Sunday, 7 February 2016

Centre Pompidou Metz. A good place to learn something.

I fear Metz may be a little short on things to do when I'm not holed up in a rehearsal studio but it does have its own Centre Pompidou. Independent of its Parisian sister and considerably smaller it nonetheless has a good range of exhibitions, films, theatre performances and the like. I paid €10 to see two exhibitions and an installation, but, had I waited a week, I could have added a film and another exhibition for a paltry two extra euros.

The main exhibit was a collection of super-sized artworks on loan from the Paris centre, some of which were part of the International Exhibition of 1937. Now, if there was one element I'd prize above all others from this afternoon's ambulations, it would be the twenty-minute film of that event. I'd heard about the exhibition but had never taken any interest in it. Today, seeing the sheer scale of it I was gobsmacked. If your knowledge of it is as sketchy as mine is, spend some time researching it, it's utterly unbelievable. Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union won médailles d'or for their pavilions:

Albert Speer, unsurprisingly, was responsible for the edifice on the left, Boris Iofan for the one on the right. Here's a bit of Soviet propaganda to go with it:

Here's a short film worth watching:

It's part of the footage I saw this afternoon, filmed by the…PCF, the French Communist Party! They still have a fabulously gallo-soviet head office:

Rather funny that the PCF is moribund. You could probably get all its members into one of the restrooms, these days.

Anyhow, back to the Centre Pompidou. There were Picassos (Picassi?), Miròs and Kandinskys, an excellent exhibit on telepathy in art and a rather moving installation by Tadashi Kawamata, reconstructing a fish's eye view of the tons of driftwood caused by the Japanese tsunami of 2011. Here's a picture to give you some kind of idea:

The installation was in the form of a 100 yard-long wave, over your head and consisted of bits of scrap wood nailed together, suspended from the ceiling. Extraordinarily simple, but devastatingly effective.

I need to find an art house cinema. I like this culture vulture existence.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Metz, one of those Franco-German tennis balls of recent history.

I don't know whether any of you know Metz (mainly because I don't know any of you, but that's by the by), but it's a city of around 120,000 inhabitants, sitting on the Moselle river in the Lorraine region of France, just south of Luxembourg. It was founded around 1000 years BC and has had a pretty riotous history, amongst other things being confiscated by Romans in the Middle Ages and, more famously, playing the role of the ball in a tennis match started in 1871 between Henri Leconte and Boris Becker.

So why did everyone want Metz? Commerce? Its strategic location? Maybe. It certainly wasn't for the weather. It's rained every day since I arrived here a week ago to do a production of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Today is sunny, but it's the only dry day forecast until February 16th, and that's iffy, apparently, with the probability of rain a mere 30%, as opposed to the 150% it's been so far.

Arriving in Metz, I was struck by how German the place looked. The architecture of and around the railway station is resolutely Wilhelminian: no-nonsense, spiked helmet monoliths to eternity. Built in the early 1900's, it's called the Imperial Quarter, quartier impérial or Kaiserviertel It was like arriving in Koblenz back in 1987 for my first full-time job. Even the shop names were German: Roediger, Knieff etc. The first couple of days were like one of those strange dreams you have: you're in a country, but everyone's speaking a foreign language. I felt I was in Germany, but everyone was speaking French.

The true centre is much more recognisably French. In the second half of the 18th century, Maréchal Belle-Isle commissioned the architect Jacques-François Blondel to create a centre around the cathedral, and he came up with the Place d'armes:

and the place de la Comédie, where my opera house is situated:

That's it on the left. All very pretty, I'm sure you'll agree. Needless to say, none of these photos were taken by me this last week. The square outside the theatre is currently bereft of gardens, yet the excellent restaurant next door, El Theatris, drags a few tables out in the infrequent moments when Noah isn't sailing by.

