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Sunday, November 24, 2019

Seoul, at Myeongdong Night Time

In the early evening when the Myeongdong streets get closed to vehicles traffic, the food stalls start to arrive serving various kind of Korean dishes. As the neon lights lit up the smoke from the grills raised to the air spreading mouth watering smell. You can walk from stall to stall finding foods judging from the appearance and the smell.  

But unlike in Bangkok where you can eat entire meals on the sidewalk, in Seoul the street food are more along snack kind of food, things that can be eaten standing up or walking, catering to Seoul people that are walking from subway to subway. 

In the dense grid of streets in Myeongdong, the food stalls lined-up in the middle of hotels, skin care shops, restaurants, cafés and night clubs. It is the hot spot of Seoul for tourists. From stalls to stalls, you can hunt for foods, but you must try first the Tteokbokki, a rice cake with fish, egg, scallion and a sweet and spicy red sauce. The firmness of the cake combined with the aroma of scallions and sesame seeds make it a delicious snack on a cool evening. A Tteokbokki serving costs around 2000 to 4000 KRW.

Photo by cutekirin, Wikimedia

Along the rather spicy Tteokbokki, you may accompany it with Gimbap, a sushi like rice rolls, consisting sticky rice – ‘bap’ rolled up inside a seaweed sheet - ‘Gim’, filled with ingredients such as vegetables, tuna, crab stick, pickles and other variety. A serving of 3 to 4 roll slices costs about 1500 KRW.

Photo by cutekirin, Wikimedia
Then you can try Hweori Gamja or tornado potato which is very popular Korean street food. It is a deep fried spiral cut potato, like tornado, which is then dipped in all kinds of toppings. These can include cheese, red pepper, honey or brown sugar. The tornado potato is a nice snack, easy to eat while walking in Myeongdong night market.

Photo by tragrpx, Wikimedia

After eating those “snacks” than you can eat your “main dish” Sundae.  Don’t be mistaken it is not an ice cream, it is a Korean style blood sausage. Although the appearance of the sausage is rather off-putting, it is black, it is surprisingly tasty. It is originated back to the Goryeo period, recorded in 19th century cookbooks and it was initially meant to be served for special occasions. Depending on the vendor, the blood sausage can be stuffed with meat, glass noodles and all kinds of vegetables. A serving can cost about 6000 KRW.

Photo by SauceSupreme, Wikimedia

Now you must be stuffed already,  if not you can try the Ppopgi. This is an old fashioned sugar candy, mostly sold and made by the older Korean generation. This ppopgi candy only has 2 ingredients, baking soda and sugar, but timing and technique are key to making the perfect ppopgi. Each ppopgi has a different shape pattern, back in the days if the kids could eat around the pattern without braking it, they would get a free ppopgi from the vendor. Try it, it is harder than it looks like.

Photo by도자놀자 , Wikimedia


Sunday, November 3, 2019

Seoul, at Myeongdong Day Time

We can say that Myeongdong,  Seoul’s main shopping street, is the face of modern Korea which is driven by the “Hallyu“  or “Korean Wave” which is a collective term for the phenomenal growth of Korean popular culture encompassing everything from music, movies, drama to clothes and cuisine. The Korean Wave  first spread to China and Japan around the year 2000, later to Southeast Asia and several countries worldwide where it continues to have a strong impact and has become one of the biggest cultural phenomena across Asia.

As we walk in Myeongdong we can see various paraphernalia  of K-pop and K-drama in the shops, from calendars and coffee mugs to t-shirts, socks and even potato chips, just about everything featuring the faces of the country’s most celebrated idols.  We can see faces of K-pop girl group  Girl’s Generation, Blackpink, or boy group Exo , Super Junior on shirts as well as on stationeries, and also we can see traces of Winter Sonata, Autumn in My Heart, or My Sassy Girl on displays reminding us of the popular K- Dramas.
The Korean pop culture also influenced both women and men around Asia nowadays to have more interest toward Korean skin care and makeup products. Yoona of Girls’ Generation group has been chosen as a model for Innisfree, and Taeyeon also of Girls’ Generation promotes Nature Republic to bring Korean cosmetics to become a globally recognized brand with their clean images. Because of that in recent years, Korean cosmetics have stormed Asia in just about every corner. From face masks and body cream to cleansing products and hand lotions, Korea has some of the best, and most affordable, beauty products on the market.  That is why both small cosmetics shops and department stores at Myeongdong are always packed with many shoppers to look for the products of The Faceshop, Innisfree, Missha, Nature, Tony Moly, Etude House etc.

Myeongdong  which in Korean means “bright tunnel” or “bright cave” perhaps has its image enhanced by the bright, shiny, and polished image of this place and the Korean pop idols. You may see everywhere advertisement at this “bright tunnel” displays beautiful faces promoting flashy brand clothing, smooth cosmetics, and fashion accessories.  Whether shown on billboards or on TV screens, jackets, hats, and outfits can become iconic when worn by Exo’s Chanyeol,  Twice’s Nayeon, or BTS’ Suga. High rise department stores and small stores popping up acting as a platform to encourage you to buy latest style clothing, with a K-pop idol standing card-board welcoming you at the front door.


