Thursday, December 23, 2010

2010 Year In Recap

A lot of things happened in 2010... even in my little corner of the big world. The ground was shaky here earlier in the year after a slew of earthquakes, though we haven't had a good jolt for many months now (which means that I have to invent up new excuses for my tendency to bump into things). Our summer was milder than usual, and rain arrived way ahead of schedule - rendering us quite a good colorful fall season.

I made many new friends, some in unlikely places. It's the one luck I do have that I keep running into really interesting, intelligent, decent and caring people online who are so nice to me even though we may never meet in real life (and the few that I have actually met are as wonderful as they seem in the cyber space!). You know who you are, I hope. Best of greetings to you all!

Another year and another move to a new living quarter... this time quite out of the city. It is hard getting anywhere from here via foot or public transportation, though I get to walk past a few hawks almost daily, and got to discover a few special places in the neighborhood. A fair compensation!

Got involved in a few projects I didn't mean to get involve in, though they all turned out ok. I discovered that I can still hit a golf ball without ending up causing anyone a serious bodily injury... Mentally, though, that is another story.
San Diego Opera stage crew changing set during La Traviata (April 2010)
Going to live opera performances at the San Diego Opera was a treat as usual. I finally got to hear Piotr Beczala live as Rodolfo in Puccini's La Boheme, and the rest of the cast was also quite fine. Never in my wildest dream did I think I'd get to see a staged performance of Verdi's Nabucco, but I did... in a pretty compelling staging at that. Richard Paul Fink was a commanding Nebuchadnezzar and Sylvie Valayre was as nasty as Abigaille needed to be. I was charmed by Ailyn Perez in Gounod's Romeo et Juliette, though her husband, Stephen Costello pissed me off with his insistence on putting a fermata on nearly all of his high notes. Then Elizabeth Futral came back to town as a very fetching Violetta in Verdi's La Traviata, and it was a real pleasure to get to hear that opera's overture from the beautiful acoustic of the Civic Theater's upper balcony.

The SD Opera's 2011 season is still shortened to 4 operas due to the sluggish economy, though they do pack a lot of punches. Puccini's Turandot opens the season, followed by Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier that features the role debut for Anja Harteros as Die Marschallin. Ferrucio Furlanetto was to essay Baron Ochs for the first time here, but has decided to shelf that project for the time being, so we'll hear Andrew Greenan in the role instead. As our Octavian and Sophie will be the German mezzo Anke Vondung and Italian soprano Patrizia Ciofi. Both of which I am very much looking forward to hearing live for the first time! Then Ailyn Perez and Stephen Costello return as the ill-fated couple in Gounod's Faust. Another company debut is planned with Nino Surguladze in the title role of Bizet's Carmen.

I also went to a few Met HD opera broadcast to the movie theater in Mission Valley: Carmen with Elina Garanca and Roberto Alagna, then Der Rosenkavalier with Renee Fleming, Susan Graham, and Christine Schaefer. Loved the former, though the latter was a really long evening (thanks in no small part to the two 50 minutes long intermissions! As if this opera isn't long enough on its own already!).

Elina Garanca, the nearly impossibly gorgeous in many ways Latvian mezzo-soprano is an artist over whom I have occasionally gotten publicly frustrated for her prioritization of clean singing over portrayal of the music's dramatic content (she says so herself in a 2009 interview with Matthew Gurewitsch) was a revelation. I first encountered her as Annio in the awesome DVD of Mozart's La clemenza di Tito from the 2003 Salzburg Festival and thought she had great potential. Though in subsequent CD and DVD encounters I was often frustratingly bored by her technical perfection...

But a talent like this shouldn't be given up on, and so I check back on her every so often. Giving people second and third chances is one of the few things in life that consistently pays back well. She is turning up quite more expressive than she once was... And sometimes even in surprisingly delightful manner!

Garanca in a much lighter mood with the drunk song from Offenbach's La Perichole.

I also went to a few symphony concerts around town. The San Diego Symphony Orchestra is now ranked quite respectably as a first tier American orchestra. I have mixed feelings about them... I love their wind and brass section, and the rest of the group are also technically fantastic. They turn up colorful and fiery at the opera, but in concert setting they often sound the notes beautifully without saying anything with them. This season is their 100th, and so quite a great line up of soloists headlining shows. The soloists usually leave after the first half, though, so the second half performances have been somewhat underwhelming by contrast (it's hard on drama-oriented audiences like me to go back to hearing pretty sound after a really communicative musical experience).

I also had a good time listening to the San Diego Master Chorale and the medieval music specialist group Courtly Noyse... and discovering many more wonderful young opera singers (another cheerful thank you to Samantha Farber at SONO Artists Consulting for facilitating delicious interviews with a few of them).

Alas, I didn't make it to Europe to catch my favorite muse, Vesselina Kasarova, in one of her best roles (Ruggiero in Handel's Alcina). I would get depressed about it, but was saved by reports of the many friends who managed to attend (most did in multiple shows!) and by the news that the Vienna shows were recorded for DVD release!

Wait a bit... I think I hear an owl from somewhere outside the window. Better go and see if I can catch a glimpse. Wishing everyone a very happy holiday season and fabulous 2011!


Wednesday, December 22, 2010

DADT Repealed At Last! Credits Where They Are Due...

It's been a long time coming, but that disgrace of a law known as Don't Ask, Don't Tell that has served as a cover for unfair discrimination against gays serving in the US military is finally repealed today. Looking back on it I am intrigued... The USA started out blazing the way toward valuation of fair play for all against the then prevalence of religious dictatorships (along with dictatorships that were using religions as cover for their oppression). Nowadays we are lagging behind other developed countries who are too busy fixing real pressing problems to indulge in nosing into and passing judgment on what some of their soldiers (and citizens in general) do in their private romantic lives.

