Blog: Japanese Adventure

Met Tour Day 1 & 2 – Journey to Japan

A crane, given to me by the flight attendants - a gift symbolizing good luck.

I can hardly believe it. The Metropolitan Opera tour to Japan is HERE!!!! Today is the day we left for Japan, and I’m not certain that I could be more excited. This morning I leapt out of bed (NOT normal for me) and made sure everything was all set to go. Passport, check. Boheme score, check. Too many clothes, check! A girl has to be prepared, right?

I rode to the airport with my venerable colleague Paul Plishka, and we arrived just as many other Met Tour participants were checking in. 350 of us in all! It was then that I got some very exciting news – I was sitting in FIRST CLASS! With that lovely news came an invitation to the airport lounge where we could relax and pass the time before our flight. This was certainly the way to start what will undoubtedly be a trip of a lifetime.

I should probably also mention that today was special for another reason – it was my 30th birthday. People asked me if I was sad to be spending a benchmark birthday on a plane. To be honest, I was thrilled – it was a 14 hour party! Let me tell you, having a ton of opera singers singing you happy birthday is pretty awesome. Now imagine that at 10,000 feet. Yeah, it was pretty cool :)

Getting settled in first class... Crazy!

As we disembarked, we all went through customs (which was remarkably efficient – thank you Japan!), and there was a small ceremony complete with photographers, television cameras, flowers, and lots of smiling people greeting us. I’m sure we looked like a bunch of zombies wandering around the airport having just gotten off a 14-hour flight, but the Japanese people seemed very excited to see us and were very kind.

We loaded up and drove to Nagoya, our first stop on the tour. As we rolled away, I was taken with the beauty of the countryside.  The rice fields are terraced and picturesque, and even the trees look like they were painted with watercolors. Nagoya is more of an industrial city – lots of buildings and bustling people. Our hotel is in the city center, so we’re within walking distance of the performance hall and plenty of tourist attractions. When we arrived at the hotel, the Japan Arts Corporation, the sponsors of the Metropolitan Opera Tour, presented us a lovely reception – a charming end to a very long day.

Even the plane food it beautifully presented!

So, at this point, the exhaustion set in, and I have come up to my room to finally get some sleep. As I’m writing this, remembering the day, it’s funny what is at the forefront of my mind. It isn’t being nervous about the opera (I love singing  Musetta, and always enjoy it). It isn’t my sky-high birthday celebration. It is the genuine appreciation of the Japanese people that we have decided to come. Our tour group has received letters from the US Embassy in Tokyo, Senator Gillibrand’s Office, the Consulate General of Japan in New York, the Japan Arts Corporation, and the Commissioner of the Japan Tourism Agency. Every one of the letters expressed how important this tour was, especially in the wake of the tragic earthquake and tsunami that struck the northeast coast of Japan in March.

I, for one, am excited and proud to be here, and look forward to exploring Nagoya and Tokyo, its people, and its culture. I hope that our tour brings joy to the Japanese people, and begins to help revitalize the tremendous cultural scene already flourishing in Japan. Yes, tragedies such as the one that occurred in March are scary and unsettling. Perhaps the best way to move forward is to treat it like any fear of an unknown situation – be informed, stay aware, and just jump in.

And so it begins!

Met Tour Day 3 – Hitting the ground running

The view from my room at the beautiful Nagoya Tokyu Hotel.

Somehow I was able to sleep a full night last night, even despite the jet lag. Well, for those of you who know me, it may come as no surprise. Sleeping in has never been difficult for me :) Still, even with my propensity for sleep, I awoke at 6am raring to go. So, looking to make something of the morning, I went to the gym, only to discover nearly the entire company already furiously working out.

Undeterred I went for a jog outside in the streets of Nagoya. I didn’t realize how much like “Frogger” this innocent jog would become. In Nagoya, people are allowed to bike on the sidewalks – very, very fast. They are trying to avoid the diligent people walking to work, briefcase in hand. Add to that the fact that the flow of traffic – and therefore the flow of walkers/bikers/joggers – is like England (you drive on the left side of the street). Add to THAT the jet-lag, and I was certainly a sight to behold, twisting and turning my way through the streets. Happy to reach the beautiful (and commuter-free) park, my morning jaunt turned out to be just the thing to start this day off well.

Sake bottles lining the counter at the restaurant

The cast of La Boheme was scheduled for a full day of rehearsal the first day, so I headed off to the performance space located very close to our hotel. The hall itself is beautiful, equipped with large rehearsal rooms. They have modified the famous Zeffirelli sets to accommodate the slightly smaller stage, skillfully nipping and tucking the scenery to scale it down. The end result is surprisingly close to the sets we use in New York. In my opinion they achieved the goal of bringing the full experience to Nagoya.

By the afternoon session, we were all getting a little punchy, succumbing to the time change. Happy to be released a few minutes early, I was able to catch some friends to cap off the night with a local dinner. We happened upon a wonderful little traditional restaurant near the theater, in the basement of a small shopping center. There was not a table available, so we sat at the counter. I loved this because we were one foot away from the chefs, and were able to watch them prepare all of the meals. The entire menu was in Japanese, and only one person spoke any English. He went out of his way to make us feel welcome by using the Internet to translate words and print out pictures of our meals. Somehow in asking what the “course menu” was, we accidentally ordered the 6-course the tasting menu. I am so glad we did because each course was a delight.

Fully satisfied, and completely exhausted, I am hitting the hay. I don’t think it’s quite hit me that we’re here yet. Perhaps the open dress rehearsal tomorrow will make it seam more real.

Met tour Day 4 – Off to the races

It IS a fun way to enter...

