Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Behind the Scenes at the Bolshoi: Part 1

Once upon a time, I decided to enter a blogging contest for expats based on the theme "Working Abroad." You see, I think I have a pretty fantastic job and decided it was worth sharing a few of the details. Apparently it didn't make the contest cut, however, so instead you get exclusive reading rights here! Enjoy!!!

Putting my experience at the Bolshoi Theatre into words seems impossible. I could describe the magic of a holiday evening spent mesmerized by Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, captivated by the exquisite movements of the Russian ballerinas. Or perhaps reminisce about the first Russian opera I saw in the exquisitely renovated theatre, The Tsar’s Bride.  But while those evenings spent at the Bolshoi will always be vivid in my memory, they are only the beginning of my story.

You see, unlike most Americans who spend an evening at the Bolshoi, I work here.   
I’m a pianist/vocal coach and while I enjoy every evening spent in our theatre, the real show (and sometimes the real drama) takes place behind the scenes. Where exactly? I spent the first month of my employment trying to figure that out.

What the public sees of the Bolshoi Theatre is only the beginning. Two stages, an administrative building, 6 stolovayas (cafeterias), an atrium, more confusingly-placed elevators than I’ve managed to count, and enough rehearsal spaces and offices to house an insane number of employees, which include a ballet company, opera ensemble, chorus, orchestras (yes, plural!), security guards, custodial staff and the ever-powerful babushkas who fiercely guard the keys to said rooms—ALL of this is connected with an intricate maze of tunnels that seems nearly as perplexing as the Russian language itself.  

My first week trying to make it to my coachings with singers involved more than one conversation that went something like this:

-       Aleksey, I’m so sorry that I’m late. I’m in the theater…somewhere. I should be there soon. (This was the English version in my head. I cringe to think of what actually came across in Russian at that point.)
-       Where are you now?
-       Somewhere near the atrium???
-       Should I come get you?
-       No, no. I’m sure I’ll be right there.

Twenty minutes later I’ve finally found my way back to the centrally located atrium where I bashfully wait to be found and led to work. Even though I’m already “at work.” I quickly learned this conversation was best modified to “Come find me please!” Much less Russian and no venturing unaided into the Russian matrix.

The Bolshoi maze itself may not be enough to compete with stage antics, put in my opinion there are daily dramas that do. And no, I will not be talking about acid attacks. Although this is tangentially related….you see, post-acid I was often asked if I felt afraid as an American working at the Bolshoi. Answer: yes. Was it related to the acid? No.

I’m terrified of the key guardians.

In Soviet times everyone had to have a job. I’m assuming this is where some of the Russian systems originate, including that of “the keys.” (I feel like there should be music accompanying their mention). In the American opera world where I came from, doors to rehearsal spaces were either left unlocked, opened by stage management pre-rehearsals, or even by myself. Occasionally even with my very own key.  But I’m not in Kansas anymore, as a quick glance at the spidery alphabet on signs everywhere affirms, and here every room has a key that is carefully guarded in one of three offices. Often by at least three people. You give them your name, your room number, your signature, some blood, a pledge of your first-born child (maybe I mistranslated that one) and try to justify your very existence as they glare suspiciously at your clearly foreign name. But then they hand over the key and you can finally give a deep sigh of relief.  It seems like the terror is over.

But forget to return it, and it’s really only the beginning.

I don’t know that I can write this in a way that can truly communicate the seriousness of the key system, but the first time I found myself at home—about an hour away—with a theatre key in tow, I felt slightly sick. The second time was even worse. And the third? As I am still living to tell this story, you can assume it didn’t take place. Chided by colleagues, seriously cursed by the key guardians (I can only assume all that unintelligible Russian was foul language) and even slightly shunned by one singer for my stupidity, I came to understand the importance of a Russian system that I never mastered. After Round 2, my rehearsal space was shamefully (but much to my relief) always opened by custodial staff.

I could go on about the culture of the Bolshoi cafeterias, the tradition of greeting everyone you pass in the hallway, the ballerinas running around in sweat pants and slippers…not the ballet kind, but the massive, foot-warming kind…and opera singers testing out high notes in the elevators, heard from floors below. Horses waiting backstage for an entrance, neon-colored frog heads bobbing through the hallway, and the never-ending construction that seems to take place in the tunnels…it’s all part of the scenery for the stage of daily life at the Bolshoi. It might not be as glamorous as the first time I set foot in the theatre, and it definitely doesn’t feel as surreal as my first moment performing on stage, but it’s this daily life, with its details and dramas that will truly make this job unforgettable.  It’s life backstage. At the Bolshoi.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

She had me fooled...