Saturday, October 19, 2019

Tokyo, at the Disney Parade

Seeing the people arriving at Disneyland in Tokyo, we can understand why Disneyland claims that it is “The Happiest Place on Earth”.  Since before the opening hours, many visitors excitedly rush out of the metro train to see how this place looks like.  Expecting a welcoming early entrance to site, their excitement dies out rapidly after seeing the massive long queues at the entrance gates.  

Everybody have to line-up in the long queues, kids, teens, parents, grand-parents, while they start to feel the Disney atmosphere during queuing.  Joy fully Mickey Mouse in his black tuxedo greets kids at the front garden, and their smiles are captured in the photos they make. Thus the long queuing experience is not so bad, thanks to the Disneyland’s hospitality and efficiency, as well as to the Japanese considerate behavior.  The long queues are even forgotten once the visitors enter the main gate of the Disneyland to a different world, a mini world from the eyes of kids as told in story books and movies.

But we can see that actually the number of kids is much lower than the number teens and young adults visiting the theme park, perhaps because the young adults are more mobile to go around while kids need their parents to accompany.  Surely Disneyland realized these numbers and provides a wide range of attractions to suit all ages and personalities. Here we can see that many of the attractions are made for the young adults, focusing on activities, ridding, adventures, and romantic musicals.  Further the adults and the teens can enjoy the nostalgia of their childhood by meeting Winnie the Pooh, Donald Duck, Sleeping Beauty after the rides on the Pirates of the Caribbean, the Indiana Jones  and the Jurassic Park.

 One of the most popular attractions in Disneyland is the daytime parade which features gigantic floats with Disney characters dancing to the music. The theme of the parade that time was “Happiness Is Here” which enhances the Disneyland’s claim to be “The Happiest Place on Earth”.   So to say, who cannot be happy watching the parade lead by Goofy on a horse, followed The Three Little Pigs pulling Mickey Mouse drum toy, and Pinocchio leads a magical train with Sleepy and Grumpy as passengers. Donald Duck, Daisy Duck, Pluto, Chip 'n' Dale ride an enormous float featuring a carousel, canopies, and  Minnie Mouse waving on the back. Then the final float features Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse aboard a giant hot air balloon made out of Mickey Mouse balloons. The balloon is held up by Goofy, and Mickey and Donald wave goodbye to the guests.

It was definitely a memorable parade, the happy characters dancing to the repetitive music in tune with what Walt Disney once said: “Laughter is timeless, imagination has no age, and dreams are forever."


Saturday, August 10, 2019

Dubai, at the Dubai Mall

Arriving Dubai at six in the morning, while it was still cool, at the world class airport, made us feel like arriving in a modern oasis in the desert. The dusts of sand were not visible, no one seemed to be sweating, and the fragrance of perfume from the local people dressed in their traditional robes filled the air, it smells like the smoke of incense.

Upon leaving the airport, I realized that the airport is practically inside the city, cars started filling the roads rapidly as people trying to avoid the traffic jams which would come in a few more hours, with the heat of the day.

Soon I can see why Dubai is called the business hub of the Middle East, the Hong Kong of the Middle East. Oil revenue helped accelerate the development of the city, which was already a major mercantile hub, but Dubai's oil reserves are limited and production levels are low: today, less than 5% of the emirate's revenue comes from oil. Dubai's economy today relies on revenues from trade, tourism, aviation, real estate, and financial services. The most extravagant hotels, restaurants, attractions parks and beach resorts all made for us to enjoy the best this life has to offer.

One of the most sought-after leisure and shopping destinations is the Dubai Mall which attracted lavish shoppers from all corners of the world. Featuring over 1,200 retail stores, including retailers such as Bloomingdale and Galeries Lafayette, and hundreds of food and beverage outlets, the Dubai Mall covers more than 1 million sqm. It is the world's second-largest mall, a gargantuan complex with an aquarium, a virtual-reality theme park, an Olympic-size ice-skating rink, Gold Souk (Market) and hundreds of high-class boutiques and restaurants.

The Dubai Mall is structured like a city, with internal pedestrian streets, junctions and landmarks, integrated into the design and organized by wide, straight boulevards terminating at beautifully decorated junctions connecting the many shops. You can walk in the cool climate from Sega to Kidzania to the cinema, from Versace to Gucci at the Fashion Avenue to the electronic shops and drink, eat at the many restaurants and cafés in between. After tired of shopping and stuffed with food you can go watch the movies at the comfortable cinemas. It really feels like walking in a city in an oasis in the middle of desert, where you see nobody is thirsty or sweating despite the soaring heat of above 40 deg C outside the mall.


Sunday, July 21, 2019

Ave Maria Night at Lourdes

The famous French writer Emile Zola first visited Lourdes in September 1891 and was taken aback by the number of pilgrims that visited the shrine of Santa Maria. He returned the following year during August, which is the busiest period for pilgrimages, and spent time with the pilgrims, carrying out interviews and observations to form the basis of his novel, ‘Lourdes’ which was published in 1894.

