Thursday, February 27, 2014

Business in the Baltics

Many people think my business trips are just fun and games, a nice escape from the office. While I am fortunate to love my job, meaning that business trips ARE fun (if the music is good), those trips are full of work. Last month I took a whirlwind tour of Eastern Europe to familiarize myself with a few companies in that area, some of whom offer productions of a size and concept that might be appropriate for the Royal Opera House Muscat. Following is an example of a typical itinerary for me on an 10 day trip to visit 5 different countries, 9 organizations and more than a dozen theatres.

Day 1
8:00 Arrived in Budapest.
13:00 Met with Tomas Bator, Artistic Advisor to the Palace of Fine Arts and the Hungarian State Opera, got an update about various Budapest theatres, how the HSO works performing in 2 locations, getting an update and overview of orchestras here.
19:00 Attended a performance of Nabucco at HSO in Erkel Theatre.

Day 2
10:00 Met with Marketing Director of Budapest operetta and musical theatre, Andras Szentpeteri, and the head of the Pentaton Agency, György Lürinczy, to talk about an operetta to bring to Oman.
12:30 Met with Hungarian State Opera staff: Tomas Bator and Artistic Director of HSO, Ferenc Anger, to discuss HSO opera or ballet to bring to Oman. (I also discovered the panorama photo feature of my camera.)
18:30 Met with soprano Csilla Boross to discuss dates for one of next season's productions.

Day 3
13:30 Toured the Palace of Fine of Fine Arts; saw part of a rehearsal in the Concert Hall and visited the 500 seat theatre.

19:00 Saw Act 1 of a new musical based on the music of and named for Hungary's answer to ABBA, Neoton, good quality performers, mostly young artists, but mixed with a few veterans.

Day 4
9:30 Met with Kael Csaba, General Manager of Palace of Fine Arts, Budapest, to discuss possibilities of collaboration and co-planning of events, the state of the business in Europe, and the possibility of inviting me to be a speaker at a conference in Budapest in the future.
12:30 Traveled to St. Petersburg

Day 5
12:00 Saw Sadko by Rimsky-Korsakov at the old Mariinsky opera house.
4:00 Met with Katia Sirakanian, former Mariinsky contact, now with the Sheremetev Palace, to get an interesting update and insight into the general state of the performing arts in St. Petersburg.
19:00 Last minute arrangement to see Tosca at the Mikhailovsky Theatre, an honest and correct production and musical performance. Left after the first act for a meeting with Sonia Sirakanian, Manager of International Relations, to discuss possible collaborations and to continue a discussion started last February with Olga Kapanina, Director of Opera. They have good production values, traditional productions and a very good ballet company.

Day 6
11:00 Met with Slava Lupachov, an Administrative Manager/Gergiev contact, to discuss Mariinsky Theatre updates.
19:15 Met with Valery Gergiev to discuss possible return of Mariinsky to Oman.
19:30 Saw Otello at the new Mariinsky opera house; excellent theatre, great acoustics.

Day 7
8:00 Traveled to Vilnius, Lithuania
13:00 Lunch with General Director of Lithuanian National Opera to discuss general operation of their theatre and their tours.
18:30 Saw Ernani at Lithuanian National Opera, solid performance, good chorus and orchestra.

Day 8
8:00 Traveled to Riga, Latvia.
17:00 Met with the new General Manager of Latvian National Opera to discuss their recent changes in administration, their previous visit in May 2013 and other possible suitable productions. Their previous visit was smooth and well organized, their artistic values are high.
18:00 Saw part of a Piano Technical rehearsal of Rienzi followed by a tour of backstage and the theatre facilities; then dinner with Dace Bula, Head of Artistic Planning & Production to discuss recent developments as well as potentially suitable productions.

Day 9
11:00 Saw part of Orchestra Technical rehearsal of Rienzi.
13:00 Traveled to Warsaw.
19:00 Met briefly with General Director, Waldemar Dobrowsky, before the performance at his office.
19:30 Saw a performance of Orpheus et Euridice at Teatr Wielki followed by a tour of backstage and dinner with Dubrowsky.

Day 10
11:30 Dubrowsky had organized a private tour of the Warsaw Uprising Museum, followed by lunch with the Artistic Administrator of Teatr Wielki.
15:30 The theatre had organized a private tour of the Chopin Museum, with a surprise mini-recital by an advanced piano student of the Conservatory.

Day 11
10:00 Travel to Muscat, flight delay leaving Warsaw meant I had an unexpected 7 hour layover in Zurich, during which I met with an agent, Rita Schutz, and a tenor client of hers, Pavel Breslik, who is having a very prominent career.

So, yes, my trips really are business filled. Though I do try to find time to step out into the city even for a brief moment.