There remain some who still endorse this anti-gay policy, indeed, claiming that allowing gay soldiers to not have to hide who they are (and giving free pass for anti-gays snitching to uproot career of good gay soldiers who aren't that interested in showing off their gayhood to begin with) will "destroy unit cohesion". To which I say, 'O ye of little faith. Just because you lots can't handle your own sexual bias doesn't mean that the rest of us can't! I have a lot more faith in the sensibility of the average American soldiers than you do. They have slept beside their gay brothers in arm under the pings of enemy bullets for years. I bet most of them even know which brothers and sisters are gay and which aren't and don't need additional drama some misguided overly religious folks insist on throwing their way'.

So here a little celebratory number for the now much more wholesome US armed force... Did you know this thing is taken from an opera?

"Well, now, my bumblebee, go on a spree,
catch up with the ship on the sea,
go down secretly,
get deep into a crack.
Good luck, Gvidon, fly,
only do not stay long!

- from Nikolai Rimsky Korsakov's Legend of Tsar Saltan.
  Translation taken from wikipedia.
 Prince Gvidon was sent into exile by a trick, but thanks to the Swan Bird (who sings this tune), he is temporarily transformed into a bumblebee so that he could go back home and visit his father, the Tsar Saltan, albeit incognito.

And giving credits where they are due... I must admit that like many others, I've thought Barack Obama a lot less principled and a lot more political than he apparently is. What can I say? The man is smarter than I am and even more patient. And I have undoubtedly suffered a bit from the prevalent American disease of 'I want this and this, and I want them NOW because I don't want to wait for them to be done properly syndrome'. It is a really nasty mental condition since it serves up unrealistic expectations while tending to gloss over the difficulties involved in the process of getting all those stuff done. With the feverishly partisan news reporting of recent years, it is easy to lose perspectives and forget to check for real status on things.

When Obama took office in January 2009 folks left, right, and middle agreed that our economy was heading for a catastrophic collapse on the scale of the 1929 - 1939 Great Depression. Republicans and Democrats alike predicted that the economy wouldn't even begin to recover for many years, and there wasn't much of an end in sight for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan... and anyone who actually thought that healthcare reform could actually happen was likely way overly optimistic near the point of being delusional. Nearly two years later, much of those were done, and the much maligned stimulus (started under George W Bush and continued under Obama) has actually saved the economy (it didn't collapse. We still have a banking system, the auto-manufacturing industry, and the economy is actually on the upward slope again. Not as steep a slope as we'd wish for, but it is pointing up instead of down the way EVERYONE predicted it to still be doing by the end of 2010) and TARP, the 'bank bailout' is even projected to turn profit for the taxpayers!

Sure, things could be better, but they could also be a lot worse. And the truth of the matter is, they are verifiably a lot better than they were projected to be two years ago. Sometimes it pays to make sure that one's expectation doesn't keep upgrading itself to the point where no good deed can go unpunished...

Monday, December 20, 2010

December 2010

A weekend that was. Did some household chores,

walked a few pounds off the dog, 

and finding good chuckling instigators on Youtube...

Loud in its own way, ay?

Sunday, December 5, 2010

An Evolving Dog Day Afternoon

Indi half-dog-half-kangaroo (either half-kangaroo or half-jumping bean. I think the former isn't as big a genetic leap as the latter is) took me out for a stroll Sunday evening. It was cloudy and chilly. Probably in the mid 60's Fahrenheit (yes, that is "chilly" by a spoiled Southern Californian standard. If it ever gets cold enough here for the car doors to freeze shut, most of us would be unconscious and couldn't careless about using normal people's adjective in describing coldness).

I was bundled up in 3 layers and dreaming of steaming mugs of hot cocoa while furry Indi just went about her business with total indifference to the dropping temperature... Which, naturally, made me ponder about the 'common wisdom' that man is the most evolved species on the planet.

But, of course, man is not 'the most' evolved species on the planet. All the other species (hyperactive furry canines included) are just as evolved as we are! We just evolved differently to cope with our natural niche. And that's the same thing all the other living species do!

Drop an unarmed man into the middle of the wilderness anywhere with no tool whatsoever (knife and flint included), and most likely he won't survive anywhere nearly as well as all the other untooled local species can and do. Indi the kangadog, for one, is so well insulated by her fur that she'll be able to survive winter nights out without suffering hypothermia. Without my clothes, I probably won't be able to do that. And if the cold doesn't do me in, I'd probably starve because I'm not fast enough nor can I see well enough without my glasses to catch a rabbit or a panicky squirrel for dinner. 

Physically Indi the dog and Spooky the squirrel are much better adapted to the Southern Californian land environment than I am (and I can't live in water the way the sea bass and other fish can either). The one luck I and my fellow humans have, however, is that many many moons ago our human ancestor hit the genetic jackpot with brain development. Intelligence. It doesn't give us any physical advantage to other less intelligent species, but it along with the physical convenience of the opposable thumb allow us to improvise like no other earthlings could. We can't run as fast as the cheetahs can, but we thought up and built not only speedy cars but even rockets that can travel beyond our solar system. We can't see as well as the eagles do, but we thought up and created binoculars and even telescopes that can see galaxies forming so far away that it takes light 14 billion years to deliver their sight to us.

Having said that, having intelligence and using it are two different things. Why do I keep hearing people dissing the effort to reduce CO2 gas in the atmosphere and (hopefully) reversing the current global warming trend as if the natural- or unnatural- ness of its cause should make us behave differently? If you know that a moon-size meteor is taking a dead aim at planet Earth, would you not want the scientists to do everything possible to try to prevent the collision - regardless of how natural the event is? If you spot a naturally occurring wall of wild fire making a mad dash toward your house, would you not ask the firefighters to try to fight the blaze? Shall we sit prematurely defeated at home instead of organizing flood containing levees of sandbags when the river nearby overflows its banks?

