Saturday, February 13, 2010

Vancouver 2010, opening ceremony disgrace!

Opening Ceremonies a disgrace

The opening ceremonies of the Olympics were a disgrace. The natives were represented as a group of costumed dancers, doing whatever they wished, no explanation just hopping about. The 'immigrants' all in white, sometimes danced. sometimes not...all to their own beat. There was no mention of our founding cultures...just a mismash of quotes and bizarre effects. It began badly with a horrible jazz rendition of our national anthem. The national anthem is just that, a national anthem meant to be sung by the people. It is like a congregational hymn in a church. Yankofsy's antics and affectations made it impossible to understand whether she was singing in Polish, English, Cantonese or French and furthermore impossible to sing with. Nikki Yankofsy should stick to pop. In contrast soprano Measha Brueggergosman was amazing as was KD Lang. Measha should have sung both the national and the olympic anthems.

I was sorry to see the lamentable lack of French, given that this is a bilingual country and the marginalization of our first nations peoples. They welcomed us with plastic totem poles, but surely given the spirit of the Olympics a sweet grass ceremony and blessing would have been in order. They were marginalized in that they too, were part of the mixed up show, with no meaning just vague symbols. This was clearly designed by a committee: Lets have Capt Vancouver in about Captain no Captain Hook...gotta have canoes folks...oh yea and lets stick in some native guy...Chief Dan George.... The Olympic torch rose like a metal giant from the floor was broken and one of the arms did not deploy. It did not depict anything. It was like the plastic totem poles, devoid of symbols and meaning but surely representing something. The broken torch was surely a metaphor for the broken and disjointed opening ceremony!

The only good moments were 1) The respect paid to the fallen Georgian Luge athlete 2) KD Lang and Measha B.

Canada lost an opportunity to teach and to showcase to the rest of the world what is truly unique about us, namely our bilingual culture and welcoming and peaceful country.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Verdi does it again!

Among all of the operatic composers, Verdi is one of my favourites. The characters in a Verdi opera are passionate, powerful and the orchestral background and chorus seethes with emotion. Whether it is the pain of unrequited love as sung by Amneris in Aida or in the case of Simon Boccanegra the unbelievably emotional and beautiful benediction at the close of the opera, a Verdi opera is a treat.

This week, I listened to the HD performance of Verdi's Simon Boccanegra. This piece is rarely performed but is magnificent. James Levine calls it a true masterpiece and one of his favourites and I can see why! The Met brought us into the world of 14th century Genoa with splendid costumes, fresco ed meeting rooms and private chambers with fireplaces. The lighting was glorious with villas in Italy overlooking the sea and the soft warm lighting had one imagining that you were actually there in a cool garden listening. The costumes were outstanding.

The opera was a particular treat because Placido Domingo, was singing as a baritone the role of Simon Boccanegra. Domingo is such a convincing actor that I was quite convinced that he was the wise doge of Genoa. He walked slowly and sang with such emotion as he entered his audience hall with his hand on his sword that I believed I was there.

The opera begins with Boccanegra, a former pirate being declared doge by the people of Genoa. He has had an illegitimate child with the daughter ofJacobo Fiesco, beautifully sung by bass James Morris. The daughter Maria has died and Fiesco confronts Boccanegra. Boccanegra begs for forgiveness but the bitter Fiesco says he will never forgive unless Boccanegra gives him his granddaughter. Boccanegro cannot do this as the little girl was raised in a cottage near Pisa with an elderly woman who died. The little girl disappeared. Fiesco turns his life into one of hatred and a desire for revenge. The opera is a masterpiece in contrasts between revenge, hatred and mercy. Boccanegra, even at this point shows his desire for mercy and reconciliation. The contrast between him and the morose Fiesco is striking. Fiesco retreated and spends most of the opera wearing a grey shroud like a ghost.

We are taken to a beautiful villa where Amelia Grimaldi (Sung by Adrianne Pieczonka) sings of her happiness with her lover Gabriele Adorno (Tenor Marcello Giordani). She is waiting for a visit from the doge, whom Adorno is a sworn enemy. Pieczonka sings the role well, but her acting was terrible. She stood almost at attention as she sang and even in the love scenes would look past Giordani. During the tender moments her face looked tense, and during the emotional and tragic scenes at the end of the opera she was almost laughing. I found I had to close my eyes when she sang rather than be distracted by her stage presence.