So, apparently not ONLY singers get a little skittish their first time performing with the Met. We had our final dress rehearsal for La Boheme today here in Nagoya. After spending the morning resting, going through the score, and warming up, I headed to the theater for a rehearsal quite a bit earlier – I wanted to meet the horse that was to transport me in for my first entrance. For those that may not know this production, for Musetta’s first entrance, a horse clamors accross the stage hauling a howling Musetta and her date for the evening, old and rich Alcindoro. At the morning rehearsal we ran the entrance without a hitch. The horse seemed to be right on cue and was neither hesitant nor overeager. However, as with most performers, once you get in a big dress rehearsal, the nerves will get to you.

As Musetta in Act II with Mariusz Kwiecen as Marcello

This afternoon’s final dress rehearsal started out very well. People sounded glorious, the sets and costumes looked lush, and the stage movements were going very smoothly. At the beginning of act two literally hundreds of people are on the stage and in the pit. Bright lights, vibrant costumes, children singing – it’s a real spectacle. Alcindoro and I nestled into the carriage to await the entrance. The horse seemed a little skittish as we approached stage left, but quickly quieted down. The music announcing our entrance began, and off we went. Very quickly my laughs became silent as the horse began its entrance. He mis-judged (or got a little too excited) and took out the tables filled with food and drinks where all of the other principles were sitting. Food went flying, water spilled everywhere, and people began quickly retreating into the safety of the café upstage. Aware something was wrong, the horse stopped center stage as the stage crew tried to assess the situation.

He then took off across the rest of the stage, I can only assume to finish his staging for the scene. The second that carriage paused, I hopped off as quickly as possible, my heart beating quite a bit faster than before. Actually, it was beating about the same speed as the night I made my Met debut. In a funny way, I identified with the horse – he just wanted to do his part well…

We took the entrance a second time, and this time everything was perfect. He hit the nail on the head, and the rest of the scene went off without a hitch. These kinds of things are what rehearsals are for, right?

The rest of the opera went very well. In fact, it was quite moving for me. I listened to my colleagues give truly moving performances, and by the end I was in tears. What a beautiful opera… We open on Saturday. Until then, I’ll rest (I’ll need it tomorrow!) and hopefully get out to see some of the sights in Nagoya before we have to leave. Maybe the horse will rest-up and be extra focused on Saturday as well. I certainly hope so!

Met Tour Day 5 – Rain rain go away

Sushi plates!!

Rain. All day. No reprieve. No jogging outside. No nice walks in the park with the sun shining and birds chirping. Perfect day for the theater! So I decided to check out the final dress rehearsal of Don Carlos. Besides, it was my only chance to see it.

Beforehand I had my first experience with sushi here in the city. I went with some friends to a conveyor belt sushi restaurant. They literally have a sushi chef in the middle of the restaurant in the “kitchen” with a conveyor belt around its perimeter running small plates of sushi to the customers lining the counter. Each plate’s cost is designated by its color. At the end of the meal, a waiter waves a magic wand over the stack of plates, and hands you a card. You take that card to the register and pay for your meal. Even the little tea mugs and small cups for soy sauce were on the belt. It was simple and delicious – a great meal for the day.

The one thing I’m a little nervous about is eating too much fish while I’m here, so I’m limiting myself to sushi once a week. So I’m not gonna lie – I ate a lot of it J. Afterwards we walked around the mall area near the theater to check out some shops before the rehearsal began.

Beautiful fruit

The very bottom floor of the shopping center was filled with women’s accessories – hosiery, handkerchiefs, hats, scarves, etc. The floor just above that was a huge market filled with fresh bread, fish, produce, desserts – a real underground market. Having eaten so much sushi I could only bring myself to look, and look I did. We wandered around aisle after aisle of vendors calling out to the customers to sell their wares. There was even a beautiful wine section in the back.

One thing that was very surprising to me was that there were two sections of produce. The first was for the everyday fruits and veggies (still pretty expensive but not prohibitive). The second was for perfect (and I mean perfect) fruit packaged impeccably. Each grape, melon, cherry, and peach was flawless; blemish-free and full of color. These were much more expensive, clearly meant as a special and important gift. I wonder if I’ll dream of perfect grapes floating around tonight…

Met Tour Day 6 – A day seeing the sights

The star of the show

Today was our day off, a much needed rest from rehearsals (and from the rain!). With the weather cooperating, we gathered this morning to see some sights here in Nagoya. We slurped some delicious ramen, and braved the subway to head out to the Nagoya Port to see the famous Aquarium there. I must admit that zoos and aquariums aren’t my favorite things to see – I get caught up thinking about their captivity. But it was a fun day. We saw a fun dolphin show, and ended up at an observatory where views spanned for hundreds of miles.

There were tons of school children there today, enjoying the day off from school and flipping out over the fish. It reminded me of my own field trips growing up. It’s fun to be reminded of the social similarities of people despite their geographic, linguistic, and cultural differences.

Worn out by walking, we wandered back to our hotel. Tomorrow is the opening of Boheme, and I’m going to look through the score and be quiet for the night. Cross fingers

Met tour Day 7 – Oh What a night

We opened La Boheme today, and for me it was a performance to remember.

In the dressing room, right before Act II...

I began the day in the best way possible – with my family. I had breakfast with my parents and visited the beautiful castle here in Nagoya with my mother. After walking around the castle grounds and poking our heads into the Noh Theater,  we came back to the hotel to rest for the performance. I couldn’t sleep, so I perused the score before this afternoon’s big opening. I arrived at the theater feeling good, and began to get excited. Things seemed to be going pretty smoothly backstage. Even the horse seemed energized (but not TOO energized…) for his big moment. Throughout the performance everyone seemed focused and ready to have a good time.