Why should inaction be excused if man isn't the main cause of the current speedy warming trend (though the scientific consensus is that it is)? We are not trying to save the earth itself. The planet will survive the next ice ages as well as boiled ages with or without us. What the sensible people are trying to do is to do what is humanly possible to preserve the current earthly condition that supports our species' survival... regardless of whether its cause is more natural or man-made. Yes, the earth has seen many naturally heated and iced periods in the past. But why let it lapse into one of those humanly inhospitable conditions again if we can do anything at all that may prevent it???

The earth is going to be here whether Southern California turns into the bottom of a hot ocean or a frigid mile-thick glacier... You can either do what you can to prevent so drastic a climate change that will make it hard for your offspring to live or you can just sit on your hands while condemning others for causing you energy-inconveniences in their attempt to pass along a humanly viable earth to future generations. There is no escaping doom in the latter, whereas the former retains a possibility of survival. And if the driving force of this drastic climate change is more natural and our every efforts to stop and reverse it fails, at least the species will have gone down in fighting dignity rather than as a bunch of defeatists. If only all choices in life can be as clear cut!!!

PS: If you click on the link at 'climate change' to see the EPA's page on the phenomenon, be sure to read the footnote at the bottom of the page. It always bugs me how lay naysayers like to dismiss scientific views for the use of 'passive voice'. In the scientific world 'uncertainties' are measured on a very different scale as they are in lay conversations.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Off the Main Road: An Oasis by Discovery Park

I'm a country bumpkin and living in concrete forest cities sometimes depresses me. Oddly enough, the best cure for that is often to go out and walk a skewed hike. How is a hike skewed? By looking where you wouldn't normally look, of course.

This is a little creek hiding in plain sight near Discovery Park in Rancho del Rey area of Chula Vista. I've been by there several times without ever giving the little out-of-the-way grove of palm trees a second thought (ok, I confess I was interested once but was discouraged by the graffiti on the retaining wall up the hill from it... It looks like a druggie's hangout).

Yesterday, however, I was walking back from the store nearby when I spotted a lone hawk being harassed by a pack of three huge crows. It was a weird sight! The hawk went crashing into the eucalyptus grove on the hillside and just sat on a limb, ducking its head as the crows kept diving in to buzz him. I sneaked around and had a look at Mr. Hawk from below just before he flew off again. The last I saw of him he came circling back to the eucalyptus with something furry and yellowish in his beak, deftly maneuvering between the branches as the three crows tried to get at his lunch.

Looking back down on the ground level, though, I was surrounded by little birds! They were hard to photographed with my low-tech low-zoom camera, though, hopping from one bush to another as if cheering for the crows to drive that big fat flying predator away. There were a bunch of red-headed house finches up in the palm trees eating palm fruits. And the bushes were quaking with hopping golden crowned kinglets.
A golden crowned kinglet
And behind the bushes, of course, was this clear watered oasis...

If you were paying good attention you might have spotted the one icky thing in the creek.... An overturned shopping cart from the mall nearby. Thankfully there was just one of those and it was sort of tucked into a corner. The whole creek is only about 20 yds long, starting from a pipe outlet on the east end and disappearing underground behind a lone palm on the west end. On the whole, it really isn't much. But as a contrast to its citified surroundings.... it's a welcoming peaceful oasis!

Around town

It's the first week of December. I've had my first flu of the season, though that's not news comparing to many other things going on around town.

The San Diego Symphony celebrated its 100th birthday at the US Grant Hotel in Downtown on Friday with a big gala and a YoYo Ma concert. Balboa Park is all decked up for this year's December Night celebration while further to the northwest a group of Jews unsuccessfully tried to get La Jolla village to drop 'Christmas' from the name of its year end celebration (See? The world is not divided into Christians and Atheists. There are many other religions and its practitioners cohabiting the same country... and even the same town!).
Looking west on El Prado in Balboa Park
And up north in Escondido area they are prepping a house for demolition.... because the owner had this wonderful idea of making bombs and caching explosives all over the place. One of those got stepped on by a gardener (who, luckily, survived but is still recovering in a hospital). What can I say? San Diego is an eventful place!

Friday, November 26, 2010

Remembering some Thai folklore

I was roaming around the internet looking for posting of this old Southern Thai folklore of Ta Khao Mong-lai that I heard about when I was a kid. The problem is that I don't have Thai character keyboard and am probably misspelling the English transliteration of the name (Thai folks do have weird way of spell their name in English)... 

Ta Khao Mong-lai legend is a local tale linked to the geographical features in Thailand. There is a mountain called Khao Ta Mong-lai (Khao is Thai for 'Mount'), and he has a wife (one of the mountains in Northern Thailand that looks like a woman laying supine with her flowing hair spreading in little mountain ridges, a few strands of which extend into Myanmar). 

I once visited a cabin (more like a bungalow, actually) by the sea close to Mong-lai's supposed house pets, Cat Island and Mouse Island (Koh Maew and Koh Hnu). They are little islets in a half-moon bay that are so closed together that if you walk the length of the bay from east to west while looking at the islets you'd see the cat catching up with the mouse and swallowing it head-first. And if you reverse direction, the cat has a serious case of indigestion and vomits the mouse back out!). I had always loved listening to the locals and their stories, and it was fun riding around the Thai countryside while being narrated this tale and having the different mountains or islands or lakes that inspired the story pointed out to me.

Anyhow... I haven't found that legend online yet (I don't remember much of it now)... but I did find a few other Thai legends/folklores I heard about during my stay in Bangkok in the late 80's. Here is one:
Screenshot from
This is Nang Peeseusamood (roughly Madame Oceanbutterfly), a character from the famous Thai epic poem, Pra Apaimanee (พระอภัยมณี). Look rather intimidating, doesn't she? She is a much softer heart than she looks, though. There's a snippet of the poem describing her underneath the cartoon rendition (couldn't cut and paste the Thai writing, so you'll just have to look at it via the photo):
"She, a big-eyed giantess with bad temper ----  Ugly face with polite speech, a misfit!
 the two breasts hanging wild like sarongs ----  even the husband is wary of her unpleasant look."

