Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Malaysia - Heading Home

So, I’m sitting on a plane somewhere over Hungary on my way back from the Malaysia experience. How did it all go? Did I learn much? Was it worth taking opera to a country with very little interest in it?

Theatre isn’t a particularly prominent art form in Malaysia, and opera is hardly ever performed there. Shopping malls seem to be more of a development priority for the government than building a thriving arts community and scene. As an experimental tour, sounding out the scene, I think the Merry Opera and Gardner and Wife collaborated fantastically well to get the whole thing to happen and to take La Traviata to the people of Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Ipoh. I think people like our promoters are doing a great job trying to increase awareness of our western art forms in the East.

Audience figures, at between a third and half full must have been disappointing though, on a financial level, especially as the shows were well promoted. What WAS really positive however was the eclectic mix of people at the shows, from muslim Malay, to Chinese, to British and Antipodean expats. Many of them were experiencing opera for the first time, so even though the audience figures weren’t great, we were planting seeds for more opera in Malaysia in the future.

One can’t help wondering if a collaborative Carmen or Madam Butterfly (with local musical groups or choirs, and the Philharmonic orchestra) would be rather a big event in the future if someone chanced on it.

For us as performers, well, it was a marvellous tour. To be in a tropical country like Malaysia for three weeks, as autumn turned to winter in the UK was great. Like a combination holiday/tour/hang out with mates/foodie extravaganza. Oh yes! Some of the street food in Malaysia is quite exquisite. And there are a plethora of scrumptious Dim Sum to try as well.

Being on tour is always a mixed bag. You live in a hotel room, have breakfast together most mornings, then go off and do stuff like sightseeing on your own or in little groups, before convening at the theatre again in the evening and spending a lot of time in the backstage area together before and during the show (we all shared one large dressing room). So there are times when the camaraderie and fun is brilliant, contagious. And there are times when you just want to get away and have some peace.

Luckily, as a large portion of the tour was spent in KL, where we were resident at the lovely Boulevard Hotel with our own rooms, privacy was easy to find when we needed it. And if you felt like a drink after the show, there would always be a few people sitting outside in the pool/bar area enjoying a late night tipple.

I often wonder what it’s like for big rock bands who spend one or sometimes two years on the road non-stop though. I can see how it would begin to get trying after a long time, and why band members often come of tour numb and exhausted. It is a somewhat surreal existence, and you need to find ways to earth yourself, whether it is working out, yoga, going for a massage or finding a nice park to reconnect with nature.

Experience wise this will leave its footprint with some great memories. I got to sing in a country that few of my colleagues will ever get to sing in, and to sing the Germont/Violetta scene with two such talented sopranos as Claire Egan and Anna Jeruc-Kopec was, as ever, an absolute pleasure.

The stage crew and staff from Malaysia were never less than courteous and professional, and Natalie, who liased with us for Gardner and Wife, the promoters, was lovely and became a great friend of everyone in the company. She even got to come on stage in a cameo for a couple of the group scenes on the last night.

Watch out for a couple of new videos in the next couple of days about sights in KL and Ipoh. I will post them up on Youtube with a link from The Baritone too.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Malaysia tour day 19 - Lightning strikes

Our show on wednesday evening, when we got back from Ipoh and returned to PJ Live Arts, was cancelled at the last moment due to lightning hitting the theatre. That was a first for me!

Heavy rain and thunder are a feature of most days here. The morning and midday are sunny, and then the skies cloud over and the tropical rain hits. It is rainy season here (one of two). Some of the thunder storms have been quite dramatic; indeed just yesterday I watched from my hotel room window as a bolt of lightning hit the high rise block opposite, about 50 metres away, the roof being about level with my room.

I love thunder and lightning, and I love it to be as close overhead as possible. It probably ties in with my taste for the epic, loud and overblown which can be traced back to my heavy metal days.

Anyway, I'm warming up in the theatre on wednesday evening, as are several of my colleagues, when all of a sudden we hear a crash overhead from outside, and a second later, all the lights in the theatre go down and we are plunged into darkness. Within a few seconds the faint emergency lighting comes on so we can move around again.

Apparently the lightning hit the building and put out the substation. As the lights had still not come back on half and hour later, after a lot of to-ing and fro-ing it was decided that the show would be cancelled and that people who had tickets would be able to attend one of the four remaining shows instead. Of course, it meant that a lot of people turned up and were told when they arrived, but the feeling I get is that people get far less irate about this sort of thing here than in Europe.

We all headed back to the hotel an hour or so later, and to be honest, it was quite nice as we were all a bit tired after trip to Ipoh on tuesday and wednesday morning's sightseeing there.

The following evening, yesterday, we were very well rested and did probably our best show of the tour so far!

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Malaysia tour day 14 - Some fun with signs!