People sang well, and each act compounded on the previous so that in the end I was quite moved. Perhaps the ups and downs of the past week (last minute cast changes, a jet-lagged company, long rehearsals) created a kind of perfect storm. I don’t know what it was – it wasn’t anything in particular – but it was a good day at the opera, a day I will remember for a long time. The people of Nagoya seemed to feel it, and I hope that next week’s performances bring the same kind of happiness to the people of Tokyo. Cross fingers!

John Relyea (Colline), Ed Parks (Schaunard), me, and Piotr Beczala (Rodolfo)

Met tour Day 8 – Work vs. Play

The crowd at the festival

I have to admit, it’s hard to come all the way to Japan and not go completely into tourist mode. There are so many things to see and do here that it’s easy to forget the list of work-related tasks at hand. Today was a good example of that struggle. I sat up wide awake at 6am (I guess the jet-lag isn’t quite over yet) and had a quiet beginning to the day. I glanced at my to-do list and realized that I needed to get cracking.

I met my parents downstairs for some breakfast in the hotel before they went on their merry way. They’re heading to Takayama, Kyoto and Nara before meeting up with us in Tokyo next weekend. This is a well-deserved trip for them, and I’m thrilled that they’ll get to explore so many areas of Japan in their first trip to Asia. After sending them off, I wandered back to my room to begin working on the list.

This was a pretty intense one...

Lunchtime rolled around and I decided I needed some air. That was purely and simply an excuse to get out and see some more of Nagoya before we leave tomorrow. I made my way to Oasis 21 thinking that I wouldn’t feel quite so guilty if I stayed pretty near to the hotel. Also I had spotted a cute little restaurant that I wanted to try. The promenade was packed with people, music was playing, and market stands were up. It was lively and fun – just like an outdoor market anywhere in the world.

I chuckled a bit noticing that I’d come all the way to Japan to see hula dancing from an American state. They were lively, focused, and having a great time, and everyone around me was laughing, clapping, and in a festive mood. I stood for a long time watching the various performances of different groups. Then I slowly meandered around the booths, eyeing the Hawaiian dresses, leis, and flower hair clips. It felt like a lazy day that could have spent entirely at that little festival. However my list began to beckon.

The singer/percussionist for some of the dancers

I got back home and dove into some research on Mozart opera arias and concert arias and how they all relate. I got pretty absorbed in the material and needed to get out to clear my mind a bit. So I decided to take one last jog here in Nagoya, and took a route that took me up and around the Nagoya Castle and back – a beautiful route, and one that took a lot out of me today.

I finished the day off with a traditional sushi dinner with friends at a restaurant where we sat on the floor to eat. I’m not sure I’ll get used to that one… I like chairs. But other than that it was the perfect end to the day.

Tomorrow we take the fast to Tokyo to begin our time there. Hopefully I’ll be a little better about work vs. play while there. Probably not – I’ll be honest; it’s just too tempting to explore the cities. I guess that to-do list will just have to wait until I get back States-side!

Met tour Day 9 – Planes, trains, and automobiles

The view from the train

Today was our travel day to Tokyo. We dropped off our bags in the lobby last night; they would meet us at the hotel. I imagine they didn’t want to deal with 350 people AND their multiple pieces of heavy luggage in planes, trains, and automobiles. Sensible. So we all met in the lobby this morning head to the station to catch our train. As we pulled out of the hotel parking lot, the entire staff of the Nagoya Tokyu Hotel lined up at the entrance and waved to us all. They were very kind throughout our stay, and it was fun to wish them a fond farewell.

We arrived at the train station just in time to hop on our fast train to Tokyo. Again we traveled through the beautiful countryside filled with rice patties framed by distant mountains. Though it looked like a clear day when we began, we couldn’t see Mt. Fuji in the distance. Hopefully I’ll find another opportunity to see it in all its majesty.

The view from my room

We arrived in Tokyo and went directly to the hotel to check in and get settled. My room here is GORGEOUS; a suite, complete with an office/living area, bedroom, and bathroom with separate shower and tub.  Plus my view is the quintessential Tokyo view (in my mind, at least) – modern innovation merged with historic allure.

Today was also the final dress of Lucia, and possibly our only chance to see it. So I hopped on the company bus headed to the theater with the singers and orchestra members. Driving through downtown Tokyo is pretty hairy, and though I was told it was remarkably traffic-free, I don’t think I’ll be doing that again. Plus, I often find that the best way to really get familiar with a city is to tackle its public transportation system.

As I walked through the backstage area to get to the front of the house, I noticed colorful billboards on the walls. They were boards signed by various companies from all over the world who had performed in that theater. It was cool to inspect a few and recognize some names here and there. The rehearsal was really wonderful – Diana Damrau is a rock star in my book, and she really shone today. I can only imagine what new things she will do in the performances. Maybe I’ll be able to slip into one and find out…

The billboards backstage at the Bunka Kaikan Theater

Met tour Day 10 – A foggy day in Tokyo town

not so good...

Today was not such a great day. Today was the day that this whole adventure became a little overwhelming. Outside the weather was foggy, dismal, and overcast. Perhaps the weather cast a cloud over my demeanor today. I guess everyone needs a day where they can just take a real day off – put out of mind that they’re working, forget that they’re in an exotic country, and just be alone by herself or himself. Today was that day for me. I awoke this morning a little down, and didn’t speak to a soul until 4pm this afternoon, a rare occurrence when you’re in a foreign land with 350 people.