During his visit Zola watched the Ave Maria evening procession and described it in his novel: 
”Thirty thousand candle lights were burning there, still and ever revolving, quickening their sparkles under the vast calm heavens where the planets had grown pale. A luminous glow ascended in company with the strains of the hymn which never ceased. And the roar of voices incessantly repeating the refrain of 'Ave, Ave, Ave Maria' was like the very crackling of those hearts of fire which were burning away in prayers in order that souls might be saved. “

Every day from April to October at 5pm the Lourdes pilgrims respond to the request of Santa Maria by gathering for the Eucharist Procession. The procession begins at the open-air altar on the prairie across the river from the grotto and is led by sick pilgrims followed by a priest, bishop or cardinal carrying a the Holy Eucharist.

Then at 9PM the pilgrims from all over the world gather for the procession of Ave Maria of Lourdes. The procession begins near the Grotto and continues around the esplanade ending in the Rosary square. The procession is led by sick pilgrims followed by volunteers carrying a replica of the statue of Santa Maria. The focus of this candle lit procession is the rosary. All five decades are recited, usually in a variety of languages. The Lourdes Hymn is also sung, with verses in different languages. Intercessions may be invoked followed by the Laudate Mariam.

In the serenity of the evening, each pilgrim carries his or her own personal intentions as the Ave Maria song was repeated over and over during the procession lit by thousands of candle lights. As Emile Zola wrote in the novel: “The roar of voices incessantly repeating the refrain of 'Ave, Ave, Ave Maria’, penetrates one's very skin. It seems to me as though my whole body were at last singing it.”


Thursday, July 11, 2019

Ave Maria Day at Lourdes

Lourdes is a small market town lying in the foothills of the Pyrenees in France. It lies at an elevation of 420 m and in a central position through which runs the fast-flowing river Gave de Pau. Every year, Lourdes is visited by millions of pilgrims, they come to see the site of a famous vision experienced by a young girl called Bernadette Soubirous.

Pilgrims may visit to be cleansed of their sins and to be cured of their illnesses. It is believed that spring water from the grotto can heal people if they are sick. Millions of visitors come to Lourdes each year in the hope of being cured. The one of the reasons for pilgrims to go to Lourdes, is to bathe in the spring water, to be fully immersed into the bath and drink the water for cleansing and healing. The bath is a symbol of baptism and also strengthening the faith of the pilgrims.

The history began on 11th  February 1858, as Bernadette Soubirous, a 14-year-old local girl, went out with her sister Toinette, and a friend Jeanne, to fetch firewood near the local grotto.  Suddenly, a lady appeared to her in a brilliant white dress tied with a blue ribbon; her body was covered with a long white veil that fell to her feet. This lady later identified herself as "the Immaculate Conception" which is an attribute of Santa Maria.

Santa Maria then appeared 18 times to Bernadette, and on 25th February She asked the girl to dig up a spring of water where none had been found before. Santa Maria told her “Go and drink at the Spring and wash yourself there”.  Even though this area was muddy, the next day, the ground flowed with clear water. Almost immediately cures were reported from drinking the water, and since then many people were cured by applying or drinking the water. The Spring water of Lourdes became popular because of the miracles associated with it.

What is particularly striking to the casual visitor is the number of sick and disabled people present in Lourdes. All those traumatised by life may find a certain degree of comfort in Lourdes. Officially, 80,000 sick and disabled people from many countries come to Lourdes each year. Despite their wounds or disabilities, they feel they are in a haven of peace and joy.


Sunday, June 30, 2019

An Interview with Giuseppe

Photo: Wikimedia

I was lucky to be granted an interview by Giuseppe, as he was known as an intensely private man, who regards journalists, biographers, as well as his neighbors in Busseto, as intrusive people, against whose prying attentions he needed to protect himself.  So I guessed that I got the interview because he considered me as a not so well-known journalist, not a nosy and gossipy type, therefore I could not do any harms. But still I thought that in any case I must be careful not to ask too deep questions about his personal affairs.

So following the appointment, I met him after the opera performance of Un ballo in maschera (A Masked Ball) at the Bolshoi theatre in Moscow.  We sat in a café near the Karl Marx square during a chilly night in April.

I opened the conversation:
“ I am bewildered that you would come to Moscow to watch one of your opera, what makes you come here you of the blue?”

“The Bolshoi theatre in Moscow has a long history of hosting many historic opera premier. Sadly a massive fire broke out in 1853 and ruined the building completely, the theatre had to be closed for a three-year-long overhaul, and opened its doors after renovation right in time for the coronation of Tsar Alexander II.  Then it was hit by a bomb in 1941, and got renovated several times because of various damages and the final reconstruction lasted for six years and in 2011 the refurbished theatre opened its doors once again. So I am glad to be here to witness the new Bolshoi hosting Un Ballo in Maschera.”

I said:
“I found that Alessandra Premoli  and Davide Livermore  directed the opera performance very well,  with impressive digitally enhanced stage set by Gio Forma and video design by D-wok.   
There were the flying and preying crows in the digital background of the stage dominated in black and white, haunting the people with the ominous fortune foretold by the witch Ulrica.

The performance tonight exposed me to a new experience. It makes opera more attractive, may bring younger audiences, gives wider alternatives to creative artists and technicians, and will probably take costs down.”

“I can only ask for more. It can be really beautiful, but equally it can detract. It comes down to what the production is really. It would certainly be appropriate for some but overall I definitely prefer traditional opera. However some modern productions may benefit from this. Surely no one could say it should always, or never, be used.”

