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!

Friday, May 10, 2013

Trip to DC

As thoughts turn to Spring I'll wrap up the Winter travels quickly....My third business trip brought me back to Washington, DC.

I returned to take in the Opening Nights of "Manon Lescaut" and "Norma" in both of which I had some emotional investment having planned those titles, productions and casts 2-4 years before.
It was delightful to see so many friends again, even though it had only been three months since I left. It was truly flattering to be welcomed back by so many with smiles and hugs.

The performances were wonderful with Pat Racette in her role debut as Manon Lescaut and with Angela Mead as Norma (I hired her for this 4 years ago after judging her in the Belvedere Competition which she ultimately won).

I also had the chance to dart up to New York one Saturday to take part in the Opera Quiz at the second intermission of The Met's "Don Carlo" (probably my favourite opera).

Peter Kazaras, Thomas Wolf, Yours Truly, Gerald Moore, Diana Damrau

I have been on the quiz before, but this was my first appearance representing the Royal Opera House Muscat!

Waiting at the airport in Dubai I was often struck by seeing those big contrasts between the very modern, high-tech airport and lots of very traditional clothing.

Just another sunny day in DC at my favorite vantage point just north of National Airport, a great place to watch planes land and take case you didn't know: I LOVE planes

It wasn't all opera work...I also got to take in a Washington Capitals hockey game with Anne, Geoff and Marilyn - great fun and the Caps won 30 seconds into overtime with a spectacular quick goal! It was also nice to see ice again after months of warm sandy desert!

A busy though enjoyable week on all levels!

Monday, April 22, 2013

St. Petersburg, Russia

The next business trip took me to St. Petersburg, Russia.

ROHM is bringing in a "Madama Butterfly" from the Mariinsky Theatre, so primarily for technical issues our Technical Director and I traveled all the way to Russia to see it. The original production, directed by Mariusz Trelinski, belongs to Teatr Wielki in Warsaw, and it is one that I had brought to Washington National Opera a while back. A few years ago the Mariinksy Theatre was licensed to built a slightly scaled down copy of the production which they still own. Even scaled down from its original grand scope the production still presents some scenic challenges and we wanted to see those first-hand to work out any solutions for our theatre ahead of time.

It is a wonderful production that was extremely successful and well received in Washington. 

In St. Petersburg it looked just like I remembered: striking imagery, cinematic transitions and beautiful traditional, if stylized, costuming.

A view of the Mariinsky in the snowy Russian winter....remember that when we left Muscat it was sunny and 26°C (78°F)!

My colleague, Geoff W. and I were the only ones in the royal box for the performance! Just as in days past the audience stared inquisitively into the box, wondering who these people were who rated a private suite.

We also had the chance to see a performance of "La Juive" by Halévy at the Mikhailovsky Theatre across town (next to the Russian Museum). It is a company that has seen a surge in popularity in recent years after the auditorium and lobbies were renovated and the whole company reinvigorated.

It was a productive trip overall and I enjoyed being back in St. Petersburg again. My first trip was in 1994 and in several visits since then I have gotten to know many colleagues in this beautiful city. 
Having grown up with the Wall dividing Berlin and Germany, and the world divided into the Eastern and Western blocs of the Cold War, it never ceases to impress me to be strolling around so comfortably in St. Petersburg, Russia. Oh, and right now I have a 3 year/multiple-entry Russian visa in my passport.....the world certainly is an amazing and ever evolving place !

Dosvedanya !

Monday, April 15, 2013

Milano and Verona

In recent weeks I have been out "on the opera road" on Royal Opera House business.

First up: Milan and Verona, Italy.
The main purpose of the trip was for our Technical Director, Geoff W., and I to go to Verona to evaluate a possible production for us to bring to Muscat, but first a stop in Milan thanks to available direct flight routing. I used the opportunity to meet a couple of friends and we all went to La Scala to see a production of "Nabucco". A very grey production, although, without going into details, I have to say I am glad I had the opportunity to see it.

The weather in Milano was sunny and cold at first, but then turned dreadful! Grey, cold, snowy, wet...and the same in Verona. Not the weather I have been used to in Muscat!

We took a morning train to Verona in time to see a matinee of Verdi's "Attila" (not the show we are considering bringing), after which we met with an agent to discuss a few other possible productions for ROHM from other Italian companies. In the evening we were free, so I managed to take a rather nostalgic tour just outside Verona to visit a place that has great memories for me. I went to the Baita (a wooden, mountain-retreat-style house) belonging to the Coro Stella Alpina where I reconnected with friends from 30 years ago and revisited this house where some childhood friends from Hamburg (Jens, Gernot, Ingrid, Alphons, Hanne, Joachim, Thies) and I had spent some memorable summers.

Our whole "gang" would stay at the Baita, see performances at the Arena di Verona and enjoy the hospitality of the Coro Stella Alpina members.

The next morning we had a long and productive meeting in Verona, then returned to Milan in the late afternoon and flew back to Muscat that same evening.

A quick but fruitful trip on many levels !

