Why I Like Shiny Knights

I like knights in shining armor.

These days, medieval warriors get a bad rap. Their popularity has really gone down over the last two centuries. But that’s not fair.

Seriously. What maiden wouldn’t welcome a handsome champion with a sword, a shield and a swan?

In most German Romantic operas, the hero gets to be a hero.  He slays dragons, he fights for what’s right, and he lavishes attention on the ladies. It’s kinda nice!

Take the characters of Lohengrin and Elsa.  They could have used some marital counseling.  But their goodness is so refreshing.  Here are 3 things I like about the opera Lohengrin:

1. Virtue is hot

When Elsa first sees a vision of Lohengrin, she’s pretty excited about him.  She can tell that he’s one of the good guys. She sings,

In Lichter Waffen Scheine         In splendid, shining armour
ein Ritter nahte da,                   a knight approached,
so tugendlicher Reine              a man of such pure virtue
ich keinen noch ersah              as I had never seen before

Bad boys just don’t have that same appeal.  They’re a lot of fun in Act I, but then it all goes downhill. Who would choose the philandering Duke of Mantua over a noble knight? (Even Gilda regrets her choice. Sort of.)

2. Charity is cool

Lohengrin, the mysterious knight, shows up on a boat drawn by a swan. His quest is to find Elsa and fight for her innocence.

Have you noticed that international charity projects aren’t cool anymore? It’s considered arrogant and condescending if we want to improve somebody else’s quality of life. Our gifts are deemed culturally inappropriate. We can still send money to starving children, but we’re not allowed to feel good about it. If we do charity, it’s only because we have a hero complex.

As a world traveler, I know that it is essential to respect local cultures, and to honor the dignity of every person I meet.  I know that it is naïve to assume that other people need (or want) my help. I know that it is dangerous to launch a short-term service project that has no sustainable effect. I know that local problems usually have local solutions.

But I also know that problems are real. There is genuine suffering in the world. We can’t pretend it’s not there. And we have to do something about it. We need to respect cultural boundaries, but we must not use multiculturalism as an excuse for laziness!

Every charity project has flaws. But is it really better to stay home, hoard your cash and read an e-book?  That’s not the way to change the world. Sometimes, you have to take a risk. Grab your sword, call your swan, and get on that boat.

3. Chivalry is still alive

Lohengrin is kind to Elsa.  He’s not very forthcoming about his own past, but he’s very respectful of hers. He rescues her when she’s in distress.

I once had to be rescued by a lifeguard while swimming off the coast of California. The waves got too big for me. As a novice triathlete, I had made some poor decisions and I’d spent all my energy. I knew that I didn’t have enough strength to make it back to shore, so I waved to someone who did. (No, he wasn’t wearing a suit of armor.)

Getting rescued isn’t such a bad thing.  It doesn’t make me less powerful as a woman.  It means I needed some help. That’s all. We all need help sometimes. And I really appreciate being alive.

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not suggesting that we return to a tenth-century worldview. Or that women should only date Wagnerian tenors. 

I’m just challenging the idea that there is no value in medieval German legends. Lohengrin is only a story, but it has a compelling message. Heroic stories are very inspiring. The Dark Ages weren’t really that dark.  After all, some of those guys knew how to shine!

Addicted to German

The German language is like coffee.

It tastes bitter at first, but it’s incredibly addictive.

To the English ear, it is not the most beautiful of European languages. But at least it has some bite!

This authentic picture of German coffee is provided by Research in Germany.

My grandfather was German and I was familiar with the sounds of German before I ever studied the language. I had the rare chance to learn German in an American high school, and it changed my life. German opens whole new worlds of opportunity, not only for engineers and business people but also for scholars and musicians! Still, it was not until I moved to Austria (at the age of 20) that I realized that German could be habit-forming.

Gutteral sounds are not the most pleasing to hear, but they are extremely satisfying to say!  And if you crave elegance, you can find it in German’s pure, round vowels. Best of all, the explosive consonants give the listener a special rhythmic pleasure that is absent from, say, French. German snaps and crackles and pops!

