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Saturday, November 25, 2017

An Interview with Maria

I met Maria at the backstage of Norma opera after the performance at Milan Opera House. She looked radiant and beautiful in her diva costume, with her broad smile shining on her face. She seemed satisfied with her performance that night, and judging from the applause and the flowers she got, the public loved her.


Congratulations Maria on your beautiful performance, the public seem to love you very much. Are you satisfied with your performance tonight?


I am happy that the public love it, it is such a great relief to hear the public reception, after the hard work to prepare for this performance. It really lifts our spirits to know that the hard work has been liked.

However, after every performance I would think what could have been done better, to make it better in the next performance and how things can be done differently. I am never satisfied with my performance and will try to improve it next time.


You are known as perfectionist, it seems what you just said just now confirms people’s believe.


To me, the art of music is magnificent, and I cannot bear to see it treated in a shabby way. When it is respected and when the artists who serve it are respected, I will work hard and always give my best . . .
I do not want to be associated with inferior staging, taste, conducting or singing.


But the people working with you think of you as too difficult to work with.  
They said you are temperamental, too demanding, sometimes you refused to perform, and even cancelled performances.


I will always be as difficult as necessary to achieve the best. I am a hard worker, willing to rehearse more than expected, even when a role or a production was not new. I am an artist and like to try to bring the best performance to the public so I like to rehearse more and more with the team within the limited time we have.


But, you walked away from contracts with Metropolitan Opera for Puccini’s Madame Butterfly and Beethoven’s Fidelio.


Have you never walk away from a job that don’t suit you? I think you have.
For me, it was impossible to sing as Madame Butterfly, a 15 years old Japanese girl, I was then too fat--210 pounds.
As for "Fidelio" Opera in English is so silly. Nobody takes it seriously.
More than that, I didn’t like the contract, it looked like a beginner’s contract.


You mentioned you were then too fat. How did you become so slim and beautiful today? What is the secret to lose weight in short pace of time?


Purely strong will, there were rumours that I ate certain kind of pasta, but it wasn’t so. It was driven purely by strong will.


You indeed seem to be a person driven by a very strong will. One of your teacher, Maria Trivella said of you: “A model student. Fanatical, uncompromising, dedicated to her studies heart and soul. Her progress was phenomenal. She studied five or six hours a day. ...Within six months, she was singing the most difficult arias in the international opera repertoire with the utmost musicality.”


The Norma that you just performed was also a woman with strong will, brave, and even vengeful to betrayal.

Maria, her eyes sparkled and started singing part of the famous aria Casta Diva of Norma:

Casta Diva, che inargenti               Virtuous Goddess, covering with silver
queste sacre antiche piante,         these sacred ancient plants,
a noi volgi il bel sembiante            turn towards us your fair face
senza nube e senza vel                 cloudless and unveiled


Other than Norma, you also seem to like to perform Carmen, Medea, Tosca and Violeta in La traviata. However you like to portray them as strong, passionate woman whom stand-up to their tragic fate, rather than a crushed delicate woman.
The way you expressed it, the women become the tragedy heroines of the story.


It is a matter of interpretation, indeed normally Floria Tosca is portrayed as a delicate, submissive woman that was completely dominated by the powerful male character.  But I see that she can be performed as a strong, fiery woman and assertive.  In the famous “Vissi d’Arte” aria of the opera, she was lamenting, questioning her fate as well as becoming assertive, she sings from “I lived for art, I lived for love”, then  “I never did harm to a living soul!”


One of the reporter wrote about your performance as Tosca :”her conception of the role was electrical. Everything at her command was put into striking use. She was a woman in love, a tiger cat, a woman possessed by jealousy. . . . This was supreme acting, unforgettable acting."
Bravo Maria!


Thank you for the compliment. As Floria Tosca said it: "Vissi d' arte, vissi d' amore" ("I lived on art, I lived on love").


In Medea, your enormous acting skills and perhaps your Greek blood guided you in the interpretation of agony of this princess from Colchis, a performance which was historic for Greece, in the ancient theatre of Epidaurus.
Is it probably that you can relate this Greek tragedy with your personal experience, that you can perform Medea that intense?


