Howard's Blog

Ancient Chinese Curse Subdued by the Chinese Dragon!

  • June 21, 2012

OK, with a title like that, I have some splainin’ to do! But I’m going to keep you waiting for a bit.  First I want to tell you about the utterly delightful and charming conclusion to my time with the choir and orchestra on the new (Chenggong) campus of the university. The orchestra, as I’ve mentioned on several occasions, has been struggling with the Mozart Violin Concerto #3 in G+ and the Beethoven Symphony #1. I decided that our final time together should be a “performance” of these 2 works, which is to say, we would actually play through these works from beginning to end. A few friends of the players sat in and listened, as did one or two faculty members whose curiosity about this new orchestra finally got the better of them. Our renditions were not, shall we say, definitive. Some of you may recall the recordings produced many years ago by the unspeakably awful Portsmouth Sinfonia. Well, just to listen to our performance, you might have put us in that less than august company. But that, gentle reader, would be to ignore a world of discovery by these young Beethoven and Mozart virgins that had preceded the event these past three and a half months. It was a triumph for us all to arrive at the end of every movement at the same time! I can say without any equivocation that every theme, every melody was recognizable! This was a performance to be seen, not so much to be heard! The look of sheer delight on those faces at the end of our little concert cannot be described. Given our limited repertoire, the performance ended with plenty of time left for photos…millions of photos, the entire orchestra, of course, but also sections within the orchestra, individual players together with moi. My face was frozen in what I hope was a photogenic smile for several hours!

Yunnan Arts University Orchestra

Conductor and Soloist wrestling with the angel called Mozart!

My timpanist - he's also one of my conducting students

A number of the students had gifts for me, including a couple of beautiful Chinese instruments, and a full score of the violin concerto, “The Butterfly Lovers”, a Chinese classic, recorded by Gil Shahan, among numerous others. It was a lovely conclusion to what had been a very positive and rewarding experience for me, and, I believe, for the players.

And then there was the university choir! This ensemble was a real challenge all semester, not because of any ill will on the part of the singers. They were just so completely out of their depth with the Mozart Requiem that our progress had to be measured in single bars. The choir Maggie and I had heard last October when we visited the campus very briefly was an excellent ensemble, and I was given to understand that would be my choir. Well, that was a hand-picked ensemble of senior students from YAU (and a couple of other schools as well) that was preparing for an important competition. That competition having been completed in December, the choir was disbanded and I was given a group of 1st and 2nd year students with no choral experience whatsoever. Most of them still have trouble reading western notation (all Chinese pupils grow up learning the French “number system”, something introduced in China after 1949), so just navigating their way through a choral score  was difficult for them. About the last 3 weeks I finally began to sense that they were starting to understand what this was all about, but of course there was no way we could contemplate an actual performance. Their “examination” consisted of quartets of singers singing about 3 minutes worth of excerpts from the Mozart. The result was surprising. It was evident that they had put in considerable effort, that they had learned much about singing choral fugues, and that they were enjoying this incredible music. Following our last time together, the ubiquitous cameras were unleashed yet again.

Yunnan Arts University Choir - final rehearsal

My work with the choir and orchestra on the Chenggong campus having been completed, all that remained was final rehearsals and the 2 performances of La Traviata by the Wenhua College troops (both students and faculty members) on the old campus in Kunming.

I’m writing to you on the eve of Dragon Boat Day. The actual day is always the 5th day of the 5th lunar month, which means that this year (which also happens to be the Year of the Dragon), the festival is quite late, culminating this weekend. The Chinese Dragon Boat Day is a significant holiday. Celebrations take the form of races with dragon-shaped boats. Of the many Chinese holidays, this one has the longest history, dating back more than 2000 years. The boat races during the Dragon Boat Festival are a traditional custom, a symbolic attempt to rescue the patriotic poet Chu Yuan who drowned on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month in 277 B.C. People throw bamboo leaves filled with cooked rice into the water, encouraging the fish to eat the rice rather than the remains of the hero poet. Eventually this morphed into the custom of eating tzungtzu and rice dumplings. Yesterday,  following my first performance of La Traviata (more about which later in this post), the university presented Maggie and me with our very own food kit (rice wrapped in bamboo leaves, and eggs) which needs to be steamed before eating.

