Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Odd thoughts sometimes happen while you're walking...

After watching Barack Obama's inauguration on TV last week I went out for a stroll along the Martin Luther King Promenade in the Marina District in Downtown San Diego.The MLK Promenade is a concrete walkway running parallel to Harbor Drive from the Gaslamp Fountain to Columbia St. It is adorned with stone tablets quoting MLK's various speeches. Most are in good shape.... except for this one. I suppose the folks calling for the persecution of George W Bush and others responsible for war crimes and illegal wire-tapping of US citizens are right. We'd all like to just concentrate on fixing the economy and getting the military out of Iraq and Afghanistan. But... there are certain crimes that won't let us have a clean new beginning while they remain unfixed.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Opera Is Back To San Diego: TOSCA

Saturday (24 January) night saw the commencement of the 2009 opera season in San Diego with the premier of Giacomo Puccini's Tosca at the Civic Theater. The theater was nearly filled to capacity, which was a good news. The bad news is that the pressing economy has forced the San Diego Opera to cut down the number of operas scheduled for the 2010 season from 5 to 4 (don't know which opera got axed yet). So... if we opera-loving San Diegans want to keep a good opera company in town, we've better keep showing up to fill the auditorium for the rest of this season.

If that sounds like a chore, you should be relieved to know that bad economy has no untoward effect on the level of performance being given. The performance of Tosca last night was so well oiled it was hard to believe that it was the first show of the season. Sylvie Valayre was an interesting Tosca who made up for a rather strange voice with her dramatic intensity, Marcus Haddock was a charmingly dashing Cavaradossi, and Greer Grimsley was as domineering yet fetchingly sly Scarpia with a voice that could easily outsing an overly loud orchestra without breaking a sweat. It was, all in all, a very good show that was as pleasant on the eyes as it was on the ears. If you love the beautiful moody music from the late Romantic period and a good psychodrama, Tosca at the San Diego Opera is the show for you!

Check out the rest of the season and be sure to show your support to our local opera company. These good folks've earned it! (besides, if you show up 90 minutes before a performance and it hasn't sold out, there are rush tickets to be had for only $20 a piece!)

The rest of the 2009 Season at the San Diego Opera looks like this:
Jan 27, 30, Feb 1, 4: Puccini's TOSCA (Mueller/ Valayre, Haddock, Grimsley)
Feb 14, 17, 20, 22: Massenet's DON QUICHOTTE (Keltner/ Furlanetto, Dorn, Graves)
Mar 28, 31, Apr 3, 5: Verdi's RIGOLETTO (Mueller/ Vargicova, Aronica, Ataneli, Chavez)
Apr 18, 21, 24, 26: Britten's PETER GRIMES (Bedford/ Griffey, Casey Cabot, Gilfry)
May 9, 12, 15, 17, 20: Puccini's MADAMA BUTTERFLY (Mueller/ Racette, Ventre, MacKenzie, Cao

by Ken Howard is Greer Grimsley (Scarpia) and Sylvie Valayre (Tosca). Courtesy of San Diego Opera.

Cannon Battles on San Diego Bay 2009

Well, today (Sunday January 25th) was both cloudy and windy. The sea was over-enthusiastic for a good send off for the last Cannon Battles on San Diego Bay show of the year (courtesy of the Maritime Museum), I suppose. I hung around at the tip of Broadway Pier on the Embarcadero in Downtown for a while until the wind got inside my sweater and shirt. Four tall ships were anticipating this weekend; the HMS Surprise (a replica of an 18th Century Royal Navy frigate), the revenue cutter Californian (the state's official tall ship), the privateer Lynx, and the schooner Amazing Grace. The last three were carrying paid passengers... Yours truly wasn't one of them since I haven't got $35 to spare at the moment. Anyhow, I got a few good photos off it and put them together into a slide show....