I said:
“ You are known of your greatness,  to find a way of speaking to limitless crowds, and your method to adsorb yourself completely into your characters. You never composed music for music’s sake, every music note has a precise dramatic implication. The most astounding scenes in your work are those in which all the voices come together in a visceral mass, like the voices at the end of “Un Ballo”, overcome by the spiritual greatness of a dying man.”

“The scene is about the dying Riccardo as he admits to Renato : ‘You must listen to me, she is pure: in the arms of death, while God hears my words, I swear it (Ella è pura: in braccio a morte Te lo giuro, Iddio m’ascolta)’. The dying Riccardo confirms that, although he was in love with Amelia, Renato’s wife, she never broke her marriage vows. Then he shows Renato the order for the couple’s repatriation to England, a gesture to show that he forgives Renato and the conspirators. The crowd bewails the loss of their generous-hearted governor as Renato is consumed by remorse.”

I said:
 “One of your most successful opera is La Traviata, which means “the fallen woman” or “the one who goes astray” and in context it connotes the loss of sexual innocence.  It represents the thinking of a time when sexual activity outside of marriage was considered immoral and unmarried couples living together were the subject of scandal. 

That time in Paris in the world of the rich and powerful,  social conventions bound everyone to a righteous lifestyle on the surface, but beneath that existed another world where the nobility could enjoy the excess of their wealth including the company of women, the courtesan who were expected to entertain him, and also go to the theater and opera with him.”

“ The story of this opera is “a subject for our time.” I was determined to use the opera to arouse sympathy for society’s outcasts, the sort of people we might go out of our way to avoid on the streets. Like Alexandre Dumas “The Lady of the Camellias” upon which novel and play the opera is based, I wanted to protest the exploitation of women, and I gave the opera a contemporary setting.”

I said:
“Indeed in La Traviata you not only put a cry story on stage, you set it all to contemporary music : the waltzes and polkas were that time the sounds that accompanied the libidinous pleasures of booze and sensuality. The most famous of those is the Brindisi drinking song in the first act, Alfredo’s waltzing “Libiamo” – “let’s get drunk”, basically. It is a famous duet with chorus, one of the best-known opera melodies and a popular performance choice for many great tenors.

Giuseppe, imitating Alfredo in Brindisi, the drinking song :

“Libiamo, libiamo ne’lieti calici                    Let us drink from the goblets of joy
che la belleza infiora.                                      adorned with beauty,
E la fuggevol ora s’inebrii                              and the fleeting hour shall be adorned
                a voluttà.                                                             with pleasure.”

I said:
“It required a strong character to live the life that you live; to preserve at your golden years that freshness of interest, that intensity of purpose. To produce an opera means to negotiate with an impresario, secure and edit a libretto, find or approve the singers, compose the music, supervise rehearsals, conduct some of the performances, deal with publishers, and more.  What drives you to be so passionate to produce operas?”

“The explanation may be partly found in my humble origin, my simple upbringing. My father kept a little inn and grocery shop in the village of Roncole. He was not rich, but prosperous enough to be able to give his son a thorough musical education. My father arranged music lessons before I was four. When only eleven, I succeeded my teacher in the post, at a salary of thirty-six francs a year! I had a hundred francs when I left six years later, but I was then walking every Sunday and festival day from Busseto, three miles distant, for my general education.”

I said:
“At Busseto there lived a musical amateur, named Barezzi. He took you, opened his home to you in his warehouse, and allowed you the treat of practicing on a piano.  Barezzi had a daughter who also played piano. The usual results of this situation you fell in love with each other, and were married in 1835.”

“I was so poor at this time that he had to pawn my wife’s trinkets for the rent.  Margherita gave birth to two children, Virginia and Icilio. Both died in infancy while I was working on my first opera Oberto at the age of 26. Premiered at Milan’s La Scala in November 1839, Oberto enjoyed a fair success and the theatre's impresario Bartolomeo Merelli was impressed enough to offer me a contract that would guarantee two more works. “

I said:
“You live a life with more moments of tragedy than most of us could take. As a young man you lost both of your children in infancy, and your wife Margherita died soon after in 1840 because of encephalitis.  That happened when you had just accepted an engagement to write a comic opera, Un giorno di regno  (King fo a Day) and you went on with it while your heart was breaking. It was a failure and we can hardly wonder that the opera was a failure.

With your personal life shattered and your professional life disrupted by grief, you have been drawn sitting moody and silent for a whole year and more, writing nothing, seeing nobody, as if declaring that life was not worth living.”

“I was alone! Irredeemably alone! …My family had been wiped out!... And to keep the commitment I’d made, at that very painful moment in my life, I had to write Un giorno di regno  which was not liked….. Tormented by my family woes, which the failure of my work only exacerbated, I was convinced that art would never bring me solace, and I decided to stop writing music!....”

I said:
“Then in a dreary winter’s day in 1841 after a chance meeting with Bartolomeo Merelli, La Scala's impresario, he gave you a copy of Temistocle Solera's libretto for Nabucco. “

“I took it home, and threw it on the table with an almost violent gesture. ... In falling, it had opened of itself; without my realising it, my eyes clung to the open page and to one special line: 'Va pensiero, sull' ali dorate' meaning ‘Go, thought, on golden wings’.