Holiday fare for Dragon Boat Day - a gift from Yunnan Arts University

The celebration protects you from evil and disease for the rest of the year. If you manage to stand an egg on its end at exactly 12:00 noon, the following year will be a lucky one. Any tips on how best to do this? (Egg cups are not allowed!)

There, now I think I’m ready to explain my title today. Whereas in western culture the dragon is a terrifying creature needing to be slain by doughty Christian heroes (St. George),  in China the dragon is viewed as a good omen, a symbol of good luck, prosperity and power. So, it being the Dragon Boat Festival right now, I have to assume that it was the dragon that rescued us from the fury of the Ancient Chinese Curse, namely, “may you see interesting times”. (By the way, this is the most severe of 3 Chinese curses, the other 2 more benign ones being “may you be noticed by powerful people”, and “may your wishes be granted”. Strikes me as a perceptive insight into our universal human foibles.)

The experience with the curse (“interesting times”) happened this way. La Traviata rehearsals were proceeding nicely and I was beginning to get a sense that the everything was coming together rather well. The concert hall, by the way, is first class. Let me give you a brief tour. First, the exterior…

Yunnan Arts University Concert Hall - old campus

The auditorium, gently raked, seats about 700. The stage is enormous, ideal for opera. The backstage in fact reminds me very much of Centre in the Square in Kitchener. Nice pit too!

Interior of Yunnan Arts University Concert Hall

I was delighted to see a 9′ Hamburg Steinway on stage, tuned and in good repair. The dress rehearsal Sunday afternoon was proceeding quite well. The choir was in top form, and the soloists were OK, although they were holding back a bit, evidently saving themselves for the actual performance.

Dress rehearsal with Alfredo (in shorts) still in attendance!

Well, we got to about the middle of Act 2, when it was time for the tenor (Alfredo) to begin a crucial scene with Violetta. That’s when the Chinese curse struck! My tenor had disappeared!! He was nowhere to be found. Numerous calls to his cell phone went unanswered. He was gone! I waited for about 15 minutes, and finally decided we had to continue without him. I conducted and sang the tenor role (don’t even think about asking!), and the rest of the rehearsal proceeded with a bit of a limp, and with me doing a slow burn! By the end of the rehearsal, the Dean, the President of the college and a couple of other officials were in the auditorium. Apparently, my Alfredo had been unhappy with his “O mio rimorso!” aria earlier in Act 2 (yes, he cracked a few notes, but I wasn’t unduly concerned; in fact, I thought he was sounding just fine), and had decided he wasn’t up to this, so he simply walked out without telling a soul! By the end of the rehearsal, arrangements were already being made for 1 of China’s “3 tenors” to be flown in from Beijing. A 2nd dress rehearsal (to accommodate the replacement tenor) was quickly scheduled for the following day, Monday (thank goodness the performance wasn’t until Tuesday). Slack-jawed though I was by all of this, I was equally amazed at just how quickly things can happen here when they have to! So I went to bed that night thinking I would have a Chinese superstar as my Alfredo. Next day, another surprise…more “interesting times”! There had been a very long meeting the previous evening of all the top college administrators with our errant tenor (who, by the way, teaches at the college). He was read the riot act and ordered to ask me for “forgiveness” and to request that he be allowed to sing as planned. Under the circumstances, I felt I had no choice but to comply, although I insisted that the scheduled extra dress rehearsal be retained, to give Alfredo a chance to sing the entire role. The up side was that everyone got an unplanned extra rehearsal, and you can never have too many rehearsals! I did have a little chat with my tenor, suggesting to him in terms he couldn’t possibly misinterpret that what he had done the previous day was not a great way to advance his career!

