Botswana on My Mind

botswanaI’ve started to dream about Africa.

In April, I’ll be launching an opera festival in the heart of Botswana. That’s my new year’s resolution for 2013! But organizing a festival takes a lot of mental energy. I think about it constantly. I talk about it. I even dream about it. I have Botswana on the brain, and I haven’t even been there yet.

The No. 1 Ladies’ Opera Festival was inspired by a talented group of opera singers in Gaborone, Botswana. These dynamic singers are doing exciting work and producing some very original opera. But it’s hard to sustain an opera company in Southern Africa, and due to financial problems, they have just lost their opera house.

Our festival will put these singers back in the spotlight, performing opera scenes on the biggest stages of Gaborone! Along with my team (the award-winning pianist, Bogdan Dulu, and the star mezzo-soprano Nandani Maria Sinha), I will be performing concerts and teaching workshops for the singers. The goal of the festival is to equip and inspire emerging artists in Southern Africa while bringing attention to women’s issues through musical performance. We are also hoping to make a movie about the project, to help these singers get more international attention. If you would like to click here and make a small donation, we would be so grateful. (Please write ‘No 1 Ladies’ Opera Festival’ in the designation field.)

We will also have the privilege of working with some AIDS orphans in Gaborone, and giving them a music workshop. This was an unexpected opportunity that suddenly presented itself a few weeks ago. One of the most important things that I learned in 2012 is that it’s impossible to predict how things are going to happen! Things just don’t go according to plan. It’s hard for overachievers to accept, but there are circumstances beyond our control. And that’s not such a bad thing.

For example, one of my biggest struggles… READ MORE

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The No. 1 Ladies’ Opera Festival

I have never been to Africa. But that’s about to change.

In April, I’ll be heading to Botswana to launch the No. 1 Ladies Opera Festival!

If that title sounds familiar, then you have probably read the best-selling mystery series about the No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith.  Or maybe you caught the brilliant HBO series by the same name, with superstar Jill Scott in the role of Precious Ramotswe, the best detective in Botswana.

But you may not be aware that Alexander McCall Smith also founded an opera house in Botswana’s capital city, Gaborone, called the No. 1 Ladies’ Opera House.  He established the opera house together with his friend David Slater, a marvelous musician who has been at the center of Gaborone’s classical music scene for more than thirty years. They assembled some talented singers and began to sell tickets.

My connection to Botswana is through my friend Karen Torjesen, professor of Women’s Studies at Claremont Graduate School, who is also a frequent guest professor at the University of Botswana.  One day last year,  Karen was filling out paperwork at the university when she suddenly heard a beautiful soprano voice singing classical music! It turned out that the young woman handling Karen’s work permit was an opera singer, a student of David Slater’s. Karen told her about the workshops I teach for young professional singers and my recent festival in Nepal. The young soprano was delighted, and several e-mails later, I was asking David Slater if his singers would like to have their own opera festival. He said yes.
And that’s how the No. 1 Ladies’ Opera Festival was born.

Over the next few months, this captivating little idea began to gain momentum with breathtaking speed. I was delighted when the award-winning pianist Bogdan Dulu accepted my invitation to perform with me in Gaborone. And then the fabulous mezzo-soprano Nandani Maria Sinha told me she was available to go to Africa, as well! In fact, we are planning to give concerts on the theme of “Powerful Women in Opera” in Namibia and South Africa as well as Botswana! We will also teach workshops for the singers in Gaborone, and organize some exciting concerts for them.

So the festival will feature performances by both local and international artists, as well as workshops in vocal technique and operatic repertoire.  It will culminate in an energetic closing ceremony including both classical and traditional music. By a happy coincidence, we will be there at the time of the Maitisong Festival, Botswana’s largest arts festival, so we’ll get to experience Southern African music like never before!

And we’ll get it all on film. I’ve asked the filmmaker Heidi Burkey to create a special documentary about this festival.  These young singers are already following their dream of being professional opera singers, but they face enormous odds.  It is hard to sustain an opera career in any part of the world, but it’s even harder in Botswana, and it would be so easy for these talented artists to feel isolated and discouraged. So we want to help them use media channels to gain real traction for their careers. We’ll be spreading their music across the world.

The goal of the festival is to equip and inspire emerging artists in Southern Africa while bringing attention to women’s issues through musical performance. We also hope to cultivate sustainable funding sources for local arts programs in Botswana. We are thrilled to collaborate with Claremont Graduate School, David Slater Music, the No. 1 Ladies’ Opera House and the Maitisong Festival to create an exciting new cultural event in Gaborone.

To raise money for this exciting event, I’ll be organizing a series of benefit concerts and one complete opera production in Los Angeles, so stay tuned for more details! In future blog posts, I’ll tell you even more about this wonderful group of singers in Botswana.

We do need help to fund this festival, so if you are able to make a donation, please donate here.  Every little bit helps!  Let’s make this happen.

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!