The morning was filled with admin things – scheduling, booking flights, etc. Around 1pm I decided to head out to the streets to find some lunch at a good hole-in-the-wall restaurant. Perhaps it was the general pall on the day provided by the gray weather or my bad attitude, but my point-and-shoot menu method was disastrous. I pointed to the picture of a dish that looked delicious. When it arrived I simply couldn’t eat it. I’m sure it’s exactly what I ordered, and probably enjoyed by many of the people here in town, but I just couldn’t do it. Maybe it was my frustration about not being able to articulate exactly what I wanted. I don’t know, but I couldn’t eat it. Instead I paid for the bad meal and went outside to search for another option.

Our valiant, if a bit overwhelmed, sushi chef

I found a local ramen place, and sat down to a steaming bowl of noodles with vegetables and shrimp. Now THIS is what I was looking for. Comfort food. I sat there for an hour or so with my warm, soothing meal, reading my book, and having a good time just hanging out. But when it was time to pay the bill and leave, I felt my heart begin to sink again. Resisting the feeling of loneliness, I put pep in my step and hit the pavement to see something in this new city. But after a few blocks, even that didn’t cheer me up. I guess I just needed to take the day and chill out. I headed home and met up with some friends for a cocktail and a relaxed sushi dinner. That was the trick – just seeing buddies who cheered me up. Oh, and a bit of chocolate, of course :)

So tomorrow is the opening of La Boheme here in Tokyo, and I already feel a little more at home here that I did this morning. I must admit that I’m a little nervous about tomorrow’s performance only because we haven’t seen the hall before. That said, the striking set will be the same, the stellar cast will be the same, and yes, the skittish horse will be the same. Perhaps he’ll have gotten over his nerves by now. If not, we’ll be in for a wild ride!

Met tour Day 11 – Let’s go on with the show!

Masks on the wall of the restaurant

Today I woke up feeling much better than yesterday. Went to the gym and had a great workout before dropping by the opera offices to get some info. I love getting on the treadmill on the day of a performance. It really gets the blood flowing and the mind focused.

I met up with some friends to head to lunch, and they took me to a VERY small (about 5 tables) mom-and-pop shop a little ways away from the hotel. The restaurant itself was worth dropping by to see. The handwritten menu was on hundreds of 4×11 slips of paper on the wall. The space itself couldn’t have been much bigger than my college dorm room. Oh, and the kitchen, now that was a sight to behold. Tucked in the back right corner, I don’t know how 2 people fit in there to cook. It was clearly a 1-bottom kitchen.

The tiny ramen restaurant. The kitchen is just behind the woman at the counter!

Our waitress was joyful and very helpful, even though we clearly didn’t know what we were doing. She did her best with smiles and hand gestures. We used the piecemeal words we had picked up over the past week and somehow got an order together. Then the MOST delicious ramen, jasmine tea, and steaming hot gyoza (dumplings) appeared before me. This was the meal that I’ve been waiting for this whole time. Full of flavor, warm, comforting, clean… everything was right about this ramen.

Full and happy, we wandered over to the Roppongi district to find a kitchen knife store that my friend eyed the day before. These people don’t play when it comes to kitchen utensils. I halfway expected them to do a demonstration by sawing into a cinderblock and then cleanly slicing a tomato. No dice. So we made our way back to the hotel to get ready for the evening’s performance.

I rode over to the hall with John Relyea (Colline), Ed Parks (Shaunard), and Marius Kwiecen (Marcello), and we walked into a zoo-like atmosphere. Everyone (chorus, orchestra, principles, staff) was hanging out in the room just beside the stage. Often we’re kind of sequestered to the dressing room area, so it was great to mingle with everyone. Traveling together as a company, we’ve gotten to know people we may not have spoken to before. Love it!

with Mariusz Kwiecen (Marcello) in Act 4 of La Boheme

Our first show in Tokyo went well. The audience was warm and energetic, clearly excited to be there. I felt pretty good, though I’m not sure that ramen is the perfect show-day meal. But there was one mishap in the evening…. Yup, it was the horse. That bloomin’ horse! First of all, it’s hard to blame him completely. It’s not like he does Act II of La Boheme every day, with children singing, lights blazing, glasses clinking, people shuffling, and an orchestra playing in a pit (which looks like a cliff from the horse’s perspective).

Getting ready for the entrance offstage, he was a little jittery, shuffling around and bucking his head a bit. This was not settling to me or to Paul Plishka (Alcindoro), who sits in the carriage with me. As we made our way to the stage right before the go-signal, he made a couple of false starts. Not settling either. Then we were off. He trotted across the stage very well, taking in his scene. He stopped. I dismounted the carriage and walked left to make way for Paul to get out. He barely made it out before the horse bolted off stage right with the carriage swerving behind him. We went on with the scene, but it was a pretty scary moment. What if he had taken off when Paul was standing up to get out! I’m sure the trainers wouldn’t have let that happen. But that’s the thing with stage performances – you can never tell what animals (or children!) will do.

So, yes, the horse was… fired. His cover (understudy) will step on for the remaining shows. The rest of the performance was beautifully done, and the audience stood at the end. We then stayed for another hour to greet the hundreds of people waiting outside the stage door. They were so enthusiastic, most of them mainly thanking us for coming to Japan at all. That was touching to me. I think that even with the ups and downs of a normal tour experience, we are all very happy to be here. I certainly am!

Met tour Day 12 and 13 – Peaceful Parks and Delectable Delights

Today began with a pretty tough practice session. Even though I’m in an amazing city, at the end of the day work still needs to be done. It was a pretty grueling time on a new concert aria that is filled with tough chromatics and long vocal lines. I broke it down into short phrases to repeat over and over again to try to integrate it in my body. It was definitely a session that would not please the neighbors, so I was happy to get out and get some air in the afternoon.