"Madame Oceanbutterfly is a giantess living in a cave in the middle of the ocean. She can magically transform herself into an enchantingly beautiful woman. In her previous incarnation she was blessed by Vishnu so that she could remove her heart and keep it in a rock for safekeeping. She became arrogant and picked a fight with Fire. Her body was burn by acrid flame, and she became this specter haunting the rock where her heart is kept. Over hundreds of years, the rock that houses her heart sprouted arms, legs, and a face, and eventually sprang into life. One day she spotted Pra Apaimanee and immediately fell in love with him. She took him to live with her at her cave and bore him a son called Sinsamood (Oceantreasure). One day Pra Apaimanee and Sinsamood ran away to shore. Mme Oceanbutterfly followed them out of love, but is killed by Pra Apaimanee's magical recorder playing. She turned into a chunk of stone forever marking the beachhead where she died."

Youtube video posted by Saksiri2498

It had been a long time since I read this epic poem, so I was pleasantly surprised to find the same concept used in this really old Thai tale (Suntorn Poo started composing it around 1822) that popped up in the Harry Potter books. Horcrux! Mme Oceanbutterfly lived on after her body was burned to ashes because she was allowed to keep her heart in a rock (and then, like Lord Voldemort, she manages to return to life a while later from that same rock/horcrux).

Oh... since we're doing Thailand stuff, I got around to making pork satay last week and video-taped the process. It's pretty easy, thanks to Lobo Satay mix. If you can't find it at the local grocery, it's available at Grocerythai or at Importfood.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

An Accidental Hike Up Mission Trail Regional Park

Writing about opera and classical music all the time gets to be pretty tiring after a while, so occasionally I lapse onto other odd topics. One of the recent projects was to be an article about the pedestrian bridges of San Diego... Was, because I hadn't realized just how numerous pedestrian bridges are in this city!

When you google 'pedestrian bridge' and 'San Diego' you usually just keep running into a few well written about bridges: the canyon-spanning pedestrian bridges at Quince St, Spruce St, and Vermont Ave in Uptown area. And then there are a couple of recent news articles about the still-not-finished-yet new fancy suspension bridge linking Petco Park to San Diego Convention Center across Harbor Drive in downtown. A very knowledgeable fire-fighter friend of mine pointed me to a few more bridges, and a couple of hours spent on Google Earth poring over freeways and canyons found several more. In fact, I've identified so many pedestrian bridges now that I'm no longer very keen on writing about all of them.... Perhaps just the more interesting ones.
Clockwise from top-left: 1. Vermont St Bridge from Washington Ave; 2. Hollywood Canyon Bridge; 3. Scripps Crossing at UCSD Institute of Geophysics; 4. Harbor Drive Bridge; 5. Omni Hotel Skywalk; 6. Mary Augustine Bridge at Sweetwater Reserve; 7. Quince St Bridge; 8. Spruce St suspension bridge.
But, anyhow, in the midst of my bridge-hunting spree I found one via Google Earth where I didn't quite expect - at the eastern terminus of Clairemont Mesa Boulevard in Tierrasanta area. I thought I knew that road quite well, having kept an apartment right at a corner of that road and I-805 for nearly two years back in the mid 90's, and never knew about it. So when I spotted a 'dry' day in the middle of uncharacteristically rainy October, I hopped on the buses and the trolley up to Tierrasanta to check it out (of course I always check this sort of thing out in person before writing about it! If I retained any lesson from my medical career days, it is that I have absolutely no luck at all when it comes to getting away with bullshitting about stuff I don't know enough about. There are plenty of smarter people who would love to shine light on all the things I should have known about but hadn't taken the trouble to learn... in front of a group of very intellectually intimidating audience).

Tierrasanta is not well served by bus. There is no bus service on weekend, and only hourly ones on weekday. I left my pad in the eastern part of Chula Vista at 4:40AM and made it all the way up to Kearny Mesa Complex by 6AM (I was astounded! Would have expected a 2 hrs transit since I had to catch 2 buses and one train to get there). The first bus into Tierrasanta (holyland in Spanish?) didn't take off until 7AM, though, so I raided the McDonald's nearby for breakfast. It is a very impressive McDonald's... It even has a library area with leather couches and shelves of books and magazines you can read while waiting for your bus! (Thinking further about it, maybe that doesn't reflect quite well on bus service here that the restaurant is practically counting on you having to wait such a long time for your bus that you'd have time to peruse its library. Most of the drivers are really nice and efficient, though. We just don't have enough buses!)

I was hoping for a few good shots of dawn over the wild mountain at the east end of Clairemont Mesa Blvd, but by seven o'clock the sun was already well past dawning... Bus 25 veers south at La Cuenta, so I got off there and walked 1/4 mile or so uphill to the end of the road and was rewarded by a few good morning sun shots like this one:

The bridge spans a canyon separating civilization from Mission Trails Regional Park. I headed across, looked around and just kept on walking... I hadn't been up on this side of Mission Gorge before, so why not explore a bit. 

The main trail was quite wide and well-maintained. I soon spotted a little cut-off trail that heads east toward S. Fortuna Mtn, though. It looked invitingly off-the-beaten-path, so I veered off onto it. Went down a gully, across a little wooden bridge, and up a steep little hill with rough steps marked by logs and sand bags. You know... I'm still just young enough to remember the painfree agile days when I would have had a blast storming up and down these. Nowadays they serve as good reminders of the reason why I need my third leg.

