Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A Brief Review of Joseph Conrad's "The Secret Sharer"

The Secret SharerThe Secret Sharer by Joseph Conrad

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of my all-time favorite authors is Joseph Conrad. His exploration of the human condition as reflected by the men who toil at sea is as profound as any philosophical dissertation by any name philosopher. His theme is man against nature or man against men, His yarns are full of events both in the inner and outer worlds of journeyers at sea or water. "The Heart of Darkness" of course is essential to his success and esteem as an author/adventurer. But he has many other tales that I've read and appreciated. Foremost among them is "The Secret Sharer". This is a tale about a newbie captain who is piloting a ship somewhere in the Far East. He is not very popular with his men. To complicate matters, he willingly shelters a stowaway, a chief mate of another ship, the Sephora. the man is accused of killing an insolent crew member.   The captain develops an affinity to him, hides him from search parties, and eventually maneuvers the ship close to an island so that the "secret sharer" could escape. Conrad's language is dense and somewhat wordy, but if you've paid close attention, by the time you've finished reading the tale,  you felt like you've been in that ship with the captain and the escapee. What really made this story resonate with me is that the setting, the Gulf of Siam, is a place that I have been to, and the island that the chief mate escapes to thanks to a risky maneuver by the captain, is named Koh-ring, which is similar to islands I've visited  such as Koh-Samui. That the captain was willing to risk his ship to get close to the dangerous shoals of a tropical island is something that I would question, but in the context of the story and his alienation from his own crewmembers, one I could understand. Reading this story, I could smell the salt air,feel the warm, damp tropical wind and hear the plashing of the waves against the hull of the ship. As I read the final lines, I told myself: "I've been there. I've been there."