A gate to enter the grounds of the Imperial Palace

I decided to just wander without a set plan, and see where my feet took me. I ended up at the handsome gardens at the Imperial Palace. On this beautiful day, I strangely felt right at home. The serene park nestled in the center of the bustling downtown reminded me of being in Central Park in NYC. People were jogging, tourists were snapping photos, and commuters were hustling to and from their jobs amongst the immaculately manicured lawns and pruned trees. I stayed as long as I could, taking in its beauty, before I had to hustle home to change for dinner.

My parents arrived this afternoon from short trip to Takagawa, Kyoto, and Hiroshima, and they treated me to a birthday dinner at Joël Robuchon’s restaurant here in town; truly a night to remember. Course after course was presented with flair, and the French cuisine was delectable. We chatted well over four hours, enjoying each morsel of conversation and each drop of wine. I haven’t had a meal experience like that in a long time, and I was very happy to be able to sit down and hear all about my parents’ travels. Needless to say, sleep came easy last night, and I was grateful for that.

This morning I awoke raring to take another crack at this Mozart concert aria that I’ve been learning. I took a coaching and really made some headway, which put a smile on my face for the whole day. There’s nothing like falling in love with a piece of music… There was one moment where the hairs stood up on my arm just hearing the harmonies. Good times :)

Vibrant flowers in Hibiya Park

This afternoon my friend and I decided to seek out some lunch and ended up in the Hibiya Park. We saw vibrant flowers, beautiful fountains, and lots of relaxed people sitting and socializing. We came across a restaurant in the middle of the park that served tea. So, overlooking the Ginza trees, we shared a high tea service and chatted and laughed the afternoon away.

Inspired by my practice session this morning, I’ve been in my scores all night, on the computer researching, and listening to music all night. I love exploring all kinds of music, but somehow coming back to Mozart always makes me smile.

One topic of discussion amongst everyone today was the wonderful piece produced by CNN about the tour. I found it to be very touching. I’m slowly beginning to realize that I utterly underestimated the impact of this trip, both on myself, on the people on tour, and on the Japanese people. I’m not sure I’ll really discern its effect for a long time.  What I have deciphered is that each performance is bringing them joy and renewal. Hopefully that will translate again at tomorrow’s show.

Met tour Day 14 – Get me to the hall on time

The poster for the Met Tour

So, remember that time that I thought today’s matinee show was an evening show? Yeah, that happened. It was 12:30pm, and I was calmly sitting at my computer drinking a cup of coffee. Thinking that the show was at 7pm, I was allowed some extra coffee time. All of a sudden a sinking feeling crept over me. I grabbed the tour book, and lo and behold it was a 3pm show – which meant that I needed to leave in the 1pm car – which meant that I had to leave my room at 12:50pm, dressed for a cocktail party. I had 20 minutes. For all you men out there, this would be an easy task for you. For us ladies it is a very different story.  I zoomed through my hotel room, swiftly packed bags, stepped into high heels, and grabbed my score before bolting out the door. That’s not the way I planned to start the day, but it certainly got my blood moving!

The show was very good today. It was Piotr Beczala’s last performance in La Boheme, as Marcello Alvarez will come in to sing Rodolfo for the last two performances. This is a show that I love to sing, to listen to, and to watch. Most of the time when I’m not on stage, I’m on the side of the stage listening and watching. I just get wrapped up in the touching story, and hum along.

After the performance, we attended a reception given by the KDDI group, our major sponsors for the tour. It was a beautiful presentation, and we met many people and took lots of pictures. By the end of the evening I wished that I had brought lower heels. Heading home, pretty tired by this point, some friends and I enjoyed some wine, cards, and conversation: A great end to a great day.

Met tour Day 15 – Tour of Tokyo

Today was a beautiful day, and because my parents were here, and I had the day off, we decided to take a bus tour to check out Tokyo. So, after a long and relaxed morning brunch we hopped on the Gray Line tour to see the city. Our guide, SilkySan, was very nice and enthusiastic to tell us all about the different sites.

The Hama-Rikyu Garden

Our first stop was the Hama-Rikyu Garden, arguably the loveliest garden in Tokyo. It was a private green space used by the Shogun and his family to entertain foreign dignitaries as well as important national figures. However it became public, and is a popular spot for couples to take engagement and wedding photos. We loved wandering along the paths. It’s hard to believe this is in the middle of the city. It feels a lot like Central Park in that regard.

Next we took a 45 minute water taxi and passed by the famous Tsukiji Fish Market on our way to Asakusa. As we de-boarded the water taxi, we were greeted by a ninja who performed for us on the waterfront. It was pretty fun, especially when he later reappeared, this time dressed as a samurai.

I found a few gifts and things walking around the markets in Asakusa, and then we re-boarded the bus to ride through two other fun parts of town, Kappabashi (where you can find restaurant supplies and wax food samples) and finally Ueno and Akihabara (the electronics capitol of the world). By this time we decided to do our own thing, so we did a little shopping before heading back to the hotel.

We found the AMAZING Maison du Chocolat, and picked up a box for a friend. I had to resist the temptation to get lots of boxes to take home! My parents and I walked back to the hotel as the sun set, and hung out for the rest of the evening. It was their last night, and I loved getting to spend so much time with them. They leave tomorrow, and from what I can tell they loved touring Japan and seeing all of the sites. I’m sure a photograph viewing is in order back in Alabama!

Met tour Day 16 – PLAY BALL!

