Saturday, August 16, 2008

Opera Update

I missed the spring opera in New York, and I'll miss the fall, but right now I'm not feeling bad about it.

Thursday night was the fourth concert of the Divas in Beijing series. The concert took place in the Great Hall of the People, the main entrance of which faces Tiananmen Square. Renee Fleming, Sumi Jo, Ramon Vargas and Dmitri Hvorostovsky all appeared on the same stage. They performed a range of material, including Rossini, Puccini, Tchaikovsky and Verdi.

Tenor Ramon Vargas has a voice like a dream. He was a replacement for another tenor who was not able to make the show, but he is headline worthy in his own stead.

For me, however, the top moment in the show was during one of the encores. Conductor Nicola Luisotti played piano accompaniment to Renee Fleming, who sang a jazz version of Gershwin's Summertime - and sang scat.

Yes, opera fans, Renee Fleming sang scat. It was a showstopper.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Olympic Stories

The Olympics are upon us and I have been lucky enough to get tickets to some of the events. I've turned down others that didn't work with my schedule but expect to get more by the end of the games.

It's been a very busy week but I'm having a wonderful time. Pictures from the events I've attended and from the competition area are posted online.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Olympic Games: Handball

Tonight I attended the Olympic handball preliminary match between China and Poland. I'd never heard of handball before I was offered the tickets (for the unbelievably low price of 30RMB each, approximately US$4) but a bit of research revealed that is it played on a rectangular court with goal nets at each end, with two half-hour periods, and is sort of like soccer played with your hands, on a smaller playing area.

The final score was Poland 33-China 19. China scored several goals in the last several minutes of the game to come up from behind but it wasn't enough to make up for the lead that Poland had created in the first half.

The Chinese team was obviously much less experienced and playing at a disadvantage against a much more mature Polish team. One of the stars of the game was Chinese goalkeeper Wang Long (whose name means Dragon King). Whenever he was on the court the crowd could count on him to energetically attempt to defend his goal.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

The Opening Ceremonies

The Olympics are finally here.

Friday night I joined friends and a few hundred other people at the Casa Italiana Coni, in Beijing's Haidian district, to watch the opening ceremony and eat pasta and gelato while sipping Italian wine.

The party was to start at 7:30pm. We anticipated much traffic so we got into a taxi at 6pm. As we drove north from Central Beijing we were surprised to see few cars on the road, mainly taxis and buses. The third ring road, one of the main beltways around the city, was blocked off and our driver had to take an alternate route. The Casa Italia is only a couple of miles from the Bird's Nest, the site of the main Opening Ceremonies. As we came close to what was then the most secure place in the world, holding over 90,000 people, we saw guards wearing helmets and bullet proof vests. This is not something we usually see around Beijing, where some military personel look scared when I approach them to ask a question.

The lack of traffic meant that we moved quickly and arrived at the venue before 7pm in spite of the distance and a difficult to find location that required our driver to stop several times to ask for directions. When we arrived at the Casa Conti there wasn't yet a line and we were able to obtain our tickets quickly, after the attendants looked at our passports and matched our names to the list of people submitted by the Italian Embassy. We took advantage of our early arrival to get front seats.

The ceremony started at exactly 8pm. As we saw the fireworks exploding over Beijing some of us took deep breathes until we confirmed that it was only fireworks, not acts of terrorism. Ooohs and aaahs swept through the room as we watched the performers. Many of the people in the room live here in Beijing but we were still in awe at the magnitude of the performance.

As the athletes marched into the stadium, cheers went up whenever someone in the room had some allegiance to a country whose team was entering.

Hours later, at midnight, friends and I poured into taxis to head back towards the center of town, back towards home. When the ceremony was ending we again heard the explosion of fireworks going up all over the city. It was a glorious celebration, a glorious evening.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Today's the day!

Today is Friday, Augst 8, 2008. Also known as 8.08.08. Tonight, at 8:08pm, the opening ceremonies for the XXIX Olympiad will begin.

This morning was hot, muggy and overcast. Now, at shortly before 1pm, some blue sky is starting to peep out. We're expecting a blue sky afternoon.

I've been told that there will be fireworks at 36 different places around Beijing tonight. There will be festivities all over the city. The chambers of commerce, embassies and pavillions for many nations are hosting festivities for their citizens and friends. I'm planning to be up at the Casa Italia.

Have fun and enjoy the festivities!

Divas in Beijing - Angela Gheorghiu

Last night was the premier of the Divas in Beijing concert series, which began with a performance full of energy, spirit and amazing Soprano sound from Angela Gheorghiu. The Romanian soprano is called the most gifted and glamorous opera singer of our time and her talent was on full display. The program included inspired renditions of opera classics, including Puccini's "Un Bel di Vedremo" (from Madama Butterfly) , and Verdi's "Pace, Pace," as well as an a version of the Cuban standard "Siboney," during which she had the audience clapping together in time as she danced across the stage during an orchestral section of the song. The entire house rose to it's feet as one in an ovation as that ended.

The concert series will continue next week with performances from Sumi Jo; Renee Fleming; Marcello Giordani, Salvatore Licitra and Ramon Vargas, baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky and tenor Jonas Kaufmann. Performances will take place in both the magical new National Center for the Performing Arts (Beijing) and the historic Great Hall of the People, which faces Tiananman Square.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008


There is heightened security all over Beijing. The local news includes features about how this is an effort to reduce the risk of terrorism.

It's nowhere near the level of security we experienced in New York after the 2001 terrorist attack but it's still interesting to observe and experience.

There are bag checks in the subway. Depending on the station and the staff my experience has included walking right past the security line and not being bothered, having a large bag x-rayed as i was headed out of town for the weekend - and being asked to take a sip of my water to prove that it's not an explosive, and sticking my bag on the x-ray machine conveyor belt and calling to the tech so that she'd look at the bag (I was in a hurry and didn't want to play games, or to have to do it again).

Getting into some Olympics-related parties requires a passport. Others also require that your name be on an approved list. I'd been leaving my passport at home recently but am now carrying it again just to be sure I won't have a problem.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Parties Begin

Last night I attended my first Olympics-related party.

The Italian contingent has set up the 'Casa Italiana Coni' in an exhibition center in the Haidian district of Beijing. Last night they had a party to welcome the Italian athletes and fans to the Beijing Games. To get there we took the new 10 subway line to the last stop then spent half an hour trying to get a taxi. When we arrived at the venue we had to show our passports to prove our identities and allow security to check our names against the guest list. Then we had to go through a security check - our bags went through an x-ray machine and we had to pass through metal detectors, then be patted down by female security guards.

The party was scheduled to start at 10pm, my friends and I arrived at 10:30pm but the room didn't feel crowded until well after 11pm. The main room of the party had sofas and chairs all around, a variety of Italian wines flowing freely, coffee drinks, and a gelato stand. A live singer and guitarist performed on stage until midnight, then were replaced by a DJ.

At one point we walked around the exhibition center and saw an exhibit of Italian Olympic-related art. There were also booths set up with information about different Italian companies, mostly sports related. There was even a Ferrari on the exhibition floor.

There were a couple hundred people at the party, including volunteers in blue shirts with "Italy" written across them and a rocketship theme. No one we saw appeared to be an athlete. Then again, most athletes in Beijing right now are probably focusing on getting into tip top shape for the upcoming events.

I'm going out of town for a couple of days, starting tomorrow. It will be nice to get away from the Olympic craziness for a little while. I'll be back before the end of the week though, in time for the opening ceremony parties.