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Monday, July 9, 2012

At the Santa Fe Opera

The Santa fe Opera House
4 July 2012
Santa Fe, New Mexico

When I was growing up on the island of Leyte, in provincial Philippines,  there was no culture, nor financial resources for producing, much less watching operas. There are still none now, except in Manila.
    When I was a student in Manila, I managed to see occasional student productions  such as Poulenc’s “Les Dialogues des Carmelites”  by the University of the Philippines Conservatory and an evening of operatic excerpts  performed by students and faculty of my school, the University of Sto Tomas. I remember the last one with a chuckle, because, during the singing of the “Humming Song” of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly, the little boy portraying Cio Cio-san’s son wandered out into the front of the stage of the Cultural Center of the Philippines  and stared in wonderment at the amused audience. On the occasions that a foreign opera was invited to perform in Manila (such as the Metropolitan Opera Company performing “Tosca” for the opening of Imelda Marcos’s Cultural Center of the Philippines) the tickets were so horrendously expensive that only the very rich could afford them. 
      When I moved to the US, and specifically New York City, this all changed. Then, I was literally buried in  the musical riches and choices, among them operatic, that New York City was and still is famous for.
     The first opera I saw, and in fact, the first really professional opera  I’ve ever seen, was Puccini’s  “Madame Butterfly” at the City Opera. This was followed in no particular order by Gounod’s “Faust”, Lehar’s “The Merry Widow”,  the double bill of "Cavalleria Rusticana" and "I Pagliacci" and  others I don’t remember  (this was back in the late ‘80’s). Over at the Met, the riches spilled out for me to pick and choose, depending on the state of my wallet: Tchaikovsky’s “Queen of Spades”, Verdi’s “Rigoletto”,La Traviata”, “Il Trovatore” and recently, Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” and Puccini’s “La Boheme”.
     Another city where I was fortunate enough to watch several operas was at the Sydney Opera House. I was in Sydney for a month visiting my sisters who lived there, so catching performances at the iconic Opera House was a no-brainer. I can still remember what I saw back in 1993: Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette, Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, and Beethoven’s Fidelio.
     I  also had missed opportunites which somehow still annoys me today. I very nearly watched the Italian bass Ruggero Raimondi  in Rossini’s opera “Moïse” at the  La Fenice in Venice save for the fact that a burly German who was as determined as I was to get one of the last remaining SRO tickets out-shoved and out-muscled me. Shortly after that, La Fenice burned down to the ground (they say, by arson). Poetic justice? Hardly. It is horrifying to think that some demented soul would torch an opera house, but this was  Italy, where  the real-world  underpinnings of  violent and tempestuous opera had their roots.  La Fenice, which means "The Phoenix", has since been rebuilt and restored. 
    In Naples, I stood outside the Teatro San Carlo, frustrated that I would never be able to watch an opera in this famous theater because my cruise ship sailed out at five pm every single time we visited that port.
     In St. Petersburg, Russia, I examined in dismay the posters advertising the theatrical events in that city. The notices were in Cyrillic so I could  not tell which show was showing where and whether I had enough time to watch a matinee  performance and not get left behind by my cruise ship. There  was no one I could ask information from because  no one speaks English in St. Petersburg.  Maybe a few, but most of them were tourists.
    Although I made Los Angeles my home for close to seven years, I cannot remember ever watching an opera there. The company, even when it was managed by Placido Domingo, didn’t seem all that compelling to me. My experiences  at the City Opera and the Met  had always been the touchstone of my subsequent operatic forays.
     For as long as I was aware of it, the Santa Fe Opera had always loomed large in my must-visit list. It wasn’t so much that the company had an excellent reputation for its world-class productions and oftentimes adventurous repertoire, so much  as the fact that its operas were staged in a partially enclosed structure that looks out on the surrounding mountains. This, I thought, I've got to see.
   My chance finally came this summer. From my current base of El Paso, Texas,  Santa Fe was five hours away by car: doable, certainly. When I examined the 2012 repertory of the Santa Fe Opera, one title leaped out from the computer screen: Tosca by Puccini, the same opera that I couldn’t see in Manila back in the '70's because the price of the ticket was completely out of my reach. Somehow I  kept missing it in  New York and elsewhere. My familiarity with its music was nurtured by listening to complete recordings and DVD's by the likes of  Maria Callas, Placido Domingo and  Galina Vishnevskaya.  This was my chance to round off watching Puccini’s Big Three: “Madame Butterfly”, “La Boheme” and now “Tosca”. With little hesitation, I bought my ticket online  (another of the conveniences of this digital age) and prepared myself for the pleasure of watching a live performance of one of Puccini’s, and the world’s, greatest operas in spectacular surroundings.
Posing with the poster of "Tosca"
     I had been made aware that Santa Fe opera aficionados have a peculiar custom: having tailgate parties before the performance of an opera. I prepared myself for this event by visiting the local Trader Joe’s in Santa Fe and buying a sushi plate, some prepackaged provolone, cheese and crackers. For the wine, I bought a pinot grigio from the Veneto region in Italy. A four-month stay  in Venice, the homeport of a cruise ship I was working on  at the time, had made me partial to this fruity local wine. Since “Tosca” was Italian, I thought this vintage would  be apropos.
      The Santa Fe Opera is housed in a modernistic structure high on a bluff around three miles from the town proper. You can see its steel ribs sticking out of the landscape as you drive down freeway 258. There are helpful signs pointing you the exit towards the Opera House, proof that this opera has become an integral part of the Santa Fe landscape. However, there is no prominent sign to indicate to you that you must make a sharp turn and climb up a nondescript road up the side of the mountain. I missed it the first time I came to visit it out of an abundance of precaution, and nearly ended up in Taos! There is no grand landscaped approach to the site until you approach a pair of steel gates that look like you’re going into a gated  upscale subdivision. Then you are in a parking lot being waved in by uniformed traffic attendants. It can’t be more elite than this.
Prepared to hold  my own tailgate party with wine, sushi and provolone but....
     When I had parked my car, I saw that some opera goers had already laid out tables and chairs for their parties. I brought no table nor chair so I contented myself with opening the trunk of my car and laying out my repast on a beach towel.
     But things have a way of resolving in a quite different, pleasant manner, and  I found myself invited to join a table of gracious partiers who saw that I was alone. During the course of the tailgate party which featured several bottles of excellent wine, deviled eggs, a home-made potato salad, great cheeses and meatballs, I learned  that among the persons seated at the table were   the head of the drama department of NYU, a New York theatrical producer, a lady-painter, and, for lack of a better term, a gay divorcee who confessed that she was “taken better care of by her ex-husband after their divorce than when they were married.” I presented a painting that I brought with me with the vow that I would give it to the first person who consented to have his/their picture taken with me in the spirit of the festivities. That person was David, an art dealer, who had lent me a wine-opener and then agreed to take a picture of me with the group . The monsoon wind bustled in,  napkins blew away, my plastic wine glass upended and spilled its pinot grigio, and a good time was had by all.
...I ended up joining a Santa Fe Opera tailgate party with the smart set!
     And what of the opera itself?
     The theater built for the opera in Santa Fe was structurally magnificent and delightful. It had excellent sight lines, with not a bad view anywhere in the house,  astounding acoustics that enabled the singers to sing without amplification and still be heard in the last row, and those open sides that looked out on the  Jemez and Sangre del Cristo mountains. This alone was worth the price of the ticket and the effort to get to this  mountaintop opera-house.
Interior of the Santa Fe Opera House