A day at the field

Today was my favorite day of the entire tour.  Today was the much-anticipated softball game between the Met Stage Crew and the Japanese Stage Crew. They’ve been playing every time the tour comes to Japan, and it’s a big rivalry. I haven’t played softball since my high school days in Alabama. But somehow I convinced them to let me play, and so I hopped on the bus with a bunch of the crew, a couple of dancers, and two other singers to play some ball.

We drove an hour and a half to the Seibu Dome, where the Saitama Seibu Lions play. The Japanese crew provided gloves and bats, and we all had t-shirts as our jerseys; red for Japan and blue for the Met. The game was exciting, light-hearted, spirited, and full of joy. Even some little boys got to join their dads on the field. I got to play Short Center and 1st Base, and we played about 7 innings. I am certainly no softball star, but I did get one hit. When the umpire tallied the score…. WE WON, 9-6!!!!!!

But today wasn’t about winning or losing. Not in the least. This was the only day off for the Japanese crew guys, and they chose to spend it with us, playing a game that is huge in both of our countries. Many men on the Met crew have known men on their crew for 25-30 years, seeing their children grow from tour to tour. On this particular tour, these crews have been working side by side for 4 weeks, so for them it was a great way to let loose and just have a good time.

For me it was a great chance to get to know some of the people that I see around the halls of the Met, but have never had the chance to talk to. And let me tell you, they are hilarious! I spent most of the day just listening to their one-liners and chatting with them. Electricians, stagehands, stage managers, props masters… you name it, they were there. All in all, it was just a great day.

When we got back to the hotel, we changed clothes and went out for a Japanese meal with the Japanese crew to celebrate. At the dinner, our Master Carpenter, Steve Diaz, made a simply heartfelt toast, praising the Japanese crew for their hospitality and for their great work ethic. We laughed and chatted long in to the evening just enjoying the company.

Today was a day I’ll remember for a very long time. It was a day when nothing mattered but a full day off for everyone, excellent company, and a love for baseball. It was a good day :)

After the game!

Met tour Day 17 – A day in Kyoto

With the Japanese middle schoolers

So, in the very beginning, when I asked friends in America for recommendations of things to do in Japan, everyone agreed on at least one thing: do not miss Kyoto. So, it went to the top of the list for places that I wanted to see while I was on this side of the world. A place with great history, beauty, and culture, I simply couldn’t go home without seeing it.

Also, one of my best friends is from that area and her parents still live there. When I told her that I would love to meet them for tea or lunch, she contacted them. Instead of a brief meeting, they met me at the train station in the morning, gave me a grand tour all day, and dropped me off at the train station that night! There is nothing like seeing a city through the eyes of a local, and they were unbelievably kind and generous.

I took the 7:20am train this morning from Tokyo Station to Kyoto. Though it was a 2-½ hour ride, I loved every minute. I read all about Kyoto to be as informed as I could be, and loved watching the countryside change. I was a little nervous that I wouldn’t recognize them, but I shouldn’t have been – my friend looks JUST like her mother! They greeted me with open arms, smiles, and immediately began chatting about the trip.  They had prepared an itinerary that would introduce me to many of the beautiful places and traditions in Kyoto.

The Golden Pavilion

We began the day at Nijo-jo Castle. Where else COULD we begin? It had singing floors! The residence of the first Shogun of the Edo period, it was a series of rooms with stunning screen and wall paintings. We slowly walked through the public and private quarters, and the thing that struck me was the lack of interior light. There were no windows in the inner rooms, no skylights. But the walls were mobile, and their light came by sliding the screens back to reveal immaculate gardens. As we began to walk towards the car, I noticed a group of school children who eying me nervously. After much giggling and shifting of eyes, one boy took a big breath and walked towards me carrying a small notebook. His voice quivering, his eyes glued to his notebook, he got out the phrase “I am practicing speaking English. Would you mind if I asked you a few questions?” Of course I happily replied that I would. Realizing that I wouldn’t bite them, they all rushed over and each asked me a prepared question. They were adorable!

We then traveled to Kinkaku-ji, or the Temple of the Golden Pavilion. A World Heritage Site (there are 17 in Kyoto alone!) it certainly merited that title. Covered in gold leaf, the pavilion shines over the mirror-pond where it sits. Its beauty is quiet and absorbing. I could have spent the whole day in this one spot taking pictures and just taking in the peace.  However, we had to stick to the set itinerary if we had any hope of seeing other points in Kyoto.

We then traveled to Nanzen-ji, the grave of my friend’s family. They visit this place 6 to 7 times a year to pay their respects and pray. Meticulously maintained, we went to the entrance, rang the bell, and visited the tombstone. It was not sad at all. In fact it was very uplifting. As we were there, we saw several people coming and going. It seemed to be a place of life continuing. We climbed the steep stairs of the main gate to see an expansive view of the city and mountains.

The lovely garden view at our incredible lunch

By this time we were all pretty hungry, and my friends had made reservations for a Kaiseki lunch. For those who may not know, Kaiseki is a multi-course meal that is as much about the presentation of the food as it is about its preparation. Taking off our shoes as we entered the restaurant, the kimono-clad hostess led us to our private room overlooking the central garden. We dined on delectable delights, most of which I couldn’t identify but were delicious. To finish the experience, we took a turn in the immaculate central garden.

We donned our shoes and headed for Sanjusagen-do, the Temple with 1001 Buddhas. This was a sight to behold. 1000 statues of Buddha, each with unique features and each with 40 arms, flanked an enormous central Buddha. I am not Buddhist, but there was something truly mystical about this place. In fact there was something magical about this whole city. It seems like a world so far from my own.