A few forks up the trail with the sun racing up the aging morning and I was up on top of a ledge checking my water supply and having a good look around (while stalling for breath). Something moved in the valley below... I had a look and thought it was one of those cute deers looking to nervously cross the trail in search of greener pasture. That was when the thing broke into a very canine-like jog. It wasn't a hoofer at all, but one of Mission Trails' resident cayotes. I wish he had ran my way to say hello, but cayotes aren't very well-liked in this town (they have a bad habit of having neighborhood pets for lunch, dinner, and even snack).

I took off on a trail toward the Fortuna Saddle (Fortuna is a long mountain with two summits on either end of a saddle)... and then must have taken a wrong turn somewhere (they don't always put direction signs on trail junctions here) as, an hour later I found myself on the 'Rim Trail' instead, heading north parallel to the mountain instead of toward it. Said a few not very holy words since by then much of the sole of my shoes had been de-grooved from climbing up the rough loose-pebbles trail surface. My water is more than half gone and it was getting sunny and hot.... And I hadn't spotted even a hawk! 

But then I remembered that I hadn't set out to hike any mountain at all... I was only going to check out a pedestrian bridge, and that was done a long time ago. And so, having talked myself into not beating myself up over having gotten on a trail to nowhere, I had some fun looking around and taking another round-about trail back. There's some good views to be had on the Rim Trail, too. One of these days I might persuade myself up the mountain again and actually getting to one of the summits...  But for now, here is a slide-show/video summary of the hike, pretty much:

I gather this place would look even more inviting in the spring months when the flowers are blooming... If you like the music, it is the finale from Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier from a 2004 performance at Zurich Opera. Franz Welser-Möst conducts the Zurich Opera Orchestra. Nina Stemme (Die Marschallin), Vesselina Kasarova (Octavian), and Malin Hartelius (Sophie) did the singing. A great DVD of the show is commercially available!

Monday, October 18, 2010

To Music with the San Diego Master Chorale & David Conte

Even religio-phobic me couldn't resist catching a bus out to College Avenue Baptist Church last gray and misty Saturday night to attend the opening concert of the San Diego Master Chorale's 50th season. This all-volunteer troupe of music lovers always give their best and and aren't afraid of filling their concert calendar with music their audience had never heard of before.

Saturday night's two hours long event was well programmed with choral music ranging from the Renaissance master Henry Purcell's (1659-1695) to music of living composers like Paul Halley and David Conte, the latter of whom was present for the world premiere of his choral poem "To Music", a gentle choral serenade with warm and cozy layers of love embedded in vocal interplays and piano accompaniment that is quite refreshing on many levels.

Being an opera fan I, of course, especially loved the inclusion of Samuel Barber's lilting Act II "Under the Willow Tree" from his opera "Vanessa". A few chorale members also turned in convincing bits of solo singing. Especially noteworthy was sweet-voiced soprano Jenny Spence, who hushed the hall in her delightful rendition of Purcell's "Thou Tun'st This World".

The crowd's favorite piece was undoubtedly Georgy Sviridov's playful "Magpie Chatter". I suppose the composer must have had the ill-luck of living near a magpie nest to have come up with this marvelously descriptive chirping banter. It also helped that the SDMC singers are a jolly bunch and made quite a group of enthusiastic magpie in all of its vocal demography. It didn't take much encouragement from the chorus master, Dr. Gary McKercher, for the audience to demand it as an encore to cap off the night.

If you are in San Diego and missed this concert, the SDMC is having another performance of the same program at La Jolla Presbyterian Church on October 24th. Give it a go. It's quite worth the ticket price!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

A Gray Trek Along Otay Valley Regional Park

A few miles to the south of where I live is an old river channel called Otay Valley. It used to be a legitimate river; funneling the water down from San Miguel and Jamul Mountains to the San Diego Bay and supporting the bustling grain farming community of Otay Mesa. That was until a dude named Babcott decided to dam(n) the Otay Lakes in 1891. A catastrophe if there was ever one. The dam broke the following January and wiped out the town and its surrounding farms, not to mention the lost of many native plants and animal species that used to live in the river valley.

Nowadays the river bed is mostly dry except for a few ponds that used to be mine pits. It is a protected area now, a joint nature-oriented project by the County of San Diego and the cities of San Diego and Chula Vista. I asked around about it, but none of my native San Diegan friends had visited... They all thought the place dangerous and 'full of illegal immigrants'. I don't know why since many of these friends have no qualms about going hiking down Tijuana River Estuary and Slough considering that Tijuana Slough is right up against the Mexican border while Otay Valley is a few miles further north and well into the United States.

Being a proud survivor (and lover) of the U. City Loop AKA Delmar Loop in St. Louis (my aunt kept warning me off against getting an apartment there while attending St. Louis University because it was a 'bad' area of town. Well, it had gotten much better since she last visited and I loved the place and its eclectic residents and restaurants), I tend not to take second-hand warnings seriously especially when they come from folks who hadn't seen the place first hand. So I printed out this 'trail map' from Otay Valley Regional Park's website last Thursday and caught bus 929 south to have a look.

The nearest bus stop to OVRP is at Beyer Way and Palm Avenue. My main attraction was to be Finney Overlook, somewhere off to the east. It was a very gray and overcast day, though, so I decided to head west first and make for the 'Ranger Station' before doubling back to Finney and hopefully the sky would have cleared enough for a good panoramic view then.

The OVRP website says that there is also a staging area with parking on the Beyer Way trail head. Well, I didn't see one. The trails are quite wide and well maintained, but are also quite devoid of direction posts. It didn't help that there are branches that don't appear on the trail map... And so I got to see the park a bit more thoroughly than I intended, pocketing 2 dead ends (one a fade into nothingness and the other, a rather dangerous cliff-y drop off), and never managed to find Finney Overlook before my turn-around time (I have a life, after all, and can't keep on walking the thing forever!).