We have come to expect so much from opera, in particular the MET. Singers must do much more than sing, we demand that they act the part as well. Acting does not demand the physicality of Natalie Dessay or the power of Karita Mattila (who sang Tosca) but you have to show to the audience that your character is credible.

There were so many outstanding moments in this operatic masterpiece but for me the most moving was at the end, when Boccanegro is poisoned and is dying. His enemy Fiesco appears seated on his throne as a ghost. Boccanegro tells him he can be forgiven as he has found his granddaughter and sings imploringly of forgiveness and mercy. Fiesco's heart breaks and he says that 'he hears the voice of heaven in Boccanegro's words'. I think that is the point of this opera. The voice of heaven, the words of forgiveness and peace are always found on the lips of a former pirate rather than the patricians of the day.

Boccanegro's final aria is a moving (I was crying) hymn to forgiveness and love. His former enemy the young and somewhat brainless Adorno (whose name befits him as he is mainly style and little substance) has reconciled with him, begging his forgiveness. Adorno and Maria kneel beside the dying doge. The scene was marred by Pieczonka's truly terrible acting but the effect was mesmerizing. The doge is dying in his hall of audience surrounded by the patricians and the publicans and the knights as well as the people whom he has let into the hall. He asks Fiesco to make certain that Adorno is the new doge and his dying act creates peace between the warring factions.

Placido Domingo is simply mesmerizing on stage. Here as the wise peaceful doge who wants nothing more than to see his daughter and to bring peace to Italy, you are again moved with not only compassion but love towards this character. Such is the power of Domingo.

Perhaps if Pieczonka had sung with a lesser character than Domingo her deficits would have remained unnoticed but when you sing with a giant you must rise to the occasion.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Life on the "east side" of Manor Park

Manor Park is an upper middle class neighborhood in Ottawa where we moved when my father retired from the forces. We left the base and moved to Eastbourne Ave. Eastbourne is a long street, most of it winds through single homes with fireplaces and large back yards with gardens with flowers, in particular roses. They were large homes with private entrances and long driveways. Eastbourne Avenue ends in a series of row homes arranged in a u shape, the east end of Manor park.

Unlike the homes with fireplaces and long driveways, we had a common parking area behind our houses and no yards to speak of. The U in the front or courtyard was shared by all and the only patch of grass that we could lay claim to was a small garden 4 feet long by 2 feet wide which my mother filled with zinnias, peruvian four o'clocks, and marigolds which my cat loved to sleep in!

We lived in these row houses. There was something exciting about living in these row houses and not having any private entrances. We lived in each others backyards and to make it more interesting, we had a collection of eccentric neighbours. On the far end, Neil and Michelle had taken vows of poverty, wore white robes and meditated. They would invite their friends over for chanting sessions and we would watch and snicker. They had a son who was not allowed to eat candies or watch clowns. To this day, I have no idea why there was a clown prohibition.

Next to Neil, there was a family whose father,whom we knew as Mr. Foran, who, although he was capable of speech, chose to exercise his right to silence. He would gesture in sign language to his daughter who was in my sisters class. If it was cold, he would point to her, shiver, pat his arm, point to his house and then back at her. That meant "Jackie it is cold, go in the house and put on your sweater". We called it Eastbourne sign language.

Mr. Foran was the strong silent type with a penchant for looking into windows. Our home was on the end and we did not like using curtains. Mr. Foran would take his daily constitutional, rain or snow, sun or wind down the east side of the path and would turn his head and look into our window. It drove us all to distraction. I mounted my camera with flash and tripod in the window and waited until he passed. As he turned, I pushed the bulb and the flash flashed. Mr. Foran never looked into our window after that.

Directly across from us lived a family of blond children and fair haired parents. They never spoke to us, but the youngest daughter would sit every morning on the concrete steps with a cup of tea in hand, deep in thought in her pyjamas. We never knew why, or what she was thinking.

Behind us lived a colourful family of Lebanese immigrants. They lived on the end unit and believed that the patch of grass forming a corner was theirs. The first thing they did was to dig up this plot to plant vegetables like the old country. They were told that they were renters and did not own the land. After much heated discussion, the garden was plowed over. Their children were masterful marbles players and could memorize and create rules out of thin air. They rarely if ever lost and many of my prize marbles were lost to their vast holdings. They would generally ignore their mother's calls to come home until they heard shrill shrieks in Arabic. This froze their blood cold. We never knew what it meant, but it must have meant something like "I will skin you alive and feed you to the camels" It had an instant effect and Tony Hammoui would pack up his marbles and go home, not stopping to look back.

