Daughter of the Regiment

We generally go to 3 of the 5 operas in Santa Fe each summer. After two heavy tragedies, last night’s Daughter of the Regiment, a comic opera in the French style, was a welcome change. The plot is inconsequential except for the excuses to sing in a variety of formats. The tenor, Tonio, has  a lot of good parts, but this opera in known for the famous tenor aria often called the Nine High Cs aria for a reason you can probably guess. Most of the aria is pitched about a fifth below the C and the tenor teases you by popping up to the C for one note and then quickly dropping back (which, in my view as a tenor, is not all that hard). The last C, however, is a long held note, and the tenor last night, Alek Schrader, did a beautiful job.

For you non-tenors, the C in question is the one above middle C in the piano. This is generally right at the top of the range for real tenors. For those people singing tenor who were drafted from the Baritone section, it is generally well above the top of the range.

Tonio is paired with Marie, the daughter of the regiment (she was found as a baby on the battlefield and was raised by the regiment). Last night’s Marie was Anna Christy who played the part beautifully. This part has been sung by many distinguished singers including  Lily Pons in the 40s, Joan Sutherland (against Luciano Pavarotti) in the 60s, and more recently Natalie Dessay.

This was Donizetti’s first opera after he arrived in Parisin 1840. It didn’t do well when it opened but eventually it became popular. The regiment in question is french and there is lots of martial music (the regiment boasted of itself that it was the best regiment in the French Army because it had an open line of credit at every bar in France). The opera eventually became so popular it was performed every Bastille Day for many years.

Once again the evening was beautiful. All the rain was earlier in the day, so we enjoyed our tailgate picnic before the performance. We drifted into the theater just before the opera started, and were treated to a beautiful production. It was everything a Santa Fe Opera evening can be.

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Cold Mountain

The Santa Fe opera is producing the World Premier of Cold Mountain by Jennifer Higdon with libretto by Gene Scheer. We saw it last Saturday.

It is, in many ways, a very modern production. Dissonant music. A set consisting of a “pile of scrap lumber”, sort of like a giant pick-up-sticks. The set was intended to convey the destruction of the South after the war was mostly over, and it did a good job of that. Interesting lighting and spectacular projections (i’ve never seen anything like that). There was some sort of invisible screen at the front of the stage on which they projected things like a starry sky and falling snow. The screen must have been there all the time, but it was neither visually nor acoustically in the way. Spectacular, but not at all like projecting things on big screens like the side of a building.

I had never read the book, so I started at the beginning of the week. I don’t have much reading time and am a pretty slow reader, anyway, so I only got through about 130 pages by opera time. My impression was the book presented colorful, poetic, and interesting impressions of the characters, but there wasn’t anything I would have put in an opera. That only shows you how much I know about being a librettist–several episodes from the early part of the book appeared in the opera.

Cold Mountain is in southwest North Carolina. At the time of the civil war, it was very remote, and by the end of the war, life was very hard there. Not knowing where it i located, I looked it up with a mapping program. From looking at the map, one could guess that things haven’t changed too much since the war. There are still very few roads, but some of them are now paved. Much of it is National Forest land and few people live there even today. I imagine life is still difficult and government still has difficulty being relevant.

Saturday was another beautiful summer evening. We drove our little motorhome up to stay in our friends’ driveway so we wouldn’t have to spend the hour or so to drive home after the opera–I’m getting too old to like getting home and going to bed after midnight, so the driveway surfing option was very attractive and worked out well. Getting up and going to breakfast with our friends was also very nice. I think we’ll do it again this week when we go to see “Daughter of the Regiment.”

Cold Mountain is a very intense opera. It took so much concentration on the singers that it was midway through the first act before I realized I hadn’t really been paying any attention to the orchestra. It takes work, but I think a second hearing would be very enjoyable. There were also a couple of male chorus pieces that were spectacular. If you get a chance to see it, you should do so!

Silence

A few days ago, Victo Dolore published Étude to Silence. It fit my emotional state exceedingly well since I had just returned from a trip that embodied silence in several forms. This post is a few variations on the theme of silence.

Victo and several commenters talked about being alone in the car and being uncomfortable with the silence that occurs when you don’t have your usual distractions–the children, the radio, music from your phone, or whatever. On the surface, to my literal little mind, given the actual meaning of the word “silence” as being without sound, this is a strange interpretation, since the car is a pretty noisy environment. But, it isn’t a lack of sound that produces the “silence,” it is the lack of distractions. The background noise in the car doesn’t count. We don’t hear that, and if we don’t hear it, it isn’t there. Without distractions, we are in silence.

I live and work at home in a variant of the silence of the car. There is no radio or tv in my workspace, no music from a computer player or Pandora; there is only fan noise from lots of computer equipment. But, mostly, I don’t hear that. I don’t listen to it, and if I don’t listen to it, it isn’t there. Then, there is the tinnitus. I don’t listen to that either, so I work in silence. For me, this “silence” is the best work environment. I could not work with audio distractions because it would be––distracting. When I play music, I find myself listening to it.