Just when you think you know a girl, that she's finally quit giving you the cold shoulder and warmed up to you, she gives you this...
Oh, Moscow. I've been feeling like I'm back in Texas with the sporadic downpours...except that it's not really just sporadic. I'm pretty sure it's been raining for the entire week. While this makes adventuring in the form of sightseeing around Moscow a bit difficult, it has made for some new adventures: how to best make it to the metro in ballet flats. I think I secretly hoped if I didn't give in to my rain boots that nature would declare me victor. I lost. But in sacrificing my ballet slippers, I was able to offer a colleague a piggy back to save her from the lake near our home. She was shocked. Coming from a family of 10+ I didn't find anything out of the ordinary about it.  I was gifted an apple approximately the size of my head in reward for my heroic attempts (which really only resulted in a passing van stopping to drive us across the lake...I was spared more than about 10 seconds of piggy back).
A picture like this doesn't occur often, so it had to be documented. The abnormality: Where are the people?
Yesterday while the rain took a brief pause, I made it to the Bulgakov museum to learn a bit more about the author of Master and Margarita. I love books and had to document these shelves which I would love to transport to my home. I didn't think I could fit it into my bag however.

The museum had some interesting tidbits and if you're a die-hard Bulgakov fan, then absolutely go! Entrance to the apartment was free, although we were kicked out early due to a scheduled tour. It's alright--it gave us just enough time to make a pass by Patriarch Ponds before the rain started falling again. Was I once again in ballet flats? Absolutely.

While there's not much sunshine predicted in the immediate forecast, I'll be doing my best to fit in a few more museums before starting June's European Extravaganza! Thursday it's off to London where I'll be joined by my parents and sister on Sunday. Then it's stops in Paris, Florence, Rome, and Switzerland, with a return to Russia---sister in tow! I have a suspicion that I might need a post-vacation vacation, but I'm excited for the food and fun ahead!

In the meantime, working on staying dry! It's back to the rain boots

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Moscow Metro for the Win!

Парк Победы (Victory Park Metro)

In just about any Moscow guide book, you'll find recommendations for a tour of the metro. As strange as this may seem, it's actually warranted. Many of the stations are stunningly designed and each tends to have its own theme. I've gotten spoiled in that I've never waited for a train for more than 2 minutes and I've never been on one that has broken down. (Although after watching the Russian film Метро, I did become slightly traumatized).

Despite all of its positive attributes, however, I will occasionally hate on our underground system. Why? 1) I spend far too much time in there! Though with the arrival of summer I have been attempting to walk a step or two before descending into the depths. 2) The people. ALL of the people! SO many people! If you do decide to take a metro tour, avoid the hours of 7-10 am and 5-7 pm like the plague. Please. I don't want do have to deal with any more bodies packed into the swarming mob of flesh that is our peak hour. If you do come at those times? Consider bringing a face mask. We get some interesting smells goin' on down in there.

Luckily, today is Sunday. Herds are limited, scents reduced and it's slightly cooler in the underground so my commuting experience was swarming with nothing but positivity. Especially when I caught a glimpse of a rather unique commuter. Not an uncommon occurrence in general, but since this one was staring me down, it drew my special attention.
As if a giant stuffed elephant weren't enough to make your day, I had another unusual encounter with a casual commuter. As I was transferring lines in the perekhod, I glanced up and made accidental eye contact with a not-unattractive young man who was headed in the opposite direction. I was completely caught off guard when he smiled and tipped his head a bit to the side, as if we might know each other. But being the solid Moscow-girl that I am, my only reaction was to immediately avert my gaze (I've learned the Russian ways) and move along. My newfound metro friend changed his course and was shortly at my side. Russian men are NOT timid people! I steeled myself for some sleaze and continued walking, but was completely caught off guard when he said, "I just have to tell you that you are elegant." I actually looked at him at that point, disregarding standard metro conduct. (Maybe I just generally attract a different sort of guy, but their comments tend to be nowhere near charming.) He smiled, continued on to describe the light and glow that I carried, and wished me a good day as we reached the escalator and I continued on my way. Moscow man for the win! I thanked him for being so complimentary and, had he not looked to be nearly 10 years younger than myself, might have engaged him in actual conversation.