We then visited another World Heritage Site, Kiyomizu-dera, the temple with a balcony that slopes out into the expanse, supported by wooden beams pieced together without any nails. It was here that I just had to ask my friends whether children were ever in school here! At each place we visited, there were flocks of uniformed school children touring the historic sites. We must have seen three thousand children on various field trips laughing, taking pictures, and cliquing up.

The Geisha and Maiko

As the sun began to set, we wandered around historic streets, Sannei-zaka, Ninen-zaka, and Nino-zaka seeing tiny shops and tea houses. We ended in the Gion district, a place with famous Kabuki theaters and nightlife. Even today it is possible to briefly see a geisha or a maiko (an apprentice geisha) walking quickly between appointments in teahouses, though it’s an experience so rare, I liken to seeing a unicorn. There are now believed to be only between 50 and 100 geishas in Kyoto, and they are hardly ever outdoors. However, as we walked down a street in Gion, we noticed a geisha speaking briefly with a maiko. After about 15 seconds, she began to run down a side street and ducked into a small doorway in an alley. Not a person around me took a breath until she disappeared. Maybe it was her white makeup, maybe it was her beautiful kimono, but there was an aura around her. It was extraordinary. It’s a sight I won’t soon forget.

After a light sushi dinner at the train station, my friends walked me to the train platform and waved goodbye as my 9pm train left the station. I had never met these people in my life, however they embraced me from the start. Joyful and eager to show me their hometown, they gave me quite the experience today. I will always remember their generosity and kindness today, making me feel like one of the family. And I cannot imagine forgetting the magnificence and the mystique of Kyoto.

Majestic Kyoto

Met tour Day 18 – Back to reality

Marcello Alvarez

Still recovering from yesterday’s activities, I awoke today smiling. Yesterday’s excursion to Kyoto was incredible, and most of the morning I spent reading further about the places I saw, and going through the hundreds of pictures I took. Each one seemed to capture something distinctive.

However I couldn’t get lost in my thoughts for too long. Today we welcomed Marcello Alvarez into our cast of La Boheme. Piotr Beczala will finish the tour as scheduled with two performances Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor, so Mr. Alvarez flew in yesterday to sing the final two performances.

Walking down the hall towards the rehearsal room, I realized that this would be a relaxed affair. Spurts of laughter mixed with chatter and lyrical singing welcomed me to rehearsal today. It would be a short-and-sweet afternoon run of the show. Joyful, kind, and prepared for his role, Mr. Alvarez fit right in to our motley crew of a cast. We sang through the acts, made sure Marcello felt comfortable, and then headed back to the hotel.

Tonight I decided to have a quiet night to myself. Most of the company was at the performance Don Carlo anyway, so not many people were around. I went out for a while, read the paper, got some coffee, and then nestled in my room for a calm night in. I decided to order in room service for dinner, and spent most of the evening watching a movie and relaxing. My tour guides wore me out yesterday!

Met tour Day 19 – Getting back into the swing of things

A flower that made me smile.

Today was a day of getting back into the swing of things… with a couple of treats sprinkled on top. This morning was full of quiet study at home, reading through the score of La Boheme, and doing some administrative work on the computer. Afterwards I hit the gym for a good and long and much needed jog on the treadmill. Though my day in Kyoto was full of walking and climbing stairs, 5 days off between shows allows focus to stray.

So today I gathered that focus, and prepared for tomorrow’s performance. This afternoon I treated myself to a spa experience here in Tokyo. Somewhere between the hot tub and the cucumber facial I relaxed and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. By the end of the afternoon I was putty in the hands of the masseuse.

Afterwards I wandered about in the district of Roppongi, ducking my head into little shops. It’s quite a lively area in town, very European-esque, and so seemingly more accessible to me. Having made plans for dinner already I resisted the temptation to try one of the many enticing restaurants, and made my way back to the subway stop in my zen/spa state.

Different kinds of Sake

This afternoon’s spa treat complete, this evening I met my friend for a Japanese dinner near the hotel. I’ve never been a fan of sake (Ok, I admit that I’ve only tried it once, and didn’t take to it), but tonight my mind changed. Sake is very much like wine in its variety of flavors. We tried 3 different kinds, and each was quite distinctive. I think a sake-tasting might be in order very soon, however with the show tomorrow I needed to turn in early.

I will say that today I didn’t have any urge to go home. I felt quite happy here, and am very content on this tour. I’m glad to have the opportunity to be here for more than just a few days to be able to really experience a variety of aspects of this culture. That said, 5 days was enough time off. It’s time to get back to work!

Met tour Day 20 – Back to Boheme

Fabric from the Blue and White Store - a Quilter's dream!

Today I decided to kick off a weekend of shopping with a journey back to Roppongi Hills. While there yesterday I noticed tons of little shops and alleyways, which made me want to go explore a bit. A friend and I hopped on the subway to the district, and began to wander. One store we found was a paper store, where we spent a lot of time. The Japanese people are incredible gift wrappers. The care they take in each detail makes the presentation of the offering almost as important as the gift itself. We thumbed through papers, stickers, ribbons, pens, cards… and with the amount of cards I write, I found more than a few that suited my needs.

Then we made our way to the Blue and White Store, a tiny boutique fabric store. It was here that I finally discovered the name of my favorite Japanese character. I’d seen her face, her chubby cheeks and laughing eyes all around town, and was enchanted. Apparently the owner of the Blue and White Store was as well. So much so that she wrote a book about her!

Otafuku, also known as Okame...

