A Wagnerian Birthday

RWuHxZToday is Richard Wagner’s 200th birthday!

To celebrate, I just uploaded my rendition of his song Traüme (“Dreams,” Op. 91, no. V) along with a slideshow of original photographs of Cape Point, South Africa. I hope you enjoy it.

And please stay tuned for more posts about Southern Africa… coming soon!

Bicentennial Bliss (why 2013 is going to be awesome)

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Happy New Year, my globetrotting operatic friends!

This year, the music world will celebrate the 200th birthdays of both Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi.

What a year for opera!

(Image courtesy of The Wagnerian, a fantastic site for Wagner fans.)

If you’d like to see Wagner’s Ring Cycle in 2013, there is a production for every month of year, so you can decide whether you’d like to see it in Darmstadt, Munich, Frankfurt, Berlin, Karlsruhe, New York, Vienna, Hamburg, Sofia, Paris, Seattle or Melbourne!

If you’re in New York, you can catch five sumptuous Verdi operas at the Met this season: Don Carlo, Otello, Rigoletto, La Traviata and Il Trovatore!

And if you’re here in Los Angeles, you’ve probably already seen Verdi’s I Due Foscari, and now it’s time to book your tickets for Wagner’s Flying Dutchman at LA Opera.  If you like big-opera-on-a-small-budget, check out San Pedro Opera; the season begins with Cavalleria Rusticana (it’s Pietro Mascagni’s 150th birthday, too) but the word on the street is that SPO will have some Wagner and Verdi galas later this year.

Of course, there is one MORE reason why 2013 is going to be awesome, and that’s because it’s the first year of the No. 1 Ladies’ Opera Festival in Botswana! If you’re planning to be in Southern Africa in April, stop by Gaborone to hear us. We’ll sing some scenes from Wagner and Verdi operas, among others.

Wherever you find yourself this year, be sure to stroll past the local opera house to see what’s going on.  You might just catch Aida in St Petersburg, Un Ballo in Maschera in Buenos Aires, or Tannhäuser in Tokyo! It’s going to be a great year.

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!

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!

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…

My Favorite Room

Do you have a favorite room?  A favorite place?  A favorite opera house?  (Come on, you’ve gotta have a favorite opera house. )  If so, I have just the aria for you.

Photo of Paris Opera found at chameleon-interiors.blogspot.com

A couple of weeks ago, I made a brand new recording of “Dich teure Halle” from Tannhäuser by Richard Wagner.

This is the moment in the opera where Elisabeth bursts into the Hall of Song, overjoyed by the fact that her beloved Tannhäuser is returning to her. She knows he’ll come to the Hall of Song, so she runs in and cries out “Hello, dear room!”

So it’s a love song… to a room. Pretty cool, right? I think so, too. And he music is very exciting:

Here is my translation of the German text:

You, dear hall, I greet you once again,
joyfully I greet you, beloved room!
In you his songs came alive
and wake me now from troubled dreams.
When he departed from here,
how bleak you seemed to me!
All the peace abandoned me,
all the joy went out of you.
How my heart now beats in my chest,
you look so proud and sublime.
He who brings life both to you and to me,
he will not stay away for long.
I greet you, I greet you
You precious hall,
I hail you!

So, the next time you walk into your favorite room, try singing this song.  And if you desperately need some more music right now, you can find more of my videos and audio recordings HERE!   Have a great day, everyone.