I ran through the verses that followed and was much moved, all the more because they were almost a paraphrase from the Bible, the reading of which always had delighted me.  I read it enthusiastically one passage after another. Then, resolute in my determination to write no more, I forced myself to close the manuscript and went to bed. But it was no use- I couldn’t get Nabucco out of my head. Unable to sleep, I got up and read the libretto, not once, but two or three times, so that by the morning, I know Solera’s libretto almost by heart. Nevertheless, I still refused to compose the music, taking the manuscript back to the impresario next day. But Merelli would accept no refusal and he immediately stuffed the papers back into my pocket and, not only threw me out of his office, but slammed the door in my face and locked himself in.

Then gradually I worked on the music, this verse today, tomorrow that, here a note, there a whole phrase, and little by little the opera was written, so that by the autumn of 1841 it was complete. “

I said: 
"Then needless to say  what happened next , Nabucco premier at La Scala on the evening of 9 March 1842 was a huge success, and this work became your first immortal creation. For you it was a turn from despair to “Viva Verdi, Viva Verdi……”

Like the wording in 'Va pensiero, sull' ali dorate', which was inspired by Psalm 137:

‘or let the Lord inspire a concert
That may give to endure our suffering’

This is an imaginary interview in memory of Giuseppe Verdi

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Verona, at Aida

In the Act II, the Egyptian army lead by Radames, march triumphantly into the grand gate of the city of Thebes on its return following their victory over the Ethiopians.  Musicians playing long trumpets lead the Egyptian troops into the city. Dancers follow, waving palms and banners, and the crowd of Egyptian women sing in chorus:

“Dance, sons of Egypt, circling round,
And sing your mystic praises,
As round the sun in mazes
Dance the bright stars of night.”

More troops enter, bringing with them slaves bearing gifts for the gods, and Radames appears in a golden chariot. At the height of the celebration, he meets the Pharaoh, who steps down from his throne to embrace him.

Aida is one of Verdi's best known and best loved operas. It encompasses all of Verdi's main signatures    human drama; conflict; subtle and effective use of music; and of course a dramatic ending. It is based on a love story that took place in the Egyptian Pharaonic era, found in Papyrus and re-written by French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette.

 Aida, an Arabic female name meaning "visitor" or "returning",  shows how love can be forbidden when she gets stuck between her love for the Egyptian leader Radames and between her love for her father and country, Ethiopia. Through a portrait of brutal war between love and duty, Verdi explores the different aspects of a work in which individuals’ destinies are being shaped. Studying Egypt’s history, music and geography, Verdi composed varied Egyptian melodies harmonically. The composer had developed an extraordinarily clever ear for orchestral effects and theatrical atmosphere.

The opera revolves around its main character, Aida, an Ethiopian princess who is captured and made into a slave in Egypt during the war between the countries. But Aida and the Egyptian military commander Radames find that they have come together and fallen in love.

Radames, is also adored by Amneris, the daughter of the Egyptian king. However, the feeling is not a mutual one, and Amneris even suspects that this is the case. Suspecting Aida, she tricks the Ethiopian princess into declaring her true feelings after falsely claiming that Radames has died in combat.

After Radames returns successful from battle as a hero, the king says that he can have anything he wishes. However, his request for the release of Aida and her father the Ethiopian king  Amonasro , now hostages,  is denied. Instead, the Egyptian king proclaims that Radames will be wed to his daughter  Amneris and will be a successor to the throne.

Aida and Radames plan to run away together so they can be happily married without the pressures of their countries, but are caught together. Separated, Radames believes that Aida has fled to her country, while he is imprisoned as a traitor of the country.

Having reported Radames for his plans to flee with Aida, Amneris now feels remorse at causing his imprisonment.  But this remorse is mixed with her resentment towards Aida and the fact that Radames was willing to give up everything for her. She asks Radames to appear before her and tells him that, if he renounces Aida, she will save him from the judgement of the priests and death sentence. Radames says that his conscience is clear and that he would never renounce his love of Aida. This sends Amneris into a fury and she tells him that no one but she can save him. Still, Radames refuses to submit to her demand and is willing to go to his death.

The final scene gives this opera its overwhelming originality. Radames is in the tomb where he has been buried alive. He thinks about the fact that he will never see Aida again when she suddenly appears. Knowing that he would be sentenced to death in there, she has snuck into the tomb and been waiting for him so they can die together. He is horrified at first but the two of them bid farewell to the world together.

As the two bid farewell to the world, the music is heavenly as well as euphoric, suggesting that the two will meet again in heaven. The music becomes a trio in the final moments when Amneris joins in with her prayers. Her music has a peaceful tone as she prays for Radames, she wishes him “pace” (peace), and repeats the word as the opera ends in a murmur, “pace”…..


Monday, March 11, 2019

Verona, at Il trovatore

Il trovatore (The Troubadour) is an opera in four acts by the famous Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi. Themes of obsession, revenge, war, love and family are conveyed through characters who present dramatic images. It was based on the play El trovador (1836) by Antonio García Gutiérrez, a youth of seventeen. This youth took the play to a theatre, where it was at once put in rehearsal.  Fortunately, the play El trovador obtained a phenomenal success.