One thing that any world traveller will tell you is that the signs in non-european countries can be unintentionally funny and/or odd. It's all down to cultural mismatch, and no doubt they would find our signs strange too. When guidance is offered on things that fall outside our cultural norms or european common sense, they often seem quite bonkers to us.

Here are a few that I've encountered here in Malaysia in the last couple of weeks:

1. No snogging on the tube.

There is a plethora of prohibitory signs on Kuala Lumpur's modern public transport trains. The most amusing for us is no doubt the no-kissing sign. Coming to think of it, we could do with this on the tube in London too. There's nothing worse than trying to read a book on the way home on a saturday evening while the couple sitting opposite are eating each other's faces off.

2. No durians.

Durian is the legendary smelly fruit of Malaysia. As I mentioned in a previous post, the smell is rather noxious. This sign prohibiting durians was seen outside the lift at our hotel in Penang. Durians are often banned in hotels and public transport, but you often catch the odour of durian abuse in other places such as markets, malls and streets.

3. No stage-diving from toilets.

The floor in bathrooms can provide for rather a hard landing. Seriously though, this sign is telling people used to crouch-toilets (the hole in the floor ones!) not to get up and stand on the rim and attempt the same thing with a modern toilet. So, why does the figure on the left look primed for a jump from the high-diving board?

That's all for now. To finish off, here is a little video of random mini-reportages I've done in the last nine days or so. Enjoy!

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Hello Malaysia Vid from last week

Here is a little video I filmed last week at the press conference here in Kuala Lumpur, and edited last night. Took some short clips of our singers and MD at PJ Arts' office, and you get four different languages: hellos and soundbites in English, Polish, Welsh and Swedish. (oh, and Kiwi!!!!)

I guess it would've been useful to have Mandarin and Malay in there as well. Next time!

Monday, 26 November 2012

Malaysia tour day 8 - KL Monsoon

I'm sitting here in my hotel room looking out at the most colossal downpour and thunderstorm.
Quite something, and on an intensity we never see in Britain. Half of the Merry Opera peeps went off on a sightseeing walk to Chinatown. Right now, I'm quite glad I didn't.

This snap is of the storm brewing:

My first show, on thursday in Penang, went very smoothly. Considering we haven't performed this since July I was happy with it.

On saturday morning, before the bus trip back to KL, it was time for....drum-roll.....jet-skiing. I'd never done this before, but I have to say, it was an absolute blast. Those things can certainly move, and the adrenaline kick is equivalent to at least 5 Lavazza espressos.

We did nearly lose Stephen Hose, our musical director, who got ultra-exuberant and went off around a distant headland to explore the coast. When we took the jet-skis back to the beach he was nowhere to be seen, and they had to send one of the hire companies employees off to find him. For a second we feared the worst...that he had made a mad escape dash for Indonesia and we would end up doing the rest of the tour without an MD and pianist, but in the end he came trailing back into view.

Georgetown, Penang is an interesting town, and on friday afternoon I got the chance to explore it. Well, at least the historical quarters, which is a World Heritage Site due to the amount of colonial architecture on display. The whole place has a faded colonial glory about it, and mixed with the eclecticism of typical asian city life, with hindu, buddhist and taoist temples, plus islamic mosques all rubbing shoulders, it is an absorbing place to visit if you look in the right places i.e. beyond the ubiquitous shoreline high rise office and condo blocks.

One of my favourite pastimes when in asia is photographing shrines in temples, so here's a few taoist examples coming at ya. As you can see, there is no single, large figure of a teacher or deity on taoist shrines, but there are scripture blocks/strips and smaller gods:

These taoist shrines have a remarkable, primal feel to them, being quite dark and with heavy, earthy incense filling the air. I like them immensely!

Back in KL on saturday evening we settled in a the Boulevard Hotel again, and, although we have everything we need here and the hotel is a cut above, we probably all felt that a few more days of beach life wouldn't have gone amiss. Oh well! We are here to work after all.

The first show was yesterday afternoon, and played to a nearly full house. As usual I had my camera on stage for the last scene of Act 1 in the club, "Lovely lady...", and snapped merrily whilst falling around in a drunken stupor. You never know quite what you are going to get with these dangerous opera singers:

Tomorrow, my KL debut as Germont. "Hello Kuala Lumpuuuuuuuuur!!!!!"

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Malaysia tour day 4 - first show day

On tuesday we had a press conference in KL at JP Arts, where we will also be performing. Joe, Anna and I sang a few numbers (Die Provenza from moi) before posing for photos for the press and answering questions. All pretty easygoing really and it was great to meet the team at JP Arts who are putting this tour on.

Here are some pics from the photoshoot courtesy of JayaOne (on Twitter):

In Malaysia there is a fruit that stinks. The Durian. And believe me, it positively hums! 