Other would be hikers would be glad to know that the staging station with parking lot and working restrooms at Beyer Boulevard does exist, though there were no ranger there to give any guidance when I dropped in. There was an information post, though, with identical information to what you would find online at the OVRP website. I ran into exactly 2 people on the trail. One was cycling away on his mountain bike and the other was walking 2 very cute dogs... No illegal immigrant lurking about as far as I can tell, but there was a family of hawk on a tall tree by Heart Pond about 100 meters west of Beyer Way that took off as soon as I got my camera out (hawks! I swear these guys are the paparazzi's worst nightmares. They can smell a camera from a mile away!).

 They were very clever, mind you. The small and nearest hawk flew right off and did a bunch of tantalizing circles above a hill off to the east, drawing my camera with him so that I didn't spot the really huge hawk (the daddy hawk?) who went off in the opposite direction a second or two later. I turned to try to photograph the daddy hawk, and two more smaller hawks went off in yet another direction, leaving me spinning in place like an ill-coordinated top without catching any of the hawks in action with my slow-acting camera.

Come to think of it... The first and small hawk might actually have been a kestrel. Have a look at him. He's the first two shots in the panel above. The 'daddy hawk' in the third photo, though, is definitely a red tailed hawk.

They picked a good spot to hang out. Heart Pond is quite well reeded. There are only a couple of spots on the trail running the south side of it where you can get to the pond.

Le May Pond further to the east beyond Beyer Way is easier to get to. I intended to take the high trail out east to Finney Overlook and then come back on the pondside trail, but that was when I went dead-ended twice... And I'm actually not bad at trail-reading! They've got more trails than what appeared on the map, and none of them come equipped with sign post!

For what it's worth, the high trail that turned out to be a maintenance road that end at a cliff does afford some good views of the valley... It just so happened that the haze that was hovering over the ground never cleared that day. So the best shot I came up with is the one above.

I did drop by Le May Pond on the way back, though. Really nice and peaceful place with nobody else in sight (though the valley is a narrow one, so you can always see rows of housing at the northern and southern edge of it)... I sat there a while when this favorite bit of I Capuleti e i Montecchi popped into my head and refused to leave.

And here it is... And it has to be Kasarova as Romeo, too. With the voice comes the mood...

Monday, October 11, 2010

So Long, Joan Sutherland (7 Nov 1926 - 11 Oct 2010)

Dame Joan Alston Sutherland, one of the most stupendous operatic coloratura soprano of the last century, passed away at her home near Montreux, Switzerland last night. She was 83 years old.

I confess La Stupenda wasn't one of my favorite singers, but that takes nothing away from her legendary artistic skills and merits. Dame Joan made her dastardly difficult job sound easy (sometimes so easy that she lost the drama-junkies like me in the audience in the process) and was one of the few famous people who actually had a life outside of her art; one that she willingly chose to disappear into after retiring while still very much at the top of her game. It is a great testimony to the fact that one can achieve greatness without being consumed by the vehicle that delivered it. Dame Joan Sutherland is survived by her husband, Richard Bonynge, their son, and grandchildren...

... And by her fans and admirers, of course. Take a time out from the usual dissing of 'the recording industry' today and appreciate the fact that they also make it possible for us who never had the chance to experience artists like Sutherland and others live to still glimpse at their creations via sound and video recordings today.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Smorging Around San Diego Zoo

San Diego has one of the best zoos on the planet, though it had been a long while since I last visited the place. It took an animal-loving visitor from out of town to round my roommate and me up to give the zoo a raid last weekend while the hard working rain clouds were taking a break from their watering duty.

We walked our legs off and still covered less than half the zoo in a day. We stayed mostly on the front half of it.... even though we got a good look all around thanks to the excellently guided bus tour. Will have to post more on the trip later, but you can get a good glimpse via the video, I think.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Ordinary Magic: Le Spectre d'une fleur morte

We've got ants. Well, I suspect they have always been with us. Though in the last month or so they've been with us a lot more than we welcome them to. Luckily, though, booming ant population also means plenty of food for formerly starving ant-eating creatures... like spiders.

 So, aside from having to make sure that there are no food scrapes left around for ants to find (or to compel them to redouble their ongoing invasion efforts of the cupboard and kitchen area), we are also regularly walking into spider webs of varying degrees of invisibility. There are some good sides to that, of course. 

How else can dead flower still be dancing in the wind, detached from its old branch, long after its natural demise?

The increase in the number of spiders and other ant-eating bugs also means the increase in the number of the birds that eat those bugs. I've seen more exotic birds in the wild in the last few weeks than I have in a long time. This American kestrel has been hanging out on the next door neighbor's roof almost every morning. 

He is a rather cool bloke (blue wings mark him as a male. Female kestrels have reddish rufus color wings). I think I also ran into him walking home a couple of weeks ago. He came gliding out of the park nearby and landed on the top of a lamppost and just perched there to people watch. I am endlessly aggrieved that my camera doesn't zoom well enough to have captured a good clean shot of him yet. One of these days!!!

Monday, September 6, 2010

The dogs in my life: George & Indi

I am a cat person, mind you, but these days I seem to bounce between two dogs. 

Thirteen yrs old George is a lovely mutt of a terrier with the sweetest temperament. I guess having to live with a cat all his life helped. There has got to be something seriously wrong with you to stir Georgie's dislike. 

Georgie is really low-maintenance and superbly trained by his mother. He gets on with most dogs he runs into on walks (and there are tons of them in his neighborhood), most cats, and even the family of Western scrub jays that calls a bush in his backyard home. Like most dogs, George likes people food more than he does dry dog food, though he will settle for just licking the plate after you're done eating (and he won't sit there staring at you in the effort of guilting you into slipping him a bite in the process).