I am a person without identity. I was born of Greek parents, yet I have never felt absolutely Greek. I was born in America, yet I am not an American. I lived the most crucial period of my career in Italy, I married an Italian but, of course, I am not an Italian. I now live permanently in Paris, but this doesn't mean I feel French. What the hell am I, after all?" What am I? I am alone, always alone.


Were you surprised about Onassis marrying Jackie?


As the public have known, there is no doubt that Onassis and me are deeply in love. Somehow we did not get married, but we remained good friends.


Does Onassis still love you?


You have to ask him yourself,  but maybe he does not really love opera.........

This is an imaginary interview in memory of Maria Callas.

Monday, November 6, 2017

The Face Changing of Sichuan Opera

The face-changing performance in Sichuan opera is one of its kind in the world, and the technique has been tightly kept secret. The face-changing , actually mask-changing, originates from the ancient times when humans in China decorated their faces with colors and patterns to scare away animals.

The masks are prepared and pasted on the face, each of which is tied  with a yarn to the costume of the actor. During the performance, the masks are torn away one by one by pulling the yard and the previous mask is replaced by a new one. The action has to be performed in quickly so that the audience does not notice how it happens.

Sichuan Opera is one of the most famous traditional Chinese operas. It was originated in Sichuan province about 1,700 years ago. Sichuan Opera plays an important part of the Chengdu culture and has wide spread in south-western China. The most famous parts in the opera show are "Changing Faces", "Fire Spitting", "Rolling Lamp", “Folk Music", "Hand Shadow" and "Puppet Opera".

Wearing brightly beautiful colored costumes and heavy careful makeup, performers sing in a high pitch and move to quick, dramatic music, twirling, hopping, rolling, and jumping carrying the heavy costumes. As they move, they also change masks to reveal characters’ changing emotions.

A skilled performer can change faces many times, and four changes is not uncommon. But knowing how it’s done and being able to performed it are two different things. It’s protected as a kind of state secret. The art of face changing has been passed down through families as a closely guarded secret. In 1987 the skills of face changing were listed as a “second-level state secret” by China’s Ministry of Culture.

The costumes, dances and singing are quite similar to Peking Opera, but the Sichuan Opera has more stunts, such as blowing fire, rolling lamps and the most famous face changing.

In the famous Sichuan Opera of “Madam White Snake”, about the love between a man and a snake sorceress, the actor playing the White Snake spirit changes faces eight times, from blue, red, white, black and other colors.  It’s very demanding to tear the face, the masks cannot stick together and the hand movement must be quick and unnoticed.

The Sichuan Operas had been performed for centuries in China, but then came the devastating 10 years Cultural Revolution from 1966 through 1976.  With that China's performing arts suffered considerably. Mao saw all art should represent interests of the common class and demanded that Opera should serve the workers, peasants and soldiers. Art should be an explicit propaganda for the revolution and should help to convert the masses to socialism.

The arts were then completely controlled by the government and the actors no longer had any control of what was to become of their performances. The only opera that was allowed to be performed during this period was called  'model opera', with contemporary and revolutionary themes and with realistic staging and costumes.

 Mao Zedong's wife, Jiang Qing, rewrote many of the operas using contemporary themes and her interpretation of the communist ideology. It is believed that she pushed for these ‘model opera’ , to reform, rewrite operas to be the only ones that were acceptable to be performed.

Not only was the theme changed, but the musical style changed as well. There were many more Western instruments and instead of a small group of musicians entire orchestras were performing. There are far fewer percussive sections, which were usually attributed to fight scenes. Even the singing was westernized, following bel canto style. Ironically, Western instruments were banned during this time, yet were allowed to be performed because the music was based on 'model operas'.

Then, the end of the decade-long Cultural Revolution in 1976 marked the end of 'model opera'. Traditional opera made its way back to the theatres and is now regularly practiced, but much damage has been done. During that decade many actors died, retired, or simply lost the touch of their art because of the lack of ability to practice it.