In truth, the centre is really beautiful, apparently. I say that because, thanks to the euro-permadrizzle we're all stoically enduring, it's practically impossible to see any buildings. I did visit the cathedral this afternoon after rehearsal, and it's pretty damned impressive:

That's the view we get from the stage door when we leave the building. As it's always pitch black when we finish, we see the local Jaumont stone of God's Lantern (its nickname) illuminated:

…and  very impressive it is, too. I then slither over to by bike in the rain and get back to my flat fifteen minutes later, saturated.

Metz also has a branch of the Centre Pompidou, funnily enough. I'm going there tomorrow as it's not only our free day, but rain is also forecast. A solo indoor pursuit is therefore preferable and visiting an arts complex beats the other option.

Metz also has a decent library and media centre. They let me join after running my passport past Interpol (or Europol or whatever they're called this week) and shot to the top of my list of fave places when they proved to have not only the recording of Béatrice et Bénédict I was looking for, but also the entire opus of Benoît Duteutre, my favourite contemporary French author. Armed with enough words and music to stave off the hardiest of inclemencies I cycled back to the flat in the fading sun. The bike I rented from the council already has a broken brake cable. In true gallo-soviet fashion, I won't be able to get this fixed until Monday afternoon; heaven forefend you should provide tourist services at the weekend.

I hope there'll be a bit more light during the day these next few weeks, or that they at least floodlight some of the more picturesque buildings during office hours. Coming from Toulouse, where we live on top of a hill with a view of the Pyrenees, living in half-light is somewhat depressing. I can understand why so many Swedes top themselves in winter. Anyhow, despite the work at the opera being immensely enjoyable, the midsummer night is likely to remain a dream until it's time to head back down south in a month's time…

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Christian Hirsch, Bayreuth.

My dear friend Christian Hirsch is dead. I met him in 2007 when I first stayed in the house I rented every summer until this year in Bayreuth. He was our neighbour. Born in 1922, he was a goldmine of information about the Nazi period that he experienced as a teenager, his membership of the Hitler Youth - We had to join, it would have been dangerous if we hadn't - and the Second World War, that he entered in 1940, aged 18. He spent a few years in Russia before being posted to France. A tailor, haberdasher, gentlemens' outfitter - call it what you will - Christian was a lifelong pacifist, devoted to his namesake faith and an enthusiastic Gideon. I still have the Bible he gave me. I particularly remember him running up the steps to our house - he was 86 at the time - imploring my help to pick up his other neighbour who had fallen over and who was too weak to get up on his own. He'd already tried, but needed another pair of arms.

Christian would pop round with a pot of honey from his bees, a punnet of strawberries or anything else seasonal he picked up. He never stopped thinking about other people and loved to speak the little French he knew to the Fingernails. His father had built the house where he lived. It's semi-detached, the neighbouring house having been built by one of Siegfried Wagner's boyfriends so he could be near the theatre and the object of his affections. It is now the property of a wonderful family who seem to have taken great care of him over the last few years.

These last two summers, I saw much less of Christian. Age was catching up with him, despite strong family genes. His father had lived to the age of 99 and his GP had not been tender to the son concerning his lack of progeny: With genes like those of your family, and you have no children? Why, it's almost morally reckless! After asking the gardener and his niece when a good time would be to see him, I was told to ring around noon, pretty much any day. The following day, I did. His wife told me he'd be out in a few minutes and that I was to wait in the gazebo. It was a wonderfully sunny day. Five minutes later, Christian came out of the front door and started singing an old German summer camp song at the top of his voice. 'Do you know it?', he asked? 'No'. He then gave me the entire history of the song before we sat and chatted about World War II and what had happened since. He was eager to see Mrs. F and the Fingernails, whose chatter and singing he loved to listen to as it wafted over from our garden.