And in closing, this admonition on a Zurich billboard (loosely translated as "Just go to the theatre, you ape!):

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Christmas in Muscat

What does Christmas look like in Muscat? In many ways quite familiar, in most ways more subdued. For the last 2 weeks I've noticed the English language radio stations play the occasional holiday song (the secular ones). A few Western expats will hang strings of lights on their balconies or in their yards. Other neighborhoods may be different, I can only speak to what I've seen between the office and home. Judging by photos online many have well decorated Christmas trees inside their homes. Certainly the hotels have huge tree displays and many offer special meals and celebrations for those who don't want the hassle at home. Stores have had holiday music in the background, again fairly secular, and there have been plenty of Christmas sales for a couple of weeks, sometimes storewide discounts.  And it's not just expats taking advantage of the pricing!  One can find all kinds of holiday decorations, from fake trees and fake greenery to ball ornaments, bells, holiday dishware and household goods. And LOTS of chocolates!

At the opera house it was business as usual with rehearsals on both the 24th and 25th, since these are ordinary working days in the Islamic calendar. Our program, "Cossacks of Russia and Tajikistan Folklore" opened on the 26th. To my knowledge, in Oman, Christian expats are permitted to take the 25th off in acknowledgment of the occasion, but in theatre in general, holidays have always meant a lot of work as people want to be entertained. We did arrange, though, to have rehearsals end by afternoon so that expat staff could enjoy a little of the holiday. Several Omani, Pakistani and Indian colleagues and acquaintances went out of their way to wish a Merry Christmas, some even sent a card. Me? I hosted a small dinner at home for some "orphans", friends made in the last year, and we had a delightful evening with great conversation and too much food. Just the kind of celebration I like!

Here are some samples of typical store displays which should look familiar:

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Oman National Day 2013

November 18 is Oman's National Day.  It is on the day of the Sultan's birthday and is generally a day when people celebrate His Majesty and his leadership, and just being Omani.  The official federal holidays (ie days off) were Nov. 27 and 28, dates that were announced only about 2 weeks prior. The short notice is standard procedure here for any holiday.
The 18th was marked with a military parade and review by the Sultan at an invitation only event. For about 2 weeks before and after there were green, white and red decorations (colors of the flag) all over the city.  And I mean all over.  Lights were strung between the lampposts on along the highways, any building with architectural lighting changed the bulbs to the tri-color pattern, posters with the sultan's picture went up in windows and on walls.  On the big day newspapers were full of ads wall to wall from companies and organizations celebrating His Majesty's reign (43 years so far) and each one had a picture of him. Most spectacular of all, I thought, were the decorations on private cars.  I don't know if they actually painted their cars or if these were expertly attached decals, nonetheless green, white and red were all over.  This is a sample of what I could see from my office - I did have to work after all!

People honked their car horns all day, they were generally exuberant.  At night I thought I heard fireworks, but could not see any.  Colleagues said they thought it was celebratory gunfire.

At the Opera House we celebrated with a staff party and colored light bulbs in the outdoor lighting.  Five of the women on staff took it upon themselves to organize an amazing display of Omani arts, culture, crafts and food in our lobby.  They decorated the grand staircase with strings of flags and ribbons.  There were displays of traditional pottery and utensils, musical instruments, clothes and weapons.  There were Omani musicians playing drums and ouds (like a lute) and dancing.  And then there was the feast.  The women had spent days cooking up an enormous buffet for all to share. Our staff photographer Khalid Al Mujaini supplied the following photos:

A traditional outfit for women.
This is business formal for men.
Yes, those are bagpipes on the right, very popular here.
The oud (like a lute) and qanun (like a zither) ensemble.

Traditional housewares
More festive attire.  The face mask is not seen often in
Muscat, slightly more common in rural areas.
A beautiful cake decorated with an image of the Opera House.
I performed the
ceremonial first cut.

It's the best picture I have of the extent of the buffet, with hummus, various salads, meze, rice and grilled meats (lamb, beef, chicken) for days.  And, of course the ever popular mini-pizzas.

My colleague brought his young son to the party (posted here with his permission).  I think those tiny children in adult clothing are absolutely adorable.  And they walk a little taller knowing they are wearing official attire.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Muttrah Fish Market

The other day I accompanied my colleague, Ales, on a shopping trip to the fish market in the Muttrah harbor neighborhood of Muscat.  He loves to cook and he regularly buys fresh fish here. It's basically a large covered tiled concrete slab on which local fishermen display their catch.  The vendors lay out a plastic mat and pile up their varied stock.  Ice doesn't last long so they sprinkle water over the fish every so often to keep them fresh.

There were several varieties of tuna, plus kingfish, hammour, parrotfish, many other species than I cannot name, prawns and shrimp, what looked like eels and a few tropical fish I've only seen in aquariums, never on a menu!  Sometimes there are lobsters or small sharks for sale.

That day we ended up with a large tuna...

...which Ales proceeded to carve up in his kitchen at home, yielding 4 divine fillets. If you aren't into butchering your own fish there are helpers along the back that will do it for you.

A trip to this market should be on every tourist's list, though be warned it is a messy, smelly place, not for the faint of heart. It is, however, frequented mostly by locals, and plenty of expats take advantage of the great selection of truly fresh seafood.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

China 2013

Beijing - 2013 NCPA World Theatre Forum presided over by Chen Ping, President of the National Center for Performing Arts.