We go out for 2-4 walks a day when I visit... mostly from 1-5 city blocks. I'd trail behind the little guy and see if he wants to turn the corner or not. When it is hot out he usually turns all the corner and we're back inside the cool house after a block. When it is cooler out, though, old Georgie would keep pointing across the road when we get to an intersection. Sometimes I have to coax him into turning back if the road home contains an uphill climb. He isn't a big dog, but I walk with a cane so it is imperative that he can manage to get all the way back home on his own legs!

George's two favorite pastimes: a leisurely stroll where he can sniff almost whatever he wants and sitting by the screen door and people/dog/cat/bird/raccoon/skunk/whatever-else-that-live-around-here watch...

And this... Indi, my present roommate's dog. We thought she was a Rottweiler, but a DNA lab processed her a while ago and decided that she is a mix of 4 breeds, none of which is a Rottweiler. A complete surprise to me is that one of the breed is the 'Chow Chow'... I dunno, Indi is prone to Rottweiler-worthy bouts of ferociousness when approached by strangers (or when someone not very familiar approaches the house)... And she produces a gallon or more of saliva when out on evening walks.

Come to think of it, Indi is really productive pooch in many different ways. The other day we were walking through a nearby park when she unloaded what seemed like half her body weight's worth of poop right on top of an unsuspecting mushroom, thereby rendering her own very fresh demonstration of the concept of forced-feeding.
Life Mushroom Icon
If you feel bad for the mushroom, though, don't. That's another individual organism on earth that had been spared the horror of death by starvation...

Mind you, if Indi knows and likes you, you really won't find a more affectionate dog! The lass has a mind of her own, but she gets quite attached. She sleeps with her mom on the other side of the house. Gets up early and when I open my door in the morning she's be right there ready to jump her attempts to give me a pooch-approved face wash. One morning I was already up before Indi and her mom were, and was in the kitchen fixing my breakfast when my roommate opened her door and Indi rushed out straight for my side of the house, dove into the open bathroom (bunching up the bathroom carpet in the process), did a u-turn and bounded into my open bedroom before emerging perplexed at where the usual sleepyhead (me) had gone so early in the day. She spotted me soon enough, though, and couldn't quite understand what her mother and me were rolling-on-the-floor-laughing about...

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

A Chat With Steven Ang of The Mad Scene Blog

Being a smorg, I've had the luck to (sort of) meet many wonderfully interesting people via the Internet. One of them is Steven Ang, the Singaporean opera singer/student and writer whose Mad Scene Blog is an ideal source of information on the Singaporean opera scene. I first encountered Steven and his blog in September 2008 while researching opera companies in unlikely places (like in Southeast Asia). I found a few, though none were as co-operative in providing me with up to date information about their company as the Singapore Lyric Opera was.

Being a typical smorg, however, I looked around for collaborating thoughts from non-official sources as well and was completely delighted when Steven agreed to provide a view of the SLO from the audience's side of the orchestra pit. Our collaboration resulted in this 2008 profile of the Singapore Lyric Opera posted at And so you can probably imagine how thrilled I was to get to interview Steven Ang again, two years later, on the 3rd anniversary of his endlessly fascinating Mad Scene Blog:

2008 production of Turandot at the Singapore Lyric Opera (photo courtesy of the SLO)
Smorg: Steven! Your blog profile describes you as "a dramatic-spinto-lyrico-coloratura soprano trapped in a light baritone's body." Would you care to elaborate on that??

Steven Ang: Well I think that line is already pretty self-explanatory but sure! Its just that there are so many great roles that I would like to sing but they all happen to be in the Callas/Sutherland repertoire, which my voice is probably not suited for. Instead I have a baritone’s vocal range that is firmly stuck in the middle, neither high nor low. So there won’t be any stunning coloratura capped off with high e-flats coming from me anytime soon, neither should you be expecting 9 high Cs nor Sarastro’s spacious low Fs. 

But I suppose its not that bad 'cause there are benefits that come with being a baritone, mostly that we seem to have a longer shelf-life: look at it this way: Pavarotti may have passed away, but his baritone colleagues such as Leo Nucci, Ruggiero Raimondi and Renato Bruson are still singing and making records with sopranos young enough to be their daughters; even Domingo’s switching to baritone repertoire!

Smorg: Tell us the truth... in your most demented dreams, you know, the ones that hit you in the middle of the night after an ill-advised spree of bel canto music binge, who appears in the dream as the bloody Lucia (and who is Edgardo)?

SA: No one in particular really because if I have the right voice, I can easily out-sing all of them. I will be madder than a mad cow, and my high stunning high e-flats will stronger than Sutherland’s, brighter than Gruberova’s and shriekier than Dessay’s.

You see this is what I mean by being a dramatic-spinto-lyrico-coloratura soprano trapped in a light baritone's body! I would so love to run around an opera stage singing a mad scene, but alas there are no high e-flats in my range, so what can I do? *shrugs*

Smorg: What keeps you going writing opera blogs and interviews? 

SA: Well Singapore does not really have a big opera or classical music scene although it's growing at quite an exciting pace now, and certainly no magazines for classical music and opera. I used to read quite a few entertainment magazines when I was younger, and thought about how great it would be if there is something similar in the classical music area, where we can read about the personalities who are producing our concerts. The idea of creating an entertainment e-zine about opera and classical singers in Singapore thus took hold.

Ultimately, I want to create something that can be a central news source for the vocal music community. So many times I’ve asked a friend if he attended a particular concert, only to be told that he hasn’t heard of it, or that I’d learn about a performance by reading a review after its over. So I hope that The Mad Scene has helped in some ways to promote our events to audiences who also love this art form. That vocalists can now find an avenue to reach out to their target audience.

Smorg: What most earth-shattering thing have you learned studying voice at Soochow University in Taiwan so far?

SA: One of the school’s senior staff once told me that there are many vocal students who are only here because they are not good enough to join the piano department. That was quite a shock to me! Thing is, the general impression is that most singers only start training in their teenage years, so the admission standards for voice is generally lower than the instrumentalists. But I am so fascinated by the human voice and all these great musical works written for them, that I can’t imagine anyone would want to do this because they have no other choice. Hopefully these students will be convinced of the beauty of our natural instrument and would aspire to sing even after graduation.

