Howard's Blog

Fallen Woman; Lethal Silence; Malodorous Neighbourliness; Living with a Star

  • March 23, 2012

In the existential hothouse that is Kunming in March, 2012, one’s experiential quiver fills to overflowing very quickly. So, let me open a few windows for you to see what life has been like here for us these last several days. You’re way too polite to ask, but I know, you really want to know about the fallen woman, right? Relax, I’m referring to Violetta, the tragic courtesan heroine in Verdi’s splendid opera La Traviata. Traviata is often translated as “fallen woman” or, more accurately, “the woman who strayed”. As I mentioned last time, I have been invited to “coach” (read conduct) rehearsals of the solo cast  as well as the chorus for a planned June concert performance. All this is happening on the old campus, which, you will recall, is right in Kunming. (Gradually we’re beginning to decipher the intricate interrelationships between various colleges and campuses. Wenhua School, for example, is an adjunct college of Yunnan Arts University. Turns out it’s a private college, i.e. privately funded,as opposed to the rest of the university which is state-funded. The tuition at the private school is much higher, and , not surprisingly, the academic/artistic standard is correspondingly higher as well. The invitation to me to assist in the La Traviata rehearsals was extended by Wenhua College). My first rehearsal on Tuesday with the Alfredo and Violetta (2 Violettas in fact…the title role has been double cast) was a sheer delight. The singers are quite well trained and have considerable stylistic awareness. Their Italian leaves a bit to be desired as does their emotional involvement, so that’s where I weighed in, helping them with the language and explaining to them the growing relationship between A and V in Act 1. What helped enormously too was the fact that we had a fabulous accompanist who can play anything! The 90′ rehearsal flew by! Yesterday (Thursday) I met the chorus, about 60 strong. They’re really a very fine choir, average age about 18-20, and they take this opera project ever so seriously, spending countless hours in rehearsal. There is a tendency to learn everything by rote and then to rattle it off note perfect but with a minimum of emotional involvement, so my task was to get them to understand what’s actually going on. And of course, for the chorus in La Traviata, it’s largely party time on stage! I got them to stand in quartets (boy, girl, boy, girl), to interact with each other as they sang, maybe even (horrors!) to touch each other in the course of the Brindisi (Act 1 drinking song). They loved it! And they sang ever so much better, although I did have to remind them that all the “partying” is just fake, that they must maintain discipline and always watch the conductor!

Verdi in the Middle Kingdom

What I’m finding is that these delightful students (on both campuses) are like dry sponges, just waiting to soak up everything you can offer them. At the end of the 90′ sessions (1 to 2:30pm), I’m ready for a break. That respite comes in the form of the hour long bus ride to the new campus in Chenggong where I work with the university choir on Tuesday and the orchestra on Thursday. The choir got off to a rather tenuous start when I first met them. Of the 60 singers registered for the choir, about half that number actually showed up for the 1st 2 rehearsals. At that point I sent a fairly stiff memo to the powers that be, with the result that this Tuesday, I had a full complement of singers. Mind you, someone had forgotten to think that more photocopied scores of the Mozart Requiem would be needed, so people had to share (those of you who have sung under my direction know that I absolutely DETEST having singers share scores). Progress with the choir is surprisingly slow, but progress there is, and the mood in the choir is exceedingly upbeat. The orchestra too has a long way to go, but we have to date made serious inroads into the 1st movement of Beethoven’s 1st symphony, and we have made a passing acquaintance with the 2nd movement of Mozart’s G+ Violin Concerto. In the latter, the 1st violins introduce the ravishing melody which is soon taken up by the solo violin. My 10 1sts began playing molto vibrato. We had just a few minutes earlier been dealing with a trill in the Beethhoven, so this was my chance to remind them that in Mozart’s time, vibrato was, like the trill, considered to be a form of ornamentation, to be applied sparingly when appropriate. They were entranced by what they heard when they played senza vibrato! The sound that came out was of course so utterly different from what they were accustomed to hearing. It also didn’t take them more than a few seconds to realize that when you remove the vibrato crutch, you really do have to play in tune! At this rehearsal we also encountered another transposition issue. Last week it had been the Bb clarinets playing from C parts in the Beethoven; this time the French Horns (in F) had parts for horns in G. However, we tackle these little matters one at a time. File this one under “That’s one small step for Beethoven and Mozart; one giant leap for a young, completely inexperienced, but vastly keen group of Chinese musicians”. It’s a joy!