But that there are still older actors that made it through the Cultural Revolution and are still performing today and even though traditional opera has been greatly damaged, traditional theatre in contemporary China is still thriving.

Operas are being reformed again, but this time simply to appeal to modern audiences and not in an attempt to control the content that is getting out to the public. For intellectual urban audiences, plays with daring political and philosophical themes are staged with imagistic rather than realistic scenery and original, historically-based costumes, extraordinary classic-based scores, and innovative instrumentation.

Although the Cultural Revolution was devastating for much of China, including its art, Sichuan Opera rebounded easily afterward. The economic reform of the late 1970’s helped, as did the continued evolution of theatrical technology and technique. Today’s opera patron gets to see the best of the old and the new in Chinese opera.

Modern opera still holds long years of tradition and is blossoming in its recovery from the Cultural Revolution. Many older operas are being performed, some in pure traditional style and some with modern twists. Considering every reform that Opera has been through, one might be surprised at how much of the originality is still retained.

Sichuan opera stands out for its variety of stories. Some say there is an endless range, drawn from its diverse background and the broad culture of rural China. The Sichuan operas are a big favourite enhanced by “trick performance” like the face changing show.

The face changing performance is actually a tiny part of Sichuan Opera, but people, tourists, are curious about the face changing, as if it is a kind of circus.  If the Sichuan opera is a big sea, face changing is just like a drop of water, so to say.  
But let’s admit that because of face changing, more people are getting to know Sichuan Opera and that’s a good thing.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Fat Big Panda in Chengdu

Once upon a time, a French priest visited a farmer in Chengdu and found a black and white fur of a bear-like animal. As he has never seen that kind of animal, he asked the farmer. The farmer said it was a Fat ("pan" in Chinese) and Big ("da" in Chinese) bear. The priest then spread the word, from there on the bear is called Panda (Fat Big).

Pandas are fat because of their laid back lifestyle, and they eat a lot. Every day a panda eats around 25 kg of bamboos, which is about a quarter of its weight. Why they eat so much bamboo? It is because bamboo has very little nutritional element, so in order to meet the energy needs, pandas must eat a lot of them. Not surprisingly they poo a lot too.

Pandas, million years ago, used to eat meat, they were carnivores, however during the evolution process, they switched to bamboo. It seems that they could not survive competing to search for meat with other more aggressive animals in the wilderness. Not every type of bamboo they can eat, only several types, and they like especially the young soothes.  As they eat bamboos a lot, the ecosystem they live must have plenty of bamboos that they can eat, a slight distortion to the ecosystem, flood, earth quake, fire etc. can quickly deplete the bamboos. This means the pandas must migrate to some other place to find food.

Pandas really look lazy, they spend a lot of time on their back eating bamboo, if not eating they are sleeping. Except for the cubs which are quite playful with each others. At this young age, the cubs like to play, run, climb trees, but as they turned into adult, they become solitaire.  The adult pandas like to live alone in their own compound, eating , wandering and sleeping alone in their compound. So solitaire, it is even very hard to get them mating. There is a very short mating period of a few days in a year.  And it is not easy to make them mating, if failed they have to wait for the next year, probably with a different partner. Thus it makes it hard to grow the population of this already endangered species.

Therefore, the China Government opened the Panda Breeding Base in Chengdu to breed pandas in captive, through scientific research of the pandas mating behaviour and in vitro fertilization. This way the they managed to increase the population of pandas from around 800 in in 1970s to around 1,800 currently.

In this Panda Breeding Base there are a few panda cubs displayed for tourists. The queue during peak seasons is very long as there are too many people wanting to watch and photograph the pandas. Although there are quite many spots to watch pandas, the spot for watching the cubs are the favourite. Tourists used to be allowed to hug cubs for photography, by donating around RMB 1,800 for a few minutes hugging. But nowadays it is no more allowed to avoid the spread of epidemic to the panda cubs due to the contact. It seems that certain virus or bacteria which are not harmful to human can be harmful to pandas.