Thursday, February 7, 2013

A trip to Jebel Shams mountains

Oman has plenty of mountains as well as the highest mountain peak of the Arabian Peninsula, Jebel Shams, at 3.100m/10,200ft.  Situated close to its peak is the regional air traffic control radar installation.  Below the peak is Jebel Shams Canyon which reminds the traveller and hiker a little bit of the US Grand Canyon in terms of the shapes of the cliff walls. The depth from Canyon's highest edge to its bottom is about 1.200m/3,900ft.

We drove in a big SUV from Muscat via Nizwa and then up the mountain to the Jebel Shams Resort.
Most of the access road was paved in steep S-curves, but at some point it became just a dirt road cut into the rock, still steep, still curvy - not for the faint of heart.  Neither is the canyon hike, but more about this later.

It was already dark by the time we arrived at the camp and a small campfire was waiting for us outside our bedouin tent.  Staff built it up to bonfire size which kept us warm and provided coals for the barbecue.  The temperature in Muscat had been 25C (77F), and up in the mountains it was 8C (46F), so my heavy jacket was put to good use. There are places in Oman that get cold, sometimes there is even snow! 

The full moon rising over the mountains and the clear, very starry sky were amazing and ....the SILENCE so relaxing !!!  After a rustic and tasty barbecue of chicken and beef, plus hummus and green salad we went to sleep in the tents.  Two layers of blankets kept me comfortably warm in the bed.


The next morning we woke up around 8am and the simple camp canteen provided a good and hearty breakfast. By 10am we took off to the canyon, a bumpy 15min drive to one of its lower edges.  We were dropped off at an area with a few very simple stone houses inhabited by a few families that live from raising goats and selling found fossils and simple homemade crafts to hikers.


Off we went on a more than four hour hike, 
two hours each way 
and a little rest. 

The beige trail is just visible here --------->

Houses reminiscent of Mesa Verde (Colorado, US) wedged into the cliff side.
Inhabited until a generation ago.

More or less the end of the canyon, our ultimate destination:

We stopped atop these terraces, pictured at the center of the photo

A close up of those agricultural terraces -->

Notice our four-legged companion at the resting spot.  A local mountain goat hoping for a snack.

See the big boulder?  Now see the tiny people in the lower left? BIG boulder.

The view on the way back

Monday, February 4, 2013

Filling up

Filled up the car last week.
59.18 liters cost 7.1 Omani Rials.

59.18 liters = 15.63 gallons

7.1 Rials = $18.45 = €13.5 !!!

Friday, January 18, 2013

A Day at the Races

On Jan. 1, 2013 I was invited to attend The Annual Royal Horse Racing Festival of the Royal Cavalry presided over by His Majesty Sultan Qaboos.  What a spectacle it was!
For those who might not know I used to ride English saddle as a teenager regularly for about 5 years, and since then on the rare occasion. My interest in horses, watching dressage events and show jumping has never ceased so this Omani Royal Cavalry event was a treat for me!
There were six horse races, five for purebred Arabian horses only and one for Thoroughbreds.  Those were interspersed with processions of mounted military units and horse drawn vehicles, trick riding, displays of various equestrian skills and races and processions featuring other animals. Most events were accompanied with music by the Royal Guard band.
As per the invitation my friends and I arrived at 2pm with passes to sit in section B. We were almost the first to arrive.  It was general seating within each section and once you claimed a chair it was best to stay in it.  Leaving a scarf or purse on the chair was not an acknowledged means of reserving it.  By 4pm most seats had been filled, various mounted military units and carriage brigades had filled the parade ground just inside the track, the sultan had arrived and the event could begin.  All spectators were there by invitation only and on very good behavior, nonetheless the quiet that reigned over the whole area was remarkable.  Only subdued conversations and the occasional horse whinny could be heard.

The ushers were dressed up.  Their headscarves matched their sashes, each man had a different fabric pattern. The traditional dagger, a khanjar, is tucked into the sash.   There were only male ushers.  The women we saw were supervising!  The seats were quite comfortable and everyone received a fancy program booklet.

There was a fanfare for His Majesty's entrance into the Royal seating area - the only one with shade.  From our seats 2 sections over we had a decent line of sight to his silhouette.  There are stands only along one side of the track, the finish line is at the far right just before the track curves.  The Royal Box is at the finish line, the remaining seating areas extend to the sultan's left as he looks towards the center of the track.

The National Anthem followed and then the first race was off!  At about the same time liveried waiters started handing out box lunches to every single person, gratis.  This was followed by beverage service, water, orange, pineapple or carrot glasses!  Meanwhile the activities carried on seamlessly.

 Horse drawn cannon

One of many beautiful horses on display
 Horse drawn military band

Women in traditional dress

2 men standing on horseback, the women riders were equally daring.

These men were tossing poles around. Others shot arrows and stabbed things with spears.

 One team specialized in hanging off the side of the horse.   A teammate of his slid down one side, climbed under his horse and back up the other side while at full gallop.

For comic relief: the white donkey race, note the backwards riders; falling off was expected.

The running and display of the bulls; other non-horse displays included goats, llamas, and dogcarts.

The ostrich race, again falling off is normal, except for this rider.

And the big finish, an assembly of all the participants.

His Majesty handed out trophies to the winning jockies, the orchestra played the national anthem again and then everybody left. (In the video below note the sultan waving on the big screen, then waving from the stand.)  The whole event lasted just under two hours and was a most memorable treat to start the New Year!