Living where he did, he was well-placed to comment on an important slice of German history. Just behind the Festspielhaus, he remembers hearing the Sieg Heils raised in honour of the Führer's speeches from the terrace of the Königsloge (pictures a-plenty on Google…), greeting Furtwängler, and, a few years later, Harry Kupfer, as they passed in front of the house on their way to work (Furtwängler rented a flat in Dalandweg, just off Isoldenstrasse where I lived; Kupfer a couple of doors down from me). Isoldenstrasse runs into Christian's 'street' via a footpath; it's traffic-free, pollution-free and as near to urban paradise as you can get: at the end of the path, you can either turn left and go straight to the Festspielhaus, right to go to the Sankt Georgen Forest or straight on into meadows. Christian knew how fortunate he was to live in Bayreuth and loved his home town till his dying day.

I probably won't be going back to Bayreuth ever again, but it's not seeing Herrn Hirsch that touches me more.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Back in Santiago, being terribly cultured, you know.

For those of you passing through, hoping to catch a spicy pic of Deauxma's twin peaks, let me apologise now. I'm back in Santiago de Chile, now seemingly a biennial trip to the southern hemisphere and will regale you with nothing more than a list of all the things I've had time to do here which I rarely have time for back home. I flew out the day after the Germanwings Airbus A-320 was used as a rather selfish personal statement by the co-pilot, I won't dignify him by naming him, suffice to say one of my colleagues was on the plane…

So, besides coaching Rusalka, Il Turco in Italia, I Due Foscari, The Rake's Progress, Madame Butterfly, Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci I've managed to visit the abandoned mining town of Sewell, take a trip back to Los Dominicos and have seen the following events:

(This last one is called Hijos de…and is on at Teatro del Puente).

As for the the Japanese films, I had to overcome the reluctance to see something in Japanese with Spanish subtitles, but I'm glad I did. They were both superb, especially Like Father, like son. As for Joven y Bella (Jeune et Jolie), it was utter shit. Typical François Ozon: irrelevant, pointless, incoherent. And those are just the compliments. If you want good navel-gazing, watch Avant l'hiver (Antes del invierno frio). It's really well done. I honestly don't know what planet Ozon lives on if he thinks his work has something to say. He lacks the most basic screenwriting and character development skills. I just don't know what all the fuss is about. As for Ida, I'd never have guessed that a black-and-white Polish film about an unknowing Jewish nun in the 1960's would be so gripping. Just goes to show…See it if you can.

If I get to squeeze anything else into my stay, here, I'll add it. What I love about Santiago is how many independent cinemas and theatres there are, even though there is - in my very humble opinion - a slightly negative aspect to this:  the alternative performing arts scene is resolutely left-wing and it's almost like the period 1973 - 1991 has been airbrushed out of the collective memory. For those of us fascinated by the country and wishing to form a balanced view of, at least, the twentieth century, it's not easy to get access to any objective reports of what happened between Salvador Allende and Patricio Aylwin. I can understand it, particularly as so many neighbouring countries had military dictatorships at the same time, but it makes objective research tricky. Here's an example: right next door to my digs is a large cultural centre named after Gabriela Mistral. It was built by Allende as an arts centre and subssequently appropriated by the junta as their centre of operations and renamed Edificio Diego Portales. I'm sure the name was no accident. Diego Portales was a controversial statesman in the 19th Century, an unashamedly right-wing entrepreneur and politician and murdered at age 43. A university in the city still bears his name. Anyhow, the building was renamed after Pinochet's ousting and hosts an excellent bookshop containing, as one might expect, a very comprehensive history and politics section. Could I find ONE book on the Pinochet period? Could I hell. The only one they carry is one about his love of literature, and that's just been published. I bought it. I find this extraordinary. It's almost as if he's considered a footnote in Chilean history - like many a former president - and not the extraordinary figure he actually was - seizing power illegally with the help of the CIA, running a torturous dictatorship while bringing economic prosperity to the country and subsequently losing power democratically eighteen years later. You couldn't make that kind of scenario up. Presumably that's why he's so downplayed. It's odd.

That's enough, particularly as I'm not posting any flesh. Well, maybe just a hint:

Did you know that Pinochet dressed his Carabineros in the dark green of Honecker's East German police? I see some of these babes on the way to work every morning. Interestingly, it's a detail post-Pinochet presidents have left unchanged…