We were given a piece of durian after the press conference, and as we cracked it open a pungent, eggy odour surrounded us. A bit like used gym socks left in a cupboard for a month. It has actually been banned on some forms of public transport and hotels in Malaysia due to the whiff.

Inside the hard spiky shell are the kidney-shaped fruit which are supposed to taste nice. They must be an acquired taste then, as Joe, Anna, Claire and I all agreed that it tasted pretty rank. One thing I can say though is that the flavour is not the same as the smell. It is a combination of sweet and savoury, like dates mixed with a stock cube and with a sticky, thick slimy texture. 

No thanks! I don't think any of us will be trying that again in a hurry.

In the evening we picked up the rest of the party, who travelled two days after us, from the airport, and then had a night-ride by bus to Penang where we are performing the two first shows. Penang is an island in the northwest of Malaysia, about 5 hours from KL by road.
We got there at 5 am. Luckily I managed a few hours of sleep on the bus, and woke to see the glorious sight of Georgetown's skyscrapers approaching at night from the very long bridge over from the mainland. 

Now, I don't want to make you folks jealous, but when I got up the next day this is the sight that greeted me from the hotel:

Not bad, I'm sure you'll agree. The hotel is on the north coast of Penang and we are here for several days...back to KL on saturday afternoon. The day was spent lounging around before we went to the Penang Performing Arts Centre for an evening rehearsal. The theatre is very nice actually. Not a traditional theatre with a proscenium arch, but a more modern performing space. 

Here is our three piece band, being led through their paces by Stephen Hose our MD: 

We got through the rehearsal despite the effects of jet lag being clearly in evidence in various members of the cast, and afterwards, although it was late, we headed to the night market next to the hotel for some wonderful (and wonderfully cheap) food and some cold lagers at midnight. 

Here is a bit of last minute music swotting going on next to the pool two hours ago, with Gemma Morsley (Flora) and Matt Duncan (Baron):

In the next post I hope to bring you some video footage of the Durian Experience of Tuesday, and some interesting facts about Malaysia. I know you can hardly wait!

Today: show number 1.....bring it on!!

Monday, 19 November 2012

Malaysia tour day 1 - Relax Day

So, after arriving to KL airport at about 10.30 last night, today is a relax day for me. The journey went without a hitch. I travelled from Gatwick at 20.20 on Saturday evening with Matthew Quirk (Germont) and his partner Peddy, Claire Egan (Violetta):

Anna Jeruc-Kopec (Violetta), Toscia (Anna's two year old daughter), seen here enjoying their iPad:

Preece Killick (Assistant director and tour manager) and Robin Bailey (Alfredo):

The show is double cast, in case you're wondering. Yepp, I'm Germont too.

The rest of the cast plus music director are travelling from Gatwick tonight, to meet us for the trip to Penang tomorrow night.

We travelled with Emirates, a most excellent airline. Friendly, good food (ish), and most important, of course, a mammoth selection of movies to watch. We all got through a few, but I think Robin and Claire took the prize with 5 movies each.

I particularly enjoyed Beasts of the Southern Wild, an amazing film about a 6 year old girl and her father in bayou territory in Southern Louisiana around the time of Hurricane Katrina. Or is it? It is timeless in a way, including elements of magical realism and a virtually post-apocalyptic feral way of life in extreme poverty but with guts, real community and soul at it's core. A film with grit and heart, and I'd love to see it again without aeroplane noise etc.

We had a three hour stop at Dubai airport to transfer and in my search for coffee (this was the about 3am for our body clocks, remember) I had to swallow my pride and drink (aaaaarrrghhhh!) Starbucks coffee. Tastes like cardboard, but kept me going for a few more hours.

We were met at the airport by Richard and Natalie from Gardner and Wife, the promoters putting on the tour here. After the 45 minutes trip from the airport to the Boulevard Hotel where we are staying, I had a beer with our party and the tour team in the bar, before, absolutely exhausted hitting the sack at about 1.30am.

Claire, Robin and Matthew had to get up at 6.30 or so to go and do a Breakfast TV interview for Malysian TV and a Radio Interview. I am rather glad I got a bit of a lie in and didn't have to do anything of any use today. The hotel breakfast was wonderful, and my room is very nice too. This sure beats Travelodge.

It's rainy season here, and it has been pretty wet and cloudy here today. I've explored the MegaMall and the Gardens Mall (a bit posher and flashier) which are here in the same complex as the Hotel. And now for the gym!!!!!

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Malysia tour 2012

So, today I head off to Malaysia with the Merry Opera Company for a three week tour of La Traviata.
We will be spending several days in Penang at the start of the tour, then decamping to Kuala Lumpur for the majority of the remaining shows, with one show in Ipoh and one in Malacca as excursions.

Dim Sum and Petronius Towers here we come!

I will be updating this blog regularly on this tour, so keep your eyes peeled!