Smorg: You have seen almost every angle of the opera business by now. Is there any myth about this world/art form that you particularly want to see on the Operatic Myth Extinction List?

SA: I’m not sure if I have seen “almost every angle”, but I guess I’ve seen quite a lot in my capacity as both a performer and writer. But then I don’t claim to be a voice expert in any form, just an enthusiastic listener.

One myth I’d like to see go away is the common conception of how a particular voice is only suited to a particular style of music. You know the one where people decide upon a few recordings that a particular voice is not suited to a particular role because it is too high/too low/too dramatic/too much coloratura/not the right style, etc. I’d rather not be so adamant to cast a singer in a particular mould, but to let him or her explore the possibilities of his voice and convince me of it. We should also consider the context of the performance: is it a student or professional gig, piano or orchestra accompaniment, size of hall, etc. Of course a teacher has a responsibility to guide the student in repertoire that is healthy for his or her voice, but as audiences let’s keep an open mind and let the singers show us what they can do.

We should also consider that many singers have created their legend in roles people thought they had no business singing. Waltraud Meier’s Isolde is a good example, as is Shirley Verrett’s venture into soprano rep starting with Lady Macbeth. In our own time, Domingo has sung everything from Count Almaviva’s coloratura in “Barbiere” to baritone roles like Rigoletto. Let’s give these professional performers the benefit of the doubt and trust that they know what is good for their voices.

Smorg: What do you think about the prospect of opera in the mainstream entertainment forums... like reality television shows or cross-over talents contests?

SA: You know I came across this wonderful Canadian TV series on YouTube called “Bathroom Divas”, an America’s Next Top Model style competition where 6 amateur singers are picked from auditions. They get to go through professional training including weekly challenges where one contestant will be eliminated, and the eventual winner will get to sing an aria with the Vancouver Symphony. Unfortunately YouTube carries only a short clip from each episode (which is all I’ve seen) but it sounds like an exciting program huh! You can catch the clip of season 2, 1st episode here:

But yeah wouldn’t it be fun to have an idol competition of sorts, with a panel of retired opera personalities as judges? I can imagine Renata Scotto playing mother hen to the contestants, while Franco Zeffirelli makes bitchy remarks about how they are too fat or too old. Guest judge Natalie Dessay can impart the finer points of hyperkinetically rolling on the floor (i.e. “acting”) while Renee Fleming can share tips on how to land that elusive fragrance deal. 

Smorg: You cover the seemingly fertile new (and fast growing) ground in the operatic world, the Asian opera companies. Are you seeing local Asian talents being sufficiently nurtured toward international careers? Is there good support for Asian opera singers in place now?

SA: Well opera is not an Asian art form and I don’t want to give the impression that our scene is anything like those in Europe and America, where top houses stage performances all-year round. We simply don’t have the audience to support that many performances. Our companies here basically scrap together enough funding for about 2 or 3 productions a year and a few recitals and gala concerts.

However with education and outreach efforts, now aided by the internet, the people here are becoming more sophisticated and so audiences are growing. Still opportunities for young singers to gain operatic experience are small, and many serious students still have to do an educational stint in America or Europe to gain any significant professional experience in this most complicated art form.

I have a theory that because classical music is such a universal art form, the symphony first, followed by the opera, are kind of like a status symbol of a particular city’s success (with ballet perhaps being a 3rd status symbol), much like how a successful person would wear a Rolex and carry LV bags to reflect his status. Here is Singapore we have a very successful symphony orchestra, which our government has spent a lot of money to build. Now that our economy is supposedly back on track from the recession, perhaps more support can be given to our opera company, so that we can be seen as a more global city in the eyes of the rest of the world.
Nancy Yuen as Antonia in Les contes d'Hoffmann
Here’s another observation I’ve had: as the Regieteater craze is storming European and increasingly American house these days, it seems that the only place left where one can still catch a traditional production of standard repertory is in Asia. No dancing bumblebees or singers crawling out of giant female body parts for us! Because it’s still such a new thing here, there aren’t as many complaints about our company staging standard repertory such as “La Traviata” or “Carmen”, 'cause we are not that sick of them yet. So there is less need to improvise on stagings. Just fill the stage with the best singers you can find, with sets that are pleasant looking and makes sense to the plot, and we are good to go!
Smorg: Any particular Asian opera singers you think the Western operatic world ought to look out for in the near future?

SA: There are quite a few Asian singers who have performed quite a lot. I can’t really recommend any young singers unfortunately because, as stated earlier, the promising ones are already honing their craft in the States or Europe, so perhaps YOU can do a better job at that :p

Of the stars in these parts, Nancy Yuen has played numerous leading roles in the region, making her one of the true opera stars to be based in these parts. She is a lyrico-spinto soprano with a bright head voice that floats and penetrates with a well-honed technique.
Chu Tai Li as Bellini's Norma
Having moved to Taipei recently, I was really moved by performances of soprano Chu Tai-Li, their prima donna who was trained in Italy since 11. She’s in her 60s now and has recently recovered from a serious battle with cancer, so the voice can sound rather worn although its still an instrument of considerable range and colours. Rather, one is simply moved by the intensity and sincerity of her performances. At the end of her big aria it looked and sounded as though she has just given us every drop of emotion in her body, but after a short break she’ll return looking completely refreshed and ready to bare her entire soul again. This kind of honesty and commitment is so hard to find these days that even her former teacher Tito Gobbi compared her voice to one of his colleagues called “Maria”. I think even the most jaded of opera-goers will be moved by her performances.

To read more about Steven Ang and his operatic experiences, please visit The Mad Scene: The Singapore Opera Blog.