Last Saturday, the men’s ensemble I sing with performed a concert at Ghost Ranch in northern New Mexico. Ghost Ranch is remote: 15 miles from the nearest village or small town; an hour or more from anything you could describe as a city. A place of great beauty and great silence–no cell phone coverage with my carrier; no road noise; a noisy airplane 35,000 feet away every few days. At night there is no visual noise from city lights, and you can see so many more stars than in the city. One of the great beauties of the earth available only in silence.

One of the pieces we sang was Loving Kindness by Stephen Paulus. It is a setting of a text adapted from the Digha Nikaya that begins “Put away all your hindrances, let your mind full of loving kindness pervade one quarter of the world…” You can read the text here. This is not a prescription for passive contemplation–these are acts that can only be accomplished with effort in an environment of silence.

Sunday morning we sang at a Benedictine monastery that observes the rule of silence. It is completely off the grid, 15 miles off the paved road on the side of a river valley in a place that is amazingly beautiful. They have a small church–20 visitors at their Sunday morning mass is a crowd. Our ensemble sang after the completion of the mass in a room so filled with smoke from the incense that you could barely see across it. The result was a sublime interruption of the monks’ normal silence. Combined with the surpassing beauty of the location and the chill of the spring morning, it was a perfect experience breaking the silence in just the right way. For the monks, it is a small break in the silence–not an end to it. It allows the monks to return to the silence with greater appreciation.

So, here are a few variations on the theme that highlight silence as something to be sought, rather than something to be avoided. Let the silence itself direct you to beauty. Let your mind fill with loving kindness.

Pictures of my Heart

The front page of this blog has four pictures that show places I’ve been, but more importantly (at least to me) they give some insight into me. That is what this blogging stuff is all about, right?

The first picture is a place called Ward Lake. Ward Lake is in a state park north of Ketchikan Alaska. I took this after finishing a 10k trail run in the rain. I love this picture. It is so peaceful. It is so green. I have painted this scene several times, and will paint it again—somehow I don’t ever manage to get it quite right. It isn’t that the painting doesn’t look like the subject, but that  the painting doesn’t quite capture the feeling of repose that I remember. I would like to go back and experience the place again, although I probably never will. As a contrast to the peacefulness of the green, I especially like the drift of little yellow flowers on the bank. It speaks of optimism in the return of spring.

The second picture is Beijing at night. My Muse and I went to China with our local Chamber of Commerce, so I guess it was a business trip. I should probably go back and amend my tax return for that year. This was taken while waiting for the bus after dinner one night. Beijing, of course is a large city with all the expected hustle and bustle (well maybe more of that than we westerners expect), and Lots (and Lots) of people. We were taken to large restaurants that serve Chinese food that westerners would eat without asking too many questions. I think it was probably because we were Americans that one entree every night was French Fries. China is one of those places that you cannot adequately learn about by reading, or even by listening to someone who has been there. You have to go there and see it yourself. I remembered those pictures from the ’90s of a thousand people on bicycles waiting for the stoplight to change and I expected to see that. No. That’s all gone. Everybody has cars. Imagine a city of a million cars, all driven by people with almost no experience. That is what “chaos” means.

There is a concept in Celtic spirituality of places where the veil (between earth and heaven) is thin. Ghost Ranch, in northern New Mexico, is one of those places. This is a summer sunset—frequently spectacular. The feature at the left is, appropriately, Chimney Rock. The area is full of high mesas with steep cliffs of red and yellow rock. The ranch headquarters is in a canyon surrounded by these cliffs and looks west across a lake to mountains 20-30 miles away. The veil is, indeed, thin, and once you have settled into the rhythm of the ranch, the place itself encourages, perhaps even demands, mediative spirit. We spend a week there every summer, and just returned from spending yesterday and last night there. Even one day is enough to reset your clock.

There are a few other places I have been that appear to be thin places—places where the spirit feels the nearness of heaven. Another such place is St. David’s in southwest Wales. Small village, lovely old cathedral, but most of all the feeling that it is a sacred place and has been since long before these “modern” fixtures were put on the land. You may have been to places where you felt that there is something special here; this place is not like the rest of the world. Think back and find those places and tell me about them.

Thin places can also appear because of events that happen there. My Muse plays the harp and spends much of her time playing for hospice patients. I haven’t been there with her, but she says that the veil is thin at the time that someone passes out of this life.

The final picture is the Cliffs of Mohr on the west coast of Ireland, south of Galway Bay. This is a place where peace and ruggedness collide. There is a strong sense of remoteness even though the area is developed for sightseers and there are lots of people there. I read one travel writer who whined that, while visiting the cliffs is free, it is remote and there is only one car park for which you are charged 6€. They thought that demanded a boycott. What a mistake that would have been. I didn’t feel it as a thin place, but rather a place of power: 600 foot cliffs falling straight into the ocean; a pretty constant wind. The place is immense, and you are tiny. Strength and power abound.

So, you see 4 pictures. One representative of life in a dense urban area, and 3 exuding remoteness, peace, and the beauty and power of nature. You have some idea of where my heart lies.