This May for the second time I was invited to participate in an opera conference organized by the National Center for Performing Arts in Beijing, China (the building is also known as The Egg!). In case you haven't seen a photo of the complex, here is one from their website:

The Forum kicked off with the opening of a lavish production of "Nabucco" starring Plácido Domingo in the title role. I was very happy I had the chance to hear him in this baritone role and it was wonderful to see him again afterwards and catch up with him, as well as with his son, Alvaro, and his assistant, Nicki Marko. I even ran into Ying Xi, a Chinese tenor, who was a Young Artist at Washington National Opera a few years ago.

The next two days were spent in long sessions of presentations, discussions, exchanges of opinions among the participants and in interviews for various Chinese radio stations. Several international colleagues were present, including director Hugo de Ana whom I was glad to see again after some years. Of course, there were also several General and Artistic Directors and composers from various Chinese Performing Arts centers. Given the entirely different reality the latter are facing compared to American and European theatres (namely that they build state of the art theatres but don't have the programming to put in them; that the audiences don't seem to be familiar with classical European music or with the concept of a season) it was an interesting round of exchanges.

We all were assigned topics pertinent to the opera and classical music business to present and lead the discussion on. It was a bit unusual being given responsibility for a topic on which we might not be expert, but the discussions were well managed and produced many interesting points and information, although not necessarily any solutions.  It's what we Germans so aptly call "Denkanstoesse" which loosely translates into "food for thought" or things that kick-off further thoughts. It is important to look beyond our own reality and maybe to find inspiration, ideas or even solutions to a problem in other places and environments.

Luckily, I managed to squeeze in a little time to go to the so-called "798 Arts District" with my Beijing-friend, Charlotte, and my colleague, Henning, from the Bavarian State Opera. Fascinating galleries and crafts shops fill an area that used to be a large factory. I was remembering a print I had seen the year before that I couldn't to get out of my head. We went looking for the gallery, managed to find it and indeed I bought the print. Yes, call me persistent...or stubborn.

All in all, from "Nabucco" to meeting with Plácido again after so many months, to the NCPA Forum sessions and meeting some new colleagues, it was an interesting and enriching, albeit quick trip.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

London and Vienna 2013

Sorry it has been a while since the last post. Time did fly and it's been a very busy few months as I hope to outline in coming posts.
In late March I went to London for several meetings with agents and colleagues. I also took in a few shows, well, musicals this time, for example Irvin Berlin's Top Hat, a fabulous classic in a wonderful production that brought back the original spirit of the 1935 movie. It was well sung and danced making a perfectly enjoyable evening and reminding me that the song "Cheek to Cheek" was written for this musical. I definitely had a good time!
The next day was Chorusline which I first saw in the 80's in New York and it still works beautifully. A little dated, but a good show, excellent cast.
The day after I went to hear a concert of the London Philharmonic conducted by Valery Gergiev: Szymanovsky and Brahms. I loved every second of the Brahms Requiem and that's all I say.
Off then to Vienna to the Opera Europa conference. After many years of attending Opera America conferences while working in the US (1994 - 2012) I was happy to attend the European version and see many of my European colleagues again. Working for the Royal Opera House Muscat made for a lot of good conversation with many colleagues and agents.
I took in a performance of Fidelio with Anja Kampe in a fabulous turn as Leonore. The absolute highlight of the evening that brought the house down was the Leonore III Overture before the 2nd act !! Ivan Fisher was on fire and so was the orchestra that played with such enthusiasm and, one of the best things I have ever heard !
For the rest I focused on meetings and dinners with colleagues and all in all I had a fruitful time in Vienna.
I'll catch you up on the rest of summer over the next couple of weeks.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

New Car

Cars are not too expensive here.  Given the buying power in the area and with expats rotating through so frequently there are many luxury and high end used cars on the market at very reasonable prices. The Royal Omani Police drive Mercedes!  I saw 3 Lamborghinis in a 2 week span!  BMW, Ferrari, Aston Martin, Jaguar, Bentley, etc. are frequent sights on the roads here.  There are plenty more practical vehicles, too, of course, Japanese, American and European makes.  The roads are in excellent condition in most places and there's no road salt to speed corrosion, so the luxury cars are all in great shape and typically have low mileage.

This is all by way of saying....a colleague and I are now the proud co-owners of a Maserati !
More formally: a Maserati Cambiocorsa 4200, make 2002, 8 cylinders, 400 horsepower. This was the first Maserati made after Ferrari purchased the company so the engine is a Formula 1 Ferrari engine.

I was going to buy it just by myself, but considering that I won't drive it every day, that some repairs will be needed over time on an 11 year old sports car and that my colleague, our Technical Director Geoff, loves old cars and has technical and mechanical car experience, I took his offer to go in on it with me. Overall it seemed convenient and comforting to me to have a car geek as co-owner of such high-powered vintage race car.
We paid less than $18,000 for our Maserati ; yearly insurance: $500, no property tax, a nominal registration fee, gas: $17 for 14 gallons. This makes it relatively affordable to own such car here in Oman.....I doubt I could ever do this anywhere else, so here it is, the "red beauty":

Picked it up in Dubai

 Got a new paint job in Muscat

The wheels got painted black

 Voila! Parked at work!