Pandas have bad sight, only a few meters, so they cannot see the crowd. Flash lights are not allowed to be used when photographing pandas to avoid harm to their eyes. Pandas rely on their smell, and they have good geographical memory by marking their territory with their poo or urine. That is how the pandas maintain their solitary confinement, they wouldn't enter a place that does not smell like them.

Pandas are also sensitive to parasites in their fur which can even cause death to the pandas. In nature, muds and soils cover their fur to protect them from these parasites. That’s why the panda furs here in China look a bit brownish rather than pure white, especially the back part including the tail. Beware that panda tails are always white, not black as appears on some panda dolls in the souvenir shops.

Beware also that the panda furs in Singapore zoo look relatively clean white, so it seems the pandas here has artificially clean appearance. Like anything else artificial in Singapore, so is the habitat of the panda compound. The compound is air-conditioned, the plants are decorated and arranged for the convenience of tourists. But it is really nice and convenient to watch.

For China , the black and white colour of pandas is a symbol of Yin and Yang concept, the balance of positive and negative, high and low, hot and cold, mountain and river, modern and traditional. This balance of Yin and Yang is reflected in the peaceful and cute appearance of the panda, becomes a symbol of peace and harmony for China. China promotes peace and harmony by sending several young pandas on load to foreign countries. The pandas however remain to belong to China, including their offspring born in foreign country. So practically there is no pandas living in the nature outside China, and those living in captives belong to China. This way Panda is a unique symbol of China, both biologically and culturally.

The pandas living in captives will not survive in the wilderness, as they become too protected and pampered by human. They are not trained to look for food themselves, they are hard to mate and have babies. In captives the babies are taken care of by human, given milk and medical assistance for the babies to grow. Otherwise the babies rarely survive, and the mother does not know breed babies. In nature, if the mother gives birth of two babies, she will take one and abandoned the other one, as if she knows that only one can survive.

The human assistance seems now a necessity for pandas survival, although they have survived millions of years. Perhaps if living in nature with depleted bamboos, they have to change their diet once more.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

An Interview with Vincent

On that day, taking the slow train, I followed Vincent’s path from Paris to Arles in Southern France, searching for the light, colours and warmth of the Provence.

The journey is a feast for the eyes, seeing picturesque villages, and cities and towns, colourful landscapes. Vincent loves this place, the landscape, the light, and the people.

The first step for him was finding a house and setting up a studio here. He found that in a small yellow house on No. 2 Place Lamartine for 15 francs per month.

I found the yellow house with the green shutters, which Vincent shared with Paul to produce their paintings.

When I met Vincent, he looked fresh and glowing, it seemed the nourishing light under the sun of Arles had done well to him.


We notice that your paintings nowadays are bright, colourful, and cheerful, quite a departure from the dark gloomy paintings you produced a few years ago.


Yes indeed the fresh air here in Arles has influenced the way I look at life, at people, the nature, the bright sun, the beautiful landscapes, the curling wheat fields, the shuddering sunflowers, the wavy blue sky, they are all captured in my paintings. See my yellow house, my bedroom blue and green, the sky blue, the sunflowers golden yellows, the red apples, those are fascinating me.

Thanks to Theo, my younger brother, who suggested me to move here to Arles to do my paintings. He gave me a good suggestion.


So you have left behind the dark gloomy period of Borinage?


Although I have left Borinage, the place is special to me. The paintings I did there are dark and gloomy, but those are the reflection of the real life of the coal miners. The dark colours reflect the coal mines, reflect the poor people, the suffering, the hunger the struggle of the coal miners in their daily life. They walk in the darkness, in the centre of the earth, in the black coal mines.

These mines are an imposing sight, 300 metres underground, into which daily descend groups of working men, worthy of our respect and our sympathies. The miner is a special Borinage type, for him daylight does not exist, and except on Sunday he never sees the sunshine.

He works laboriously by a lamp whose light is pale and dim, in a narrow tunnel, his body bent double and sometimes he is obliged to crawl along; he works to extract from the bowels of the earth that mineral substance of which we know the great utility; he works in the midst of thousands of ever-recurring dangers.