The opera was also a triumph from the first night, a success due to Verdi's work over the three years. The premiere took place at the Teatro Apollo in Rome on 19 January 1853. The eagerness of the Roman public to hear it was extraordinary. On the eve of the premiere, the Tiber river had risen in flood and invaded the whole district near the theatre. But in spite of everything - the cold, the mud, and discomfort -  from nine o’clock in the morning the doors of the Apollo were beseiged by a great crowd, who, with their feet in water up to the ankles, squeezed, pushed, and disputed in order to get places for the evening.  It evoked frenzied excitement.  Its success spread fast, not only in Italy but through the whole of Europe. Theatre after theatre produced it, answering the clamour of eager subscribers and patrons. At Naples three houses were giving it at the same time. Seldom was an opera more fortunate.

Now Il trovatore is one of the famous operas frequently performed at the Arena di Verona, which each summer hosts the Verona Opera Festival. Its great acoustics and architecture make the Arena di Verona the ideal stage for large scale operas such as this. There is definitely something magical in listening to the arias soaring up to the sky from the stage with a spectacularly lavish stage set.
The plot of Il Trovatore begins in the acts of a gypsy mother burned for suspected witchcraft, and avenged by her daughter, Azucena, when she throws the child of her executioner into the fire. Possessed by a dark force in that moment, the child she threw into the flame was her own. Azucena sees the event repeating in every waking moment, in the flicker of the fire, and in the shape of shadows. But only she knows the truth. She raises the child as her own child, calling him Manrico. Constantly haunted by her mother’s dying words ‘mi vendica’ (avenge me), Azucena sets in motion a series of events which lead to Manrico’s death.

 The child’s father seeks vengeance for the act and forces his surviving son, the Count di Luna, to devote his life to avenging his brother’s death. The unknowing brothers Manrico and di Luna become rivals for the love of Leonora, the Princess. But Leonora has fallen in love with a mysterious troubadour, which is Manrico, who sings of his love at her window, and so rejects the advances of Count di Luna.

Manrico and di Luna are destined to oppose each other, first as leaders of opposing factions in the war, and now in the pursuit of Leonora’s heart.  Not until the final blow is struck and Manrico dies at di Luna’s order does Azucena reveal that his rival was his brother, and to cry out that her mother has finally been avenged.


Sunday, March 3, 2019

Verona, at the Opera Arena

Whether opera lover, music lover or a simply a tourist in Verona, if you have the opportunity to attend an opera in the Arena of Verona, it is an experience that you should not miss.  There is definitely something magical in listening to Aida’s arias soaring up to the sky from the stage with a spectacularly lavish stage set.

Attending an Opera at the Arena di Verona Opera Festival is an extraordinary experience, watching performances with the rich sets, the ensemble, the orchestra, the lyrics, the dance company, and costumes that have enthralled millions of spectators from all over the world for more than a hundred years.

The Verona opera festival takes place every year from June to August. Almost every day, different opera performances are shown, so that we can enjoy different famous opera every night.  From “Aida” to “Carmen”, “Nabucco”, “Turandot” and “Madame Butterfly” we can see the most famous operas in the world.

The festival is traditionally held in the almost 2000 years old Roman amphitheatre known as Arena di Verona which is located in the heart of the city. After the Colosseum in Rome and the amphitheatre in Capua, the Roman arena in Verona is the third largest Roman amphitheatre. With its gigantic dimensions of 140 metres in length and 110 metres in width it dominates the Piazza Brà from the north.

It was built in 30 A.D. and was purposed for games, which were to entertain the Roman government, like gladiator fighting, bloody combats, chariot races, public executions, or bullfights. Back in Roman times 20,000 spectators jeered and roared with blood lust in this giant arena. There were sweat, fear, noise, blood and anguish.  Now there still are, not much has changed in this arena over the last 2,000 years. Where once gladiators fought to the death, now mighty tenors and sopranos enliven the stage with the appearance of every passion in operas. The tragic operas convey horror, pity, fear, and sorrow. Dying for love is permitted, even praiseworthy, but murder for revenge will get its karmic due.

The Arena Opera Festival we know today started when a grand “Aida” opera was staged to celebrate in 1913 the centenary of the birth of Giuseppe Verdi. A phenomenon was born: an annual event presenting four to six large-scale operas over three months. The Arena can accommodate up to 15,000 audience members at each performance, seated either in comfortable chairs in the middle of the Arena, or on the myriad ranks of stone seats that surround the basin.

As you enter the Arena through one of the many gates and climb the steps, you find yourself on the threshold of another world. Opera is a marriage of the arts, a musical drama, full of glorious song, costume, orchestral music and pageantry. It is the medium through which tales and myths are revisited, history retold and imagination stimulated.

So, whether down at the bottom in the stalls or high up on the stone tiers, you can watch the gigantic stage, admire the spectacle, and shout: ”Bravo!”


Sunday, February 24, 2019

Verona, at Juliet’s house

“There is no world without Verona walls, 
But purgatory, torture, hell itself. 
Hence-banished is banish'd from the world,
And world's exile is death."