     I was ushered to my seat by a personable young man named Finn, whose father, he informed me, was a well-known archaeologist who dug around the old pueblo of Santa Fe. Finn was well-travelled, having gone through most of Southeast Asia and parts of Europe and was planning to study anthropology at the University of Mexico in Albuquerque.
Finn, the usher
    The stage set-up for "Tosca" was unusual. Where the New York Metropolitan Opera, under Franco Zefferelli, would have given you the original view of the church where Mario Cavaradossi painted his Madonna, or the faithful reconstruction of the room at the Palazzo Farnese where Scarpia nearly rapes Tosca and where he meets his demise, or the exact battlements of the  Castel Sant’Angelo, the special qualities of space at the Santa Fe Opera House had given rise to an ingenious solution:  a floor which served as a gigantic canvas of  the painting-in-progress of the Madonna by Cavaradossi. During Act Two, the canvas/floor  lifted up  to reveal a  painting on its underside that depicts a mural at the Palazzo Farnese. The simple expedient of pushing two turreted walls on either side of the floor conspired to change the setting into Castel Sant’Angelo, the scene of Cavaradossi’s execution and Tosca’s suicide. As a backdrop, a circular vault lay on its side so that the inner beehive chamber  looked out at the audience, giving a hint  of the majestic interior dome of a church without the opera-goers having to look up and crane their necks. Suggestive and spectacularly clever indeed. Stephen Barlow directed this production.
     As for the performers: the South African soprano Amanda Echalaz as Tosca sang with  full-throated  energy and dramatic flair. Raymond Aceto as the villainous Scarpia was truly menacing. He inhabited his role so thoroughly that boos were heard - for his character, I would say, rather than for his singing! - when he took his bow.  Andrew Richards was supposed to sing the role of Mario Cavaradossi, but his replacement, the American tenor Brian Jagde was excellent and handsome, to boot.
     I must confess that during the first act, I intermittently dozed off, not because of the music, but because of the effects of the nearly half-bottle of wine I’d drunk before the show. Come to think of it, Tosca is one long operatic performance by a duo and a trio, relieved by transcendent arias. The only spectacular choral part of the opera occurs  at the end of Act One, when the priests, bishops and laity come out in full force to sing the Te Deum . After that, it’s a string of arias ( “Vissi d’arte” , “E Lucevan le stelle”) interspersed with trios and duets.To the uninitiated, this can get boring. For me, after I’d shaken off the effects of the wine, it was sheer bliss. 
     It also became inexplicably warm. Only at intermission did I realize that it had rained  lightly outside. Although the sides of the hall were open, I didn't notice that. I did notice the lights of cars on the distant  freeway and remember thinking:  "How extraordinary!" I heard that at some performances, lightning could be seen striking down on the mountains in the background. I didn't doubt it. I had experienced a  thunderstorm with terrifying lightning strikes just two days ago.
      In the end, I was impressed by everything about this production. The protagonists and supporting cast handled the scenes to perfection. Their performances  were top-notch, at par with those I’d seen  in New York and Sydney. In fact, these were the same artists you would see in New York or Sydney!
     Finally, I can now check off the last remaining opera in Puccini’s Big Three that I hadn’t seen live until now.   Of course, there’s still “Turandot”…
     My fun  hosts at the parking lot party had intimated that they were going to assemble again the following week for another tailgate party prior to watching a production of George Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers”.
       I just might join them again.
The Santa Fe Opera crowd, many of whom came from Texas,Yee-Haw!

Saturday, July 7, 2012


Black Canyon, Santa Fe National Forest, New Mexico
July 2, 2012

When you go camping in the wilderness, the meanness of the world runs off you like dirty water off a duck's back.

When you camp, alone, your first concern is to set up your tent for the night. The mechanics of assembling this shelter is enough to distract you from the other petty questions you may have, such as: is there wifi or cellphone reception in the area?

Having set up your tent, you become focused on the basics of existence, such as  having enough food and water for the duration of your stay.

When you finally realize that there is no internet, cell phone reception, or electricity in your camp,  you have no choice but pay attention to your surroundings. Your senses, dulled by the virtual reality of computers, become sharpened, attuned to the very real forest and its creatures around you. You listen to the sound of the wind through the trees, the rain beating against the roof of your tent, the chirping of the birds, the distant, muffled voices of other campers in other parts of the woods. Those footfalls outside your tent? They were  probably made either by a human being, an animal or your imagination. Unaccustomed to the solitude, with your body protected from the outside elements only by the flimsy walls of waterproof nylon, you feel your heart beat a little faster. Imaginary dangers run through your head like little whips of doubt: thieves, serial killers, bears. Eventually, you accept that you can’t spend the night worrying whether a bear will get you, or whether Michael Myers will come dragging you off to his lair. Que sera sera.  There is no point in worrying and, with  grudging surrender, you allow sleep to steal over you. 

You wake up at dawn and are amazed to find yourself intact. You step outside your tent and that's when it hits you: the smell of pine trees wet with last night's rain, the chirping of unseen birds, the visit of a squirrel or two and sunlight starting to filter through the leaves bring you a  joy that you will never be able to describe to others without sounding pretentious or corny. At this particular junction in time, in this special part of the world: this  is where  you wanted to  be, and here you are now. This is happiness.

You sit on a bench, watching the fog drift up  from the ground like a gauzy curtain. You lie down on your back and look up at the sky, staring at the canopy of fir and pine and wondering at their age and height.

Soon enough, if you allow the forest to speak to you, its stillness becomes your stillness. 

You begin to realize that in order to exist, you don’t really need much: just water, food, a tent, a warm sleeping bag, and maybe a fully charged iPod.

Photos and Sketches: A Woodland Diary

Scarlet gilla
Sunflower and bee

Willie, a very friendly cocker spaniel that its owner was walking.


Impression of deep dark woods

Scarlet gilla