Just as the clock ticked to 1PM start time, they were off in hot pursue of the HMS Surprise, who made a beeline South, scattering the many yachts, sail boats, harbor cruisers, and various waterfowls in the area. The tiny but adorably feisty Amazing Grace tailed her everywhere as the bigger revenue Californian and Lynx took a while to get into their rhythm. Once warmed up, though, the Californian proved delightfully tricker happy and shot at just about every tall ship in sight. The bangs reverberated through skyscrapers-filled Downtown until 4PM closing time.
I wish we wouldn't have to wait a whole year for the next round... That was fun!

Friday, January 23, 2009

An almost rainy day in San Diego

I don't know why, but apparently San Diego is really not keen on getting rained on. All the weather forecasters have been calling for rain on Thursday and Friday. Well, no moisture made it to the ground on Thursday (it was so dry here all the 'rain' did a Houdini act before it could get low enough for yours truly to spot it).

Today was a bit better. We got some pin-prick of a rain that was warm enough to somehow remind me of the tropical climate... It also helped that I watch much of the raining attempt from the densely foliage-covered Lath Palace (Botanical Building) at Balboa Park (see picture). It was too bad that Lakme's Flower Duet wasn't playing in the background, too... 
 What's this? Don't know what Lakme's Flower Duet sounds like? Here's a clip of it sung by Natalie Dessay (soprano) and, I think, Delphine Haidan (mezzo-soprano).

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Great Singing is Alive and Well... If You Look for It

Why do I admire opera singers so much? Well... they are very good at what they do. You'd think that it doesn't take much skill to sing something in tune, but... can you sing what the two virtuoso mezzo soprani in the clip below sing? Live? Un-microphoned? While acting?

The first singer is Vivica Genaux, the young American from Alaska who can make rapid fire coloratura sound like a walk in the park. Everyone with working legs can run... but not many can run the way Olympic runners can. The same goes with opera singing. This is extreme agility at its most jaw-dropping. This performance is actually a studio recording (so she didn't do the whole thing in one go (though you can find live clips of her doing this beast of a song on Youtube.... and her live efforts are nearly as clean as this!). I use this clip to drive home that the obnoxiousness of the thing is actually written in the score (though the notes on the score are a lot tamer than the cadenza you actually hear toward the end since it is imperative that she ornaments every time the A phrase is repeated). 'Qual guerriero', being a bravura aria, doesn't really require much interpretation, but Genaux still contrasts the fast and slow sections very well to keep this thing from being one dimensional. Pretty awesome, ay?

The second singer is Vesselina Kasarova, the Bulgarian singer who doesn't just cope with Mozart's demand for naked vocal perfection, but also has the knack for making every note she sings tell a story. This is from a live staged performance. The final aria of Farnace doesn't require the vocal speed that the music Genaux sings does, but the vocal lines are so long (try singing along and see that you don't pass out before the 2nd phrase!) and exposed. It requires virtuosity of a different sort... If you make any mistake (smudging or missing a note... or any unsteadiness or blotchiness in the legato line at all), everyone can hear it. And the tessitura isn't very stable (much of the aria lies very low for a mezzo soprano, but she has to keep foraying upward and is never allowed to get comfy in any part of her range). Somehow, though, Kasarova manages to not just sing the notes but to also projects so much character in her vocal coloring that I listen to this and forget that I'm hearing a woman pretending to be a man who is turning his life around for the good. Instead, it is Farnace himself airing his own repentance... It is just that, his normal mode of expression is in song.

And do you know what the coolest thing is? As big a star as these two low-voiced women are, they are as nice and down to earth as can be off the stage. Their colleagues love them to death... and so do their fans.... simply because they've earned it.

If you enjoy these clips, Genaux recorded the aria on her 'Arias for Farinelli' CD, and Kasarova's full performance as Farnace is available on the Orfeo Label CD of Mozart's Mitridate from the Salzburg Festival 1997.

Not Knowing is No Shame; Pretending to Know is

"It is better to be approximately right than to be precisely wrong."
- Warren Buffet
People aren't skeptical enough about the data they receive sometimes. What exactly is this need to appear to know things or to draw a certain conclusion even when it isn't backed by solid data? Why does there seems to be a pervasive over-emphasis on 'knowing' even when one can only suspect (but doesn't really know), while the ability to recognize own ignorance or to doubt oneself is somehow regarded with disdain.... as a character flaw. A political candidate who tells the truth and says that he doesn't have a sure answer is likely to lose to a politician who lies and pretends to know the solution (even when everyone, himself included, knows that he doesn't).

