not like other cities, so don’t expect it to feel familiar. Be kind to the natives, even if you think their customs are a little weird — try to get in a mentality where there is an exaggerated emphasis on cars, movies, and beach volleyball.

Got that? OK.  Now, here are my 4 basic rules for having a good time in the Southland:

1. Respect the Freeway

The first mistake that tourists make is to assume that the city has a “center.”  Downtown L.A. is a very cool urban community (boasting the Music Center and our new Cathedral, among other things), but it is not the “center” of Los Angeles in the European sense.  Despite the success of Beverly Hills 90210, there is no single zip code where everything happens.  Greater Los Angeles is a collection of smaller communities, each with its own unique culture.  You might hate being downtown, but love the beach cities.  You might prefer the mountain vistas of La Cañada to the fashionistas of Rodeo Drive.  You might like Koreatown better than Olvera Street. But it’s all part of L.A.! Angelenos spend a lot of time on the road, going from one town to the next, without ever leaving L.A. My mom once quipped, “Los Angeles is a freeway looking for a city.”

Treat the freeways with respect.  A freeway is a wild and powerful animal, but it can really help you… as long as you obey its laws and use its energy to your own advantage. If you do get lost, ask someone for directions.  Angelenos love to talk about freeways. We talk about the traffic with the same enthusiasm that other people talk about the weather.

Freeway photo by Tom & Michele Grimm, DiscoverLosAngeles.com

2.  Plan ahead

I love to be spontaneous!  But as a native of L.A., I know that this city requires a lot of planning.  If you want to cover more than 90 miles in a day (not unusual here), and still arrive at the right place at the right time,  you have to think ahead.  Get online before you plan your day: the Internet will help you map your route, buy your tickets, and choose where you want to have lunch before you get there.  Also plan what you will do in the car.  Road rage rarely happens to people who are having good conversations, listening to their favorite music, or enjoying an audio book.

3. Enjoy the Great Outdoors

Please, please, please do not leave L.A. without at least putting your toes in the Pacific Ocean.  Go hiking, go kayaking, go parasailing.  If you like cycling, enjoy the 25-mile bike path from the trendy Santa Monica Pier to the more remote beauty of Palos Verdes.

4. Go to the Opera

It seems that L.A. is on the verge of becoming one of the world capitals of classical music.  Under the musical leadership of James Conlon and Placido Domingo, L.A. Opera consistently attracts world class artists for stellar productions.  Gustavo Dudamel is pouring his dynamic energy into the L.A. Philharmonic. The L.A. Master Chorale is utterly fantastic. And the Hollywood Bowl continues to offer classical concerts to audiences of 18,000!

Of course,  I don’t spend all my time in L.A.  If you’ve read this blog before, you know that I am totally in love with Europe.  I love European music, European culture, European history, European food, European architecture! I feel very much at home there. And that’s why I’m often on a plane to London, Paris or Vienna.  But at the same time… I’m pretty stoked about spending Christmas with my family in the city of angels. 

Wishing you all a very merry Christmas from L.A.!