Those were the words of Romeo about Verona,  in the play Rome and Juliet by Shakespeare. He preferred to die rather than to be exiled and leave Verona. Because within the walls of Verona lived Juliet, the love of his life, for him life without her is like death. That is the theme of the play, about love and death.

Nowadays, the city is still considered as the hometown of Romeo and Juliet, Verona is the stage of the famous tragic play. The most famous spot in the city is the Casa di Giulietta, or Juliet’s House, located on Via Capello. As the story goes, this was the home of the Capulet family, Juliet’s family . It is here Juliet would have lived, and today it is a museum dedicated to her. The interior contains the furniture of a typical fourteenth century aristocratic household, enhanced by a wide range of medieval ceramics.

From the courtyard, we can see the famous balcony in the world—Juliet’s balcony. It is a tiny balcony where Juliet stood while Romeo declared his love. It is also the balcony where Romeo and Juliet planned the events that led to their tragic deaths. In the courtyard, the walls now are covered by love notes, written in many languages by visitors from all around the world. They believe if they write here, it will cast a lucky spell and their love will be eternal.

But, Romeo and Juliet’s life themselves were overshadowed by terrible fate. From the opening prologue it says that they will die, Romeo and Juliet are trapped by fate. Had Romeo not met  Benvolio on the very day of the Capulets’ ball, Romeo would not have met Juliet. Had friar Lawrence's messenger to Romeo not detained, who would have explained the plan by which Juliet was to pretend death, Romeo would have got the message. And had Romeo arrived just a few moments before Juliet wakes-up, Romeo would not have taken his own life.  It is their misfortune that leads to the sorrowful and tragic ending of the play. But, it is Romeo and Juliet's fiery passion of their love which makes their love eternal.  

In the center of the internal court stands a bronze statue of the beautiful and faithful Juliet, by Nereo Costantini.  According to legend, touching Juliet’s right breast will bring good luck in love. However, the affectionate gesture has brought bad luck to the statue. The repeated touching by tourists, newly weds, school boys, couples, has created large holes on the statue’s right breast, wrist and arms, and the holes are widening. Many people desperately inserted love notes and padlock keys through the cracks in the arms and breasts of the statue, in hope for luck in their love affairs.  The original statue then was removed, restored and placed inside Juliet's House in 2014, in order to protect it from damages. Now a replica  has been installed back in the courtyard of Juliet's House.

So Verona, a city on the Adige river in Veneto, continues to be the City of Love, It enshrines a myth that gently comes alive again across the medieval squares, through the alleys and shadowy courtyards.  Here it’s easy to fantasize about stories, figures, characters and events of the play. Romeo and Juliet’s myth is the trail of a dream. Love is the overriding theme of the play. Based on that theme the Verona Tourist Office wrote: ‘Se Ami Qualcuno Portarlo a Verona’ which means ‘If you love someone then take them to Verona’.


Monday, January 7, 2019

An Interview with Pearl

Photo: Wikimedia
There is a restaurant in Qingdao, a city in Northern China, which claimed being frequently visited by Pearl when she was in the city. It faces the wavy sea of Qingdao bay, with a sandy gravel beach. I made appointment with this elegant lady for a chat in this restaurant. She came wearing a light yellow dress with floral dots, her hair tied neatly to the back and up. Her smile was warm, it warmed the cold Qingdao that day. 

Not wasting time, I immediately asked her:
“Frankly speaking, at the beginning I was not too interested to read “The Good Earth”, after I read the summary of the book. Besides that the present-day China is no more a country with a strange culture, and many of their traits are now commonly known to the world, such that those characteristics became stereotypical images of Chinese. For instance the role of a wife that must be obedient to the husband, the view that a pretty woman must have small feet such that the feed were bound since childhood, and the desire to have sons to continue the name of the family and its fortune, the view that the more children one has the more happiness it will bring to the family, the tradition to honor and respect the parents, about arranged marriage, and so on.

Those habits are no longer surprising and no more arousing curiosity, and after all, it is difficult to imagine how an American author could write well about life in China. But the impressions I got vanished instantly when reading the first few pages of the book, about a young man named Wang Lung and how he behaved when he woke up on his wedding day, getting ready to dress up. "

Pearl, with a smile:
“This scene if filmed can be fun, depicting how people there rarely bathe to save water because water was very scarce there, but on this wedding day Wang Lung had to ‘give-up’ bathing his whole body liberally, because not since he was a child upon his mother’s knee had anyone looked upon his body. Today one would and he would have it clean.”

I said:
“A very genuine scene, and you were able to depict the lives of poor farmers in Northern China realistically. As for Wang Lung’s father, drinking hot water with tea leaves is a luxury, usually he drank hot water only,  but he was forced by Wang Lung with a short laugh to drink it because it was his wedding day.”

Pearl, comically quoted her book:
“It will be cold,’ said Wang Lung.
‘True-true,’ said the old man in alarm, and he began to take great gulps of the hot tea. He passed into an animal satisfaction, like a child fixed upon its feeding. But he was not too forgetful to see Wang Lung dipping the water recklessly from the cauldron into a deep wooden tub for his bath. He lifted his head and stared at his son.
‘Now there is water enough to bring a crop to fruit,’ he said suddenly.”