So...the point? Why am I telling you about some random pick-up lines in the metro? It's not because of their content (though it was much better than being asked if my lips are real), but because of their delivery. There was an actual genuineness and sincerity in them that truly caught me off guard. I might expect elephants in the metro, but frank and endearing behavior? Not so much. This city never ceases to surprise me. And today it scored some serious points for humanity. A Sunday in the Moscow metro for the win!!!

Tulips and Tchaikovsky

My new life routine involves a daily splurge for sunshine, seizing every possible opportunity to enjoy the outdoors and restock my system with some natural Vitamin D! Yesterday I had a Fulbright friend visiting Moscow, so I popped into the metro to meet up with her at one of my favorite Moscow locations: Novodevichy Monastery. The last time I visited, the leaves were brilliantly colored for our one glorious week of autumn and it was stunning. But yesterday's picture was equally beautiful (though my lack of a camera made it significantly less documented).

In case you can't tell, I'm pretty ecstatic about a season that is not winter and doesn't require me layering myself in all the clothing I own for 20 minutes before leaving the house!

A bit later in the evening, I made another Moscow pilgrimage to the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall. If you're ever feeling like an evening out, this is a great place to go! You can purchase tickets here for concerts at the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall as well as any events held at the Conservatory. It's another beautiful Musical Moscow location and it's been my second music home in Moscow. Last night my Russian sister and partner-in-crime joined me for a concert with American soprano, Sarah Coburn.
(Photo taken from the Tchaikovsky Hall website)
As a trained musician, I think one of the greatest blessings in my life is the ability to sit back and enjoy an evening of music. The analytical side of a musical brain that's developed over years of training can't be turned off completely, but for me I find it rarely interferes with the simple joy of listening. Often I find it's strangely difficult for musicians to get past the performer...we're so critical of ourselves as we strive to hone our artistic skills that it's easy to become equally critical of others and, in doing so, miss the music. And, while I'm obviously not immune to critical listening, I don't feel the musical equivalent of being a doctor "on call," with my brain actively providing a diagnosis of everything that could be "fixed." I have friends that would like to be able to do the same, but are wired in such a way that going to a concert often seems more of a task than a pleasure. And I return to my first statement of gratitude.
It was especially enjoyable having my Russian sister at my side. I love introducing friends to classical music, with an emphasis on the opera of course. Hearing what they enjoyed and their reactions to the repertoire is frequently fascinating, as it offers a new perspective on my everyday "work." Nastya fell for the Mozart, which only made me love her more! We followed up the concert with a milkshake (on my end) and celery juice (on hers) at the neon-styled Starlite Diner. An American ending to a perfect day in Moscow!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Smoothies, Sunshine, and Stalin

When it's sunny out and you find yourself with a long lunch break, the Moscow exploration opportunities are endless. But when I found myself in said situation today, I knew exactly where I wanted to go. So I grabbed a smoothie (and maybe a delicious raspberry tart to go with it!) and headed to the Park Kultury metro.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, many of the statues of Soviet leaders and symbols were torn down and dumped in this park. Someone put them upright (for the most part) and many others have been added so that there's quite an expansive collection. So what about this park screams Moscow?
 ...displays RUSSIAN WOMEN in HEELS...
...offers BREATHTAKING VIEWS (especially if you look the right direction)... 
 ...occasionally FEARSOME...
 ...somehow MOVES at its OWN PACE (scrunchies, anyone?!)...
 Nope. No words for this one. But it had to be included. Let me know if you've got something...
Finally, it's filled with PLEASANT SURPRISES where you LEAST EXPECT them!

Lilacs are my favorite flower. Expect for the days when I like roses better. But somehow I had missed seeing any in Moscow...until today! We had a lilac tree in my childhood home that I would play under, making "perfume" out of its flowers and day-dreaming away. Today I found them at the AND was greeting by a babushka holding one single bouquet of lilacs coming out of my metro. It was clearly fate and I bought them without thinking twice!

If you jump on a travel site, this park might not make it near the top of the list. But if you've covered the main sights and are looking for some true Moscow character, this is not to be missed. Especially if there's an available swing and some sunshine to be had!

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Skipping Seasons: We're all about the Weather

Remember that time I survived an eternal Russian winter and vowed I would never complain about warm weather? 

I'm rethinking that statement.

You see, somehow Moscow seemed to almost instantaneously transform from this...
...to this...