Now to the Lethal Silence part of my title today. This has to with life on the street here in Kunming. During rush hours in particular, the streets are teeming with cars, buses, and thousands of scooters and motorbikes, the vast majority of the latter being battery operated. Which is to say they’re completely quiet. Which is not to say the street is quiet. On the contrary, it’s a cacophony of horns, traffic cops blowing their whistles, squealing brakes, dogs barking, and people shouting to each other or selling their wares on the sidewalks. But you have to look out for those silent killers, the electric motorbikes. Generally, crossing the street in Kunming requires an all but Cirque-like agility! Crosswalks, clearly marked, are, we fervently believe, intended for human target practice. During the heaviest traffic, the gridlock is such that you have plenty of time to duck between vehicles and make your way safely across the street.

For those of you thinking of visiting us here in Kunming, let me say that the worst part of your trip will likely be the entrance to our apartment building. The first part of the approach is not bad…a small courtyard in which are parked a number of expensive cars. There follows an outdoor staircase of 29 steps which takes you to the actual entrance to our part of the building.

(Not so) Grand Entrance

You pass through this door to a dreadfully dingy, filthy stairwell. You walk up the remaining 4 flights (another 51 steps) to our apartment. At each level, you need to encourage the lights to come on by clapping your hands or emitting some other noise. Sometimes if you stub your toe in the dark, the expletive which just might escape your lips is enough to illuminate the surroundings!

The hostess greeting you!

You will notice that on the wall just above Maggie’s head is a vent. And that brings me to the Malodorous Neighbourliness subject. It suddenly occurred to me a few days ago that our wonderfully efficient bathroom exhaust fan vents directly into the stairwell used by all the residents in our part of the building. Mind you, I soon noticed that all the other apartments boast the same feature. Don’t get me wrong – I’m a firm believer in sharing and neighbourliness, but this, I stoutly maintain, is ridiculous!

Finally, in this land of limitless possibilities and challenges, an added bonus/burden has come my way, and that is learning to live with a star! As you may know, Maggie had agreed prior to our arrival here to do some English teaching at the university. Well, that started this week. On Tuesday, she had a class of 30. I was off at my choir rehearsal. Later, when I walked over to the bus which would take us back to Kunming, I saw her surrounded by a clutch of adoring students, chatting animatedly, shaking hands repeatedly with her and obviously basking in the warmth of this new person who had just entered their lives. Well, two days later when Maggie returned, it was a brand new class, this time 40 students that greeted her. Again, when I met her at the bus, there was another gaggle of groupies hating to say goodbye to their new hero! Evidently after that first class, word had travelled fast about this wonderful, “glamorous”, “friendly” English prof on campus. The administration was inundated with requests from people wanting to take Maggie’s course, so now each student is allowed to come only once a week in order to accommodate the dramatic increase in enrollment. In her most recent blog, Maggie tells a couple of great stories about her first 2 classes (

It’s a magical world we’re experiencing. Every day brings fresh adventures, new challenges, occasional little setbacks, always new and unexpected joys and delights. We’re in great health (I’m over a nasty cold which hampered me for a few days), and we’re savouring a chapter in our lives which we could never have predicted. We can’t even begin to imagine what still lies ahead.

I want to end my visit to you today on a rather more sombre note. On Monday, word reached us of the untimely passing of our dear friend Bruce Kirkpatrick Hill, Toronto organist, accompanist, conductor, arranger, choral singer. I had known Bruce for many years, and although it was known that he had some serious health issues, his sudden passing while he and his wife Stephanie Martin were vacationing in Cuba, came as a complete shock. We mourn his loss and celebrate his remarkable life. How we would want to be in Toronto for the funeral on Saturday. In times like this, the Pacific is all too vast. Requiescat in pace, dear Bruce!

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