I said:
“You also very well wrote how farmers depended on nature, land, weather, the onslaught of floods, attacks by birds, water and the oxes to plow the earth. Although this is well known, it's already a universal phenomenon, but you described it impressively.”

Pearl, quoting part VIII of her book:
“At last the water in the pond dried into a cake of clay and even the water in the well sunk so low that O-lan said to him: ‘If the children must drink and the old man must have his hot water the plants must go dry.’
Wang Lung answered with anger that broke into a sob: ‘Well, and they must all starve if the plants starve.’ It was true that all their lives depended on the earth.”

I said:
“Furthermore, after all the rice had run out in a long arid period, they were forced to kill and eat their plowing ox which was already emaciated. And after everything was eaten up, in the winter they were forced to move to prosperous city in the South to survive and to find food. It turns out it was not that easy to get a job and the income was small. After setting up plastic huts on the edge of the city walls, they lived from food rations provided by generous donators,  and then they worked as beggars. You described this begging experience as very heartbreaking.”

“O-lan, the mother, played a very good role in teaching her children to beg.  She learned from her childhood experience, and so she sought food before being sold as a slave.
‘A heart, good sir- a heart, good lady! Have a kind heart – a good deed for your life in heaven! The small cash - the copper coin you throw away – feed a starving child!’
But being children, they considered it to be playful and giggled during begging. O-lan was forced to ‘educate’ them by beating them to make them cry. So she taught their children to beg, they would be beaten again if they giggled.”

I said:
“Then after they returned to the village in the North, the life of Wang Lung’ life changed gradually becoming prosperous because it was supported by soil fertility, sufficient rain, although some times there were storms and attacks by birds and insects. He saved money from the sale of corps and gradually bought lands which made him expand his fields.”

“That’s usually what happened if somebody suddenly get rich, he was then able to hire labors to work in his field, he no longer need to work hard in the field, plowing, planting seeds and reaping harvest. He only reaped the proceeds from the sale of his harvest. With his wealth and spare time came boredom and loneliness, and with the emptiness came temptation and desire to enjoy beautiful women as his wife O-Lan was not beautiful. He was fascinated when he saw beautiful women in a night club, who were as beautiful as women in the paintings that he had always thought were imaginary.”

I said:
“In this book besides covering the life of China’s farmers well, you also covered universal theme such as the lives of poor farmers who became rich, then desiring things they had not imagined previously, and able to vent their lust with the power of money. Also universal is the indication that his sons failed to continue his efforts who cultivated the abundant fields, likewise the case of upper class and lower class opposition in an agrarian society.”

“When I wrote in China of Chinese things about Chinese, I used the Chinese tongue. . . . The consequence is that when . . . writing about Chinese people the story spins itself in my mind entirely in the Chinese idioms, and I literally translate as I go.”

I said:
“Thus you were able to write realistically about Chinese farmers’ lives which are intimate with nature. Your writing style was simple and straight forward, not flowery. The main female character, Wang Lung’s wife O-lan, was not beautiful. You described her that she had a square, honest face, a short, broad nose with large black nostrils, and her mouth was wide, a gash in her face. Her eyes were small on of dull black in color, and were filled with some sadness that was not clearly expressed.”

“What Wang Lung regretted most was that her feet were big because it was not bound since childhood according to Chinese tradition. Small feet were considered an attractive feature of women, therefore since childhood the feet of girls were bound, it was very painful especially for young girls. However, thanks to the big feet O-lan was able to walk a lot and work hard in the fields helping her husband, while women with little feet, no more than 3 inches, were not able to walk a lot and work hard.
Besides a hard worker obedient to her husband, O-lan was also the pilar of the family, she made many of the hardest decisions in the novel and she bore these hard decisions with admirable fortitude.”

I said:
“An incredible character, she was aware that she was not beautiful and her husband actually did not love her. But she was happy enough as she could give birth several sons for her husband. Chinese tradition highly respects mothers who are able to give birth to sons, as the sons would continue the family’s name and are expected to serve and care of his parents at old age.”

“Such was the reality of Chinese farmers’ lives that time, and perhaps generally so, marriage and having family affairs became a pragmatic matter.”

I said:
“I also observed in this novel, the absence of passionate description of romance ala Romeo and Juliet, there were no memorable intimate words and poetry. What can be found were the boiling lust of Wang Lung when he met Lotus the cute comfort woman, who was by far pretier than O-lan. Wang Lung felt he found love affection with Lotus whom later became his concubine, he could not get this intimacy from O-lan.
But this absence of love and intimacy towards O-lan you wrote very impressively in O-lan dying moment suffering a deadly disease. A very impressive emptiness feeling.”

Pearl, describing the moment:
““Well I know I am ugly and cannot be loved…’  When she said this Wang Lung could not bear it and he took her hand and he soothed it, a big hard hand, stiff as though it were dead already. And he wondered and grieved at himself most of all because what she said was true, and even he took her hand, desiring truly that she feel his tenderness towards her, he was ashamed because he could feel no tenderness, no melting of the heart such as Lotus could win from him with a pout of her lips. When he took this stiff dying hand he did not love it, and even his pity was spoiled with repulsion toward it.”


This is an imaginary interview in memory of Pearls S. Buck.

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