One day, the miners returning home in the evening towards dusk in the white snow were a singular sight. These people are quite black when they emerge into the daylight from the dark mines, looking just like chimney sweeps.

Their dwellings are usually small and should really be called huts; they lie scattered along the sunken roads, in the woods and on the slopes of the hills. Here and there one can still see moss-covered roofs, and in the evening a friendly light shines through the small-paned windows.


I see, one of the most striking paintings you made is the “Potato Eaters”. The peasants eating in a dark and gloomy room, their face and hands dark and rough expressing their hard life.


It is a painting that will do well in gold - of that I am certain. But it would do just as well on a wall papered in a deep shade of ripe corn. I've tried to bring out the idea that these people eating potatoes by the light of their lamp have dug the earth with the self-same hands they are now putting into the dish, and it thus suggests manual labour and - a meal honestly earned. I wanted to convey a picture of a way of life quite different from ours, from that of civilized people.So the last thing I would want is for people to admire or approve of it without knowing why.

I've held the threads of the fabric in my hands all winter long and searched for the definitive pattern - and although it is now a fabric of rough and coarse appearance, the threads have none the less been chosen with care and according to certain rules. And it might just turn out to be a genuine peasant painting. I know that it is. But anyone who prefers to have his peasants looking namby-pamby had best suit himself.

Personally, I am convinced that in the long run one gets better results from painting them in all their coarseness than from introducing a conventional sweetness. A peasant girl, in her patched and dusty blue skirt and bodice which have acquired the most delicate shades from the weather, wind and sun, is better looking - in my opinion - than a lady. But if she dons a lady's clothes, then her authenticity is gone. A peasant in his fustian clothes out in the fields is better looking than when he goes to church on Sunday in a kind of gentleman's coat.

And similarly, in my opinion, it would be wrong to give a painting of peasant life a conventional polish. If a peasant painting smells of bacon, smoke, potato steam, fine - that's not unhealthy - if a stable reeks of manure - all right, that's what a stable is all about - if a field has the smell of ripe corn or potatoes or of guano and manure - that's properly healthy, especially for city dwellers. Such pictures might prove helpful to them. But a painting of peasant life should not be perfumed.


A Pair of Shoes is another painting that is very impressive that fascinated Heidegger, a famous philosopher. Even without hearing his interpretation, the painting really tells a lot of stories about the worn out shoes, neglected, damp, cold and lonely.


It is good to love as many things as one can. … I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners. And my mind is driven toward these things with an irresistible momentum. …

Poetry surrounds us everywhere, but putting it on paper is, alas, not so easy as looking at it. I dream my painting, and then I paint my dream." To be spiritual is to have an abiding respect for the great mysteries of life and to see the fingerprints of the Divine in the most ordinary objects and things.


Let’s talk about your portrait paintings. In there most of the persons are portrayed without smiling. Your doctor portrait looks like he is in despair, your self-portraits never smile as well.

Vincent (still not smiling):

Throughout art history, there are seldom self-portraits with smile, and I am not about to change the tradition. Dr. Gatchet looks like that as I think he is sicker than I am, but I have found true friend in him, something like another brother, so much do we resemble each other physically and also mentally.


However you’re the portrait of your mother shows her smiling proudly.


I did the portrait of Mother for myself, from a black and white photograph. I cannot stand the colorless photograph, and I am trying to do one in a harmony of color, as I see her in my memory. She introduced me to art, herself an amateur artist. I shared some of my works I thought my mother would appreciate most, of flowers and natural settings.


You painted several “Sunflower”, which people strongly identified with you. Your brother and Paul like it. The flowers look rustic but cheerful, the bright yellow seems to emanate happiness.


It is a kind of painting that rather changes in character, and takes on a richness the longer you look at it. Most of my pictures are after all almost a cry of anguish, although in the rustic sunflower they may symbolize gratitude.


How is your relationship with Sien?