In my first few months in Salzburg, I let the German language seep into every corner of my mind. I limited my contact with my English-speaking friends and insisted on only speaking German to my professors and colleagues. All of my courses at the Mozarteum were taught in German and the lingua franca of the cafeteria was German. My brain adapted to my personal linguistic experiment.  By the end of my third year in Austria, I was thinking and dreaming in German.

The wonderful thing about thinking in a different language is that you start to think in different directions. You can’t help but have new creative insights!  This happens automatically when you use a different word order, or express your feelings with a different metaphor, than you would have used in your own language. You start to see things differently, not just from a different cultural perspective, but from a different linguistic perspective, as well.

My parents were a little alarmed when I first came home for vacation and had to search for English words. But it provided a lot of spontaneous humor at the dinner table.  Naturally, the brain adapts (again!) very quickly to conversation in its native language. And all of this brain exercise is very healthy; recent studies indicate that people who are bilingual have higher cognitive function and better long-term brain health.

Of course, I was studying music, and music has a way of getting under your skin. By singing German opera and German Lieder (art songs), I ensured that German would stay in my soul forever.  There is a deep beauty in German Romantic poetry that has been set to music.  Du holde Kunst, ich danke dir dafür!

So why is German considered so difficult? It has a relatively small vocabulary, but a very sophisticated grammatical structure. That’s why German is not the easiest language for an English-speaker to learn, even though English is a Germanic language. I made a ton of mistakes while learning German — and I still do!

But now, I have a tender spot in my heart for German syntax. I even get nostalgic for the sound of the Austrian dialect. If I stay away from Austria for too long, I have to feed my German addiction by reading German novels and watching Austrian TV programs.

You may have seen this chart on Facebook.  It insinuates that German is not as pretty as other European languages. Which is true!!!

But German has its own crackling energy. So be careful the next time that you pick up a German book, or start talking to a German friend. German is extremely addictive.  You might just like it!

Auf Wiedersehen!

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…

I’ll take Passau in gold, please

Yesterday, my musical adventures took me to Passau, a charming German town near the Austrian border.

Since my itinerary is dictated by my audition and performance schedule, I was delighted to spend my Monday in such a pretty place. Passau is in a very lush corner of Bavaria, and it’s known as the “Three-River City” because it is built at the place where the Ilz and the Inn Rivers flow into the Danube.

I was there to sing some Strauss. But as soon as I finished singing, I strolled over to Passau’s splendid Baroque cathedral.  Cathedral-hopping is one of my hobbies, anyway, but I was especially excited to visit St Stephan’s because it boasts the largest cathedral organ in the world. Happy happy joy joy! 🙂  

I love Baroque ornamentation, in music and in architecture.  I realize that some people cringe when they see too much gold.  You know the type — people with exquisite taste, who talk about “simple elegance” all the time? Yeah, I feel sorry for them. Personally, I like gold.  I like the sparkle of it. I understand that “not all that glitters is gold,” but when it actually is gold, I say, “relax and enjoy the glitter!” Especially if it’s in a big public space like a cathedral, where everyone can revel in it. As an opera singer, I spend a lot of my time in the 18th century, so I have no trouble with gilding. I live by the motto: when in doubt, gild it.  I don’t mind a plethora of cherubs and painted ceilings, sculpted marble and mirrored chandeliers. I might not put them in my living room, but I like to see them in church. To me, these are all signs of cheerful abundance, so my visit to Passau put me in the perfect mood for Thanksgiving week.

Traveling Diva’s Recommendations for Passau

* ACHAT Comfort Hotel– an affordable hotel that features a fitness room, sauna, jacuzzi and high speed Internet! They are opening a new hotel Budapest and I will definitely consider it for my next trip to Hungary.

* Stadtgalerie – a centrally located shopping mall (pictured here in full Christmas décor!) where one can spend a couple of happy hours in between auditions.