Why is this so? What is wrong with admitting to not knowing something for sure because there simply isn't enough credible data to justify an informed answer? What is served, really, when we pretend to know something that we really can't back up with evidence or a solid chain of logic for?
My teenage niece was doing a paper on the conservation of cougar in the wild, for her first college biology class a while back, and I got to sit in the back of the room as she gave her presentation (I was giving her the ride home). Toward the end she was asked about the current state of the cougars' wild population (to see whether the conservation techniques were working). So the dear girl, armed with a vague lay-language fact sheet from a website that states that the number of sightings of the animal 'had increased in the past 10 yrs', confidently proclaimed that the conservation techniques being used are working and the cougar populations are recovering simply because of the growth in the number of reported sighting. And what did her professor do? She smiled and nodded her approval without offering any correction or thought.

Is that reasonable to you? Think about it a bit... Just how good and solid is that data that my niece based her very positive conclusion on? What else, aside from the actual increase in the population size of the cougars, can cause the number of sighting to grow? Is the 'data' even discriminative enough to support any conclusion? The fact is... She doesn't have any idea exactly what sort of data was used to make up the 'number of sightings' that the fact sheet based its conclusion on. If the data says '10 sightings in a week', can she tell if that means that:
A. 10 different people had each seen a different cougar?
B. 10 different people had all
seen the same cougar once and reported their sighting separately?
C. one same person had
seen the same cougar 10 times and reporting each encounter?
D. one same person saw 10 different cougars in a week?
Or if it was anything else in between?

With that sort of data, the actual number of live cougars sighted can range anywhere from 1 to 10! The only thing you can say for sure is that there is at least one out there being seen and reported on. There is nothing discriminative enough in this piece of data to infer more out of it.

Also... even if the most optimistic presentation of the data is true, what else, aside from the actual increase in the number of the things being sighted, can cause the number of sightings to increase? How about the increase in the number of the people doing the sighting? How about the closer proximity between the populations of the sighted and the sighters? And how about the improvement in reporting percentage (more people who have seen a live cougar in the wild know where and how to report the sighting to the authority) now from before? (this is the same sort of problems associated with the idea that certain diseases like lupus is more wide spread than before... Has there really been an increase in the incidents of lupus or has the modern diagnostic techniques and education enabled the milder cases to be diagnosed that would have been missed before? and is this reflected in the lower fatality rate?)
It is not enough to have a hypothesis and then to search for the data that would back it up. You must also search (even harder) for the data that may contradict your hypothesis!I don't know about the state of the cougar's population, but I do know for sure that the human population in the United States has increased each year. I do know that our towns and cities are expanding, that we're building more roads, and developing further into what used to be the wilderness. Wouldn't we then expect to run into wild animals more as we encroach further into their home range? In fact, the number of live cougars in the wild can be decreasing while the number of sightings increases... as long as the rate of human encroachment on the cougar's home range out-paces the rate of decline in the animal's population.So what is the proper answer to the question that my niece was asked in class? Insufficient evidence to support a conclusion! There is NOTHING wrong with admitting that you don't know the answer when you really DON'T know the answer. When you pretend to know the answer even though you really haven't got a good supporting evidence for it, you have boxed yourself in and closed the door to further investigation.

One must be aware of one's assumptions when one looks at a scientific data! And even when the data is demonstrably good, it isn't enough to seize on the most favorable (to your hypothesis) interpretation of a piece of data. You must never lose sight of the validity of the interpretations that don't fit the result you wanted. The biology professor missed one heck of a teachable moment in class that day. The lesson goes right to the heart of what separates a scientist from someone dabbling on some science stuff. Scientists aren't in the business of gaining absolute certainty. They are in the business of reducing uncertainty. It is imperative that they are intellectually humble enough to know that they don't know absolute truth, and so must work harder to get as close to it as possible.