Came the day of the performance…that would have been yesterday, June 20. In the morning I went to the office of the Kunming Symphony Orchestra to begin discussions about my return engagement with them next season. The La Traviata performance began at 8pm, and the hall had been transformed. Festooned with banks of flowers on either side, the stage was gorgeous, the aroma of lilies heavy in the air. There was a 5′ tower at one side for subtitles…the entire La Traviata libretto was scrolled there, in Chinese!

Floral arrangements gracing the stage, plus the tower for the Chinese libretto!

The performance, I’m happy to report, was an unqualified success! Choir, soloists, accompanists (we had two, one each for Pts. 1 and 2), even the conductor, rose to the occasion and gave a splendid performance. Alfredo outdid himself, and in his inimitable way of “recomposing” some of Verdi’s recitatives (as is his wont!), he was quite convincing! And you should have seen the leading ladies, most especially Violetta. So many false eyelashes, hairpieces, long gowns, and BLING I couldn’t have begun to imagine! In fact, what you see below is the gown Violetta wore for Pt. 1! After the intermission, she appeared in yet another stunning salmon-coloured gown! And she sang well too (as if that really mattered!).

All dressed up for the performance!

When these folks put on a show, they don’t fool around. Just before the performance began, I saw one of male chorus members (a chorus member, for heaven’s sake!) with a full palette of makeup, making himself gorgeous!

The audience was absolutely quiet and engaged during the entire performance (something I’ve not experienced before in this part of the world) and gave us a rousing ovation at the end. The mandatory lavish bouquets having been presented, the audience filed out, but all the performers stayed on stage for…you guessed it…photos!!! We were joined by a delegation of university officials, as well as some dignitaries who had come from Beijing for what was after all the Yunnan Province premiere of La Traviata. The president of Yunnan Arts University gave a spirited (and much too long)  oration on the importance of the arts and the significance of this event.

Post-performance photo op! The guy to my left is the president of YAU, and the guy in the short-sleeved white shirt reaching across to me is the president of Wenhua College.

The performers were all beside themselves with excitement, and that was good to see! This kind of thing is new territory for these young people, so it’s fun to see them “catch the bug”.

So now we have one more performance to look forward to, featuring the other Violetta. Remember some time ago I mentioned that the leading role had been double cast, and in the end it was decided to do 2 performances to give each soprano the chance to sing. We’re going to have yet another dress rehearsal (three and counting…) so she can get used to singing in that large space. Today Maggie and I were invited for lunch by the president of Wenhua College. He pronounced himself very pleased with last night’s performance. My strong hunch is that they have plans for the future which include me!

In the meantime, when we’re not rehearsing or tracking down absentee tenors, our fabulous life in Kunming continues. Recently we visited the two 1300 year old pagodas right in the heart of Kunming. For some reason we hadn’t seen them before. They are not to be missed!

One of the two pagodas in downtown Kunming

And then there’s The Jade Garden, one of our favourite restaurants, overlooking Green Lake…a 10′ walk from our apartment.

Front view of "The Jade Garden" restaurant

You walk through the main building to an inner courtyard, complete with lush gardens, waterfalls, and a charming footbridge. There are a number of outdoor tables, and the food is some of the best we’ve had!

Footbridge in courtyard of The Jade Garden

There’s a Bamboo Temple about 12 kms northwest of the city we haven’t seen yet. Tomorrow may be the day for that. We’ve already been promised a round of farewell meetings and dinners by the university next week, there will be at least one more meeting with the orchestra officials, and of course there’s one more La Traviata performance to go, so the remaining days here will go by in a flash. But you never know when the Chinese curse could strike again! Touch wood and count on the Dragon!









1 Comment on Ancient Chinese Curse Subdued by the Chinese Dragon!

  • operajoseph says:
    June 21, 2012 at 2:45 pm

    Thanks Howard, for your epic-scaled post. It seems that there was more drama off-stage than on! Too bad there wasn’t a full performance of the Mozart Requiem. And that Alfredo! I guess the tenorial temperament is the same anywhere in the world. From reading your post, does that mean the emergency tenor that flew in to save the show never got to sing? I feel sorry for him…a bit of a loss of “face”. Thanks for such an entertaining read! Best, Joseph


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