* Cafe Stephan’s Dom – serves an excellent potato-pumpkin strudel on a bed of apple kraut.  However, caveat emptor: it can leave you with “cabbage breath,” a rare Teutonic condition cured only by copious amounts of peppermint. 😉

An Afternoon of Opera, Cathedrals & Bratwurst

More adventures in Munich…

I had an audition in Munich today, so I hopped across the border to Germany with another Bayern-Ticket.

My audition was right in the heart of Munich’s Old Town, not far from the famous Frauenkirche (Dom zu unserer lieben Frau, “Cathedral of Our Dear Lady”). So when I finished singing, I decided to stop by the church for a visit.  The Gothic brick facade and the Byzantine domed towers are just so inviting!

I’m a big fan of European cathedrals, so I spent an hour wandering up and down the expansive nave, peaking into candlelit chapels, and admiring medieval artwork.  A beautiful way to spend an afternoon.

As I was leaving, I was amused to learn that the Frauenkirche now has its own iPhone app! For €3.99, it gives you all kinds of details about the art inside the cathedral; in fact, iTunes offers this “artguide” for several important German churches.  I was tempted to download it, but I had a train to catch.

When I finally arrived back at the Hauptbahnhof, I realized that I had forgotten to eat lunch. Sometimes, after singing German opera, I crave protein. (As opposed to after singing Italian opera, when I find myself ordering gnocchi.) Instead of sitting down at a restaurant, I stopped at a German sausage stand. After all, Munich is known for its excellent bratwurst.

In general, the sausage is served along with a Kaiser roll and a blob of spicy mustard on a tiny paper plate.  But this time, it came without the plate.  My bratwurst was perched on a thin paper napkin.

Balancing a sausage on a napkin can be a little awkward, especially if you are wearing something nice … like an audition outfit. I know that we live in a world where billionaires wear jeans to work. But in opera, even starving artists try to dress beautifully. We represent an elegant art form where taste and style are part of the job description. So spilling mustard on your dress is really frowned upon!

Fortunately,  I avoided catastrophe with nothing more serious than a few crumbs of Kaiser roll on the sleeve of my coat;  I tried to brush them off with dignity. And I still managed to catch my train.  So it was a good day, after all. Tschüß!

the Frozen Glockenspiel

an Austro-Bavarian tale of food, friends and figurines

Today, I caught up with my friend Mirva Lempiäinen, a very talented globe-trotting journalist. We met up for lunch in Munich, Germany.

As we pushed open the heavy door to the Augustinerbräu, we inhaled the unmistakable aroma of malted wheat. There were lanterns beneath the vaulted ceilings and deer antlers on the white-washed walls.  It’s a very traditional Bavarian beer hall, and the food is delicious, even if you don’t plan to imbibe.  Mirva and I sat down on a long wooden bench and munched on doughy pretzels; we hadn’t seen each other for a couple of years, so we traded our latest travel stories from Bucharest and Zürich, Havana and Kathmandu.

After lunch, I attempted to show Mirva the famous Rathaus-Glockenspiel.   We jogged towards Marienplatz to catch a glimpse of the clockwork statues doing the “Dance of the Coopers.” Unfortunately, I completely forgot that the Glockenspiel only comes to life at 11 AM and 12 PM.  So when we finally emerged from within a throng of German tourists at 1:04 PM, we saw… nothing much.  There were no chimes and the life-size figurines were frozen in time. But this is what it should have looked and sounded like:

 

The Glockenspiel is neither an amazing feat of technology nor the very height of culture, but – come on – it’s cute!

My whole trip to Munich was made possible by a wonderful little invention called the “Bayern-Ticket,” which enables me to travel anywhere in Bavaria (and certain parts of Austria) for just € 21.  It is valid on the train and it even allows me to use the public transportation in Munich while I’m there.  This is smart marketing because it encourages day trips!

In the evening, when I got back to my flat in Salzburg, I found a house-full of people there! I got to spend time with some good friends I hadn’t seen in years, and we chatted about opera while eating Gugelhupf by candlelight. I have to admit: it’s a wonderful life.