Otafuku or Okame, as she is sometimes called, is “the amusing goddess of good humor and down-to-earth goodness”, according to Amy Katoh. Her visage is everywhere, reminding people to keep good smiling throughout life – a motto that is big in my own life. I immediately feel joy whenever I see her face, so I was very happy with her image spotted throughout the Blue and White store.

After some successful shopping, I headed to the theater for our next to last performance of La Boheme. It was our first performance with Marcello Alvarez, and he was in fine form. My mind was a little wayward backstage, but it felt vivacious and focused onstage. Overall, I think it was one of our best performances. Afterwards we met to sign autographs for the audience for about an hour, as we have after every performance. Hundreds of people came through to say hello and shake our hands. It was a joy to meet them all. I can’t believe there’s only one performance of La Boheme left…

Met tour Day 21 – Shop-a-palooza

With this as the last drizzly day with free time for me before we leave, I decided to put it to good use…. Shopping! So after some brunch with friends, we headed over to the famous Oriental Bazaar, a store with many different kinds of items, all of different quality. They were stocked with magnets and t-shirts as well as elaborate and impressive silk kimonos and vintage wood-block prints. I leafed through hundreds of the prints, taken by their intricacy. I found a couple that caught my eye, and then moved on to other parts of the store.

The La Boheme Cafe - we couldn't resist!

One item that was on my list was a yukata, a long cotton casual kimono, or robe. I always travel with my own robe because it is a way to feel more at home when on the road. Also, I’ll often take it to the opera house to wear before the show while the wig and makeup team are working so as to not dirty the opera costumes. So, I thought I’d keep an eye out for one today, and I found a beautiful blue one with flowers. Check that off the list!

I then said goodbye to my friends and found my way to a huge shopping complex with stores from all over the world: 6 stories of shops ranging from cafes, to clothing stores, to electronics, to Harry Winston Jewelers. I didn’t find anything here to purchase, but I had a great time looking in all of the windows.

By this time it was really raining, so I gathered my bags and headed to the subway station to go back to the hotel. I must say, with all of the hype surrounding the crowding in the Tokyo metro, I have found it to be an excellent system to use. Despite the ludicrous map (it’s complexity makes my head want to explode), it’s surprisingly easy to navigate, inexpensive, very clean, and the people are quite respectful, as always. Now, I have deliberately shied away from the legendary crowds at the Shibuya station – I’m not a huge fan of being stuck amidst throngs of people, so I decided to just stay away. But from what I hear it’s quite the sight: Times Square times 10! Not for me…

With the rain coming down, I made it back to the hotel, a bit damp-haired but quite happy, and went for a long session at the gym. There’s nothing like a good workout to bring you back to center. Tonight I went for a quiet bite to eat with a few friends and am turning in early to get some rest before our last show tomorrow night. I can hardly believe this tour is beginning to wind down. I have such mixed feelings about it. Yes, I am homesick and would do just about anything for a properly cooked omelet right about now, but I am beginning to find my stride here…

The Tokyo Metro Map. Yeah, I'm not kidding.

Met tour Day 22 – And the final curtain comes down

Tokyo at night

It was our last day here, and I was filled with mixed emotions. I went for a swim at the hotel pool to clear my mind. I’m always a little uneasy when packing to go somewhere. I love the order, the clarity it brings, but sometimes that’s a little hard to face. Today that was certainly the case. I put on some music and took my time folding my clothes, carefully packed the gifts I found, and somehow got my bags zipped before leaving for the theater that afternoon.

Several members of the cast took a car together to the theater. When we arrived, like every performance previous, there were people outside of the stage door to greet us, take pictures, and asking for autographs. After a bit we went inside to get ready for that night’s performance. The mood backstage was somewhat electric. Everyone was energetic – with feelings of happiness, sadness, relief… you name it. The performance itself was our best yet, full of new moments and nuances. This was a stellar cast, and I stood on the side of the stage for most of the evening to solidify my memories of this Boheme experience.

Then came the moment I will never forget. We finished the show, each cast member on the post-show high. We began the curtain call as usual – full-cast bow, individual bows, then another full-cast bow. The Japanese audience was vibrant, vocal, and joyful. Just after our second round of bows, the grand curtain rose behind us to reveal our entire company – orchestra, other principles, covers, stage crew, makeup crew, costumers – all standing beneath a large sign saying Sayonara to Japan.

The cheers from the audience were hair-raising. They brought the house lights up so we could see the audience, and they were on their feet. They made their way to the front of the auditorium waving, clapping, and cheering. This moment solidified my thoughts about this trip – it was an important international gesture, a meaningful musical event, and a cherished moment in my life.

A Noh theater mask

We all waved goodbye for several minutes, absorbing the feeling, and then went to gather our things as the stage crew began to strike the set. Back at the hotel, the company celebrated into the early hours of the morning, relaxing after a vigorous tour, and trying to get a leg up on jet lag back home. We took an early morning bus to the airport and are headed home now.

What an experience. Often in performing a concert or an opera with a company, you rarely get the opportunity to spend time and really get to know people in other departments. People whose faces I recognized in the hallway at the Met are happily now friends from the chorus, orchestra, and crew. I am grateful to the Japanese people for receiving us with enthusiasm, and I’m grateful to the Metropolitan Opera for giving me the opportunity to have this incredible experience.

When it’s time to say goodbye, it’s important to focus on the joy brought, the lessons learned, and gratitude for the opportunity. When it’s over, it’s over, and you must look forward to the next moment, knowing you’ll most likely see these people again very soon. However I will carry this time in Japan with me in my heart. What a trip!

Sayonara

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One Comment

  1. You are Okame – the svelte version! Delightful account of an important tour.

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