The family was one to economize at all costs. The boys were taken outside in the common back yard with bowls over their heads to have their hair cut. The Hammouis would bring us plates of Lebanese treats which we eagerly devoured. While other kids longed for chocolate bars, our little row houses were used to the smell of fresh baklava and feta cheese.

My sister had a young friend called Nikki who lived in hard working family. Her father had at least three jobs and we never saw him walk, he only ran. All we saw was the smoke from his cigarette as he ran from job to job. Nikki's mother also worked and Nikki was greatly admired by my sister because Nikki could come home alone and would cook for herself. At eight, Nikki could make macaroni and tomato juice! Nikki knew how to use the washing machine, the stove and could also make her own sandwiches. She carried her housekey around her neck and it was always exciting for my sister to visit her as they were alone without any parents and hence could watch TV and drink gingerale!

I remember the Viau family whose father would call his children once a week over a table for a 'family conference'. It was at this summit that issues such as allowances, 'groundings', school performance and behaviour were discussed. The Viau's had turned a hill behind the row houses into an icy race track where we would eagerly charge down on makeshift sleds. The Viau's also were the first to put out a blow up pool in the common back yard. I think they had a dog, but I cant remember. Our family rarely ate together, choosing to forage what we could from the dinner table and so talk of a family conference was the stuff of national geographic to me.

For all the colour and excitement of our row houses, with the heating system that rarely worked, the bath water than ran cold and windows that grew thick and heavy with frost on the inside as the temperature outside dropped, there were those who were embarrassed of them. We had a middle aged writer who lived in our square. She was somewhat of a recluse but dreamed of recognition. She was a little pudgy and spent her time behind her typewriter. However, when she did venture beyond her home and took the bus, she would get off on the West end of Eastbourne, as if to pretend to all on the bus, including herself that she belonged in the more affluent part of Eastbourne and did not rub shoulders with people like us, with the 'others'

Years later, I now live in a house with a fireplace with a long driveway. We have a private yard and we grow roses and have bird feeders. My neighbours are quiet, there are no marble territory wars, there are no ice hills. The eight year olds in my neighborhood could not make macaroni and tomato juice, and would probably not even know how to use a housekey. Most homes have elaborate alarm systems and even if you could open it with a key, you would have to disarm before the swat team descends on you. There is no smell of feta or backlava in the air and our house is far enough from the street to discourage even the most determined of curious neighbours unless they had binoculars.

My neighbourhood is quiet, safe and utterly banal. A child growing up on my street today would never have to learn the art of negotiating with a marble cheating they never play alone, their parents are always with them! A child on my street today would never be allowed to dream on the front steps, Mr. Foran would be in psychiatric care and not spoken about, the children's aid would have intervened with Neil and Michelle. Even if this happened, no one would know because we are all isolated from one another. We build walls, and hedges to ensure that we do not rub shoulders with the 'other'

Backyard rinks

Winter on an air base in Canada meant two things: A large hockey rink and hundreds of backyard rinks. As you walked down any of the streets you could hear the swish, slash and bang of a backyard rink as diminutive hockey stars practiced their slapshots against piled up two by fours.

My father took great pride in the small rink that he made in our backyard. He would pack down the snow, and pack it again and then flood it, repack and flood again. The rink always had a slight saddle shape and had a few pebble-like bumps. I would practice with my Dad or often just by myself, the blue of the ice oddly lit by our rear porchlight. I would hear the sounds of all the other kids practicing. My Dad was a great skater and had played hockey. He could do what I always wanted to do...skate backwards!

I never became a hockey star. I tried figure skates but they were too dangerous for me. I eventually settled on a pair of tube skates, which were tall and white with no picks and when I outgrew them, I had a pair of boys black and brown leather hockey skates. Despite my skate advantage, I was never a good skater either as I tottered somewhat uncertainly over the ridges and bumps of our rink. The main rink was almost always off limits for anyone who was not in a hockey team. It was slashed and had deep groves made by the red sweatered hockey stars of our base community.

The sounds of backyard rinks are not nearly so common as we tend to take our kids to larger organized venues and larger rinks. While walking my dogs tonight I saw two of them. One had a father and his son playing on a pebbled rink like that of my childhood, the other was a fancier one with what looked like a blue pool lining underneath the ice. The familiar sounds of swish, scrape and shaving ice..brought back many memories of nights beneath the porch light as I practiced the art of skating...backwards!

Karine's Blog

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