I met her in winter, she was pregnant, deserted by the man whose child she was carrying. A pregnant woman who walked the streets in the winter--she had her bread to earn, you'll know how. I took that woman on as a model and have worked with her all winter. I couldn't pay her a model's full daily wages, but I paid her rent all the same, and thus far, thank God, I have been able to save her and her child from hunger and cold by sharing my own bread with her.


Perhaps, do you see her as Mary Magdalene?


I am genuinely attached to her and she to me - that she is my loyal helpmate, who goes everywhere with me - and who is becoming more indispensable to me by the day. She and I are two unhappy people who keep each other company and share a burden, and that is precisely why unhappiness is making way for happiness, and the unbearable is becoming bearable.

I was then just in the mood to be able to give her some practical support, which at the same time helped me stand fast. But gradually and slowly it became different between us - a real need of each other, so that she and I could not be separated - our lives became more and more united, and then it was love.


In “Sorrow”, it seems your paint her in the natural appearance without any make-up.


She is slightly pock-marked, so she is no longer beautiful, but the lines of her figure are simple and not ungraceful. And she is useful to me just because she is no longer handsome, no longer young, no longer coquettish, no longer foolish. The feeling between Sien and me is real; it is no dream, it is reality. I think it is a great blessing that my thoughts and energy have found a fixed goal and a definite direction.


How was the delivery of her baby?


Sien has had a very difficult delivery, but thank God has come out of it alive and with a particularly nice little boy as well. Her mother and little girl and I went there together - you can imagine how very anxious we were, not knowing what we should hear when we asked the orderlies in the hospital about her. And how tremendously glad we were when we heard: “Confined last night…but you mustn't talk to her for long...” I shall not easily forget that “you mustn't talk to her for long”; for it meant “you can still talk to her,” when it could easily have been, “you will never talk to her again.”

I was so happy to see her there, lying close to a window overlooking a garden full of sunshine and greenery, in a sort of drowsy state of exhaustion between sleeping and waking, and then she looked up and saw us all. She looked up and was so happy to see us exactly 12 hours after it had happened.


So other than her, do you have many other girlfriends?


I tell you, I am not good from a clergyman's point of view. I know full well that, frankly speaking, prostitutes are bad, but I feel something human in them which prevents me from feeling the slightest scruple about associating with them; I see nothing very wrong in them. I haven't the slightest regret about any past or present association with them. If our society were pure and well regulated, yes, then they would be seducers; but now, in my opinion, one may often consider them more as sisters of charity.


Then there is this girlfriend, whom you gave your cut-off ear, what on earth were you doing?


I think I was out of mind after my fight with Paul, I cannot remember really.

I took a razor and cut off a portion of my left ear. The police would find blood all over the house, with blood soaked rags in the studio and bloody handprints along the wall leading upstairs. They told that I took the ear and wrapped it in newspaper. With a hat pulled down over my wound, I, with ear in hand, left the house to go to a “maison de tolerance”, a brothel close to the house.

There I asked for a girl whom I gave the ear to. I don’t remember what I said, but she said I was saying “Guard this object carefully.”

After I recovered, I went back to see her. I was told there that things like that aren’t at all surprising around here. She had suffered from it and had fainted but had regained her composure. And what’s more, people say good things of her.


Are you not worried that your paintings are not selling well?


You see the trouble is that the possibility of working depends on selling the work, for there are expenses - the more one works, the greater the expenses are (though the latter is not true in every respect). When one does not sell and has no other income, it is impossible to make the progress which would otherwise follow of its own accord.

I am thankful to Theo, my brother, who supports my life and my work. I owe a great debt to him, however, and if I continued in exactly the same way, it would grow worse and worse.

The respectable natives of this region asked me at least three times in one week by absolute strangers, “Why is it that you never sell your work?”

Maybe my paintings won’t sell in my lifetime, perhaps if they understand me then they can appreciate it more.


Thank you so much Vincent for the interview, wish you all the best with your work and your health.

Vincent (with a handshake):


This is an imaginary interview in memory of Vincent Van Gogh.