Now, I am not complaining about warmth and greenery. But I was somewhat baffled as to the skipping of Spring. No delicate blossoms, no chilly but softly warm weather. Granted, there was the period of the Great Flood in which heavy rain turned snow into lakes. Maybe that was Spring? All I know is that this week we're sitting at an average temperature of 28 C/ 80 F. What I love? Warmth! Sunshine! Greenery! Evening walks! Sitting in the hammock!

These pics were taken on a said evening walk exploring my neighborhood yesterday. General Karbyshev, pictured below, has long caught my interest but I had yet to deduce who he was until I ventured closer yesterday. A Soviet War leader and hero, he actually passed through several Nazi concentration camps and eventually made it to Mathausen where he died under torture.  
 And this is my backyard, transformed. Remember how I live in the woods?
In contrast...
So...what I hate?! The lack of AIR CONDITIONING! Look, I realize that most of Europe believes AC is harmful to the health. And I'm not saying I want to be an AC Extremist like most of the businesses in Houston, TX. BUT, tonight I played a concert and halfway through all I could think about was the sweat that was beginning to roll down my forehead. While I'm rocking a formal and all makeup-ed out! That level of sweat should not be allowed on such an occasion.

My boss gave me the feedback that the performance seemed a bit low energy. He may have been right, given the fact that I was anxiously trying to wipe the sweat from my hands between numbers so as to remain a functional pianist. In the moment I didn't feel particularly low energy BUT I was seriously wishing I was old school and had brought a handkerchief with me...

And with this post, I think I may officially be considered Russian. Here, weather is our first and foremost topic of conversation (come on, it's Russia!) and it often concludes a fair amount of complaining. Which I have clearly done. Thank you for your patience...I'll reward you with some positivity and some upbeat restaurant reviews in the future.  

Hoping your temperatures are lovely and perhaps accompanied with some mild AC. Sending summer love from Moscow!
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Monday, May 13, 2013

Join the Moscow Circus

What comes to mind when you hear the word "circus"? For me, my only immediate reaction is Dumbo.  Specifically the scene where his mother cradles him through a cage. So. SAD. Next up would probably be Water for Elephants. Though more accurately in my mind it would be "that awful depressing circus movie with the elephant that breaks loose and isn't actually about a circus at all." I had to look up the title. (Note: I can't handle movies where people get hit. Or elephants. It's my undoing.)

It was clearly time to make some new word associations, so Friday night I headed to the Nikulin Circus on Tsvetnoy Bulvar. My first week in Moscow I actually stayed in a hostel that's in this neighborhood and couldn't believe my eyes when I saw a cheetah being walked down the street on a leash. Unaware of our proximity to the circus I first thought, "What city have I moved to?!" This was followed by, "Only in Moscow." That was only the first of many occurrences that fall under that second label. A list may be forthcoming.

Photography wasn't allowed, so unfortunately there's not much to show for this event. But here are some of the new word associations.

1. Vegas.  I don't know why, but somewhere in my mind I had envisioned that the circus art had not evolved since the 1920's. I fully expected old school, traditional circus-ing. Although I frankly have no idea what that would entail. So the flashing lights and live, very contemporary band/sound tracks caught me a bit off guard. I got up to date quickly enough though.
 2. Children. There were SO many! This is definitely a family friendly activity if you're looking for an evening out with the little ones. In my life, I interact with approximately 7 children for 1 hour on Sundays as I serve as our church children's music director. Otherwise, the closest I come to kids is via Skype with my nieces and nephews. What I loved: the laughter and energy they brought to the experience. There is nothing like a child's laugh of pure joy.  Didn't so much love: the child next to me who had gas attacks throughout the first half of the show. I've mostly adjusted to the scents of Moscow, but this one I was totally unprepared for.
 3. Animal Photo Shoots. These unsuspecting children were nicely arranged for a photo and sitting calmly until the blonde lady on the left brought out the birds to place on their shoulders and legs. I had to watch the scene unfold...I knew it held great potential. The littlest one seated on the right was smiling away until a bird was placed directly on his lap. He was looking the other way and didn't even see it coming, so his start and the immediate tears that ensued were priceless. Immediate removal of the bird brought the tears to a stop. Maybe I especially enjoyed this scene having grown up in a large family and  experienced the chaos that a family portrait can bring. Add animals to the mix?! You're asking for a new circus of sorts. (I was apparently the weird creepy lady taking pictures of other people's kids at the circus. The sheer number of them really just caught me by surprise!)
4. Elephants. Most of this circus is made up of human acts, with the occasional animal addition (apparently even Moscow has gotten up to speed on the appropriateness of this). There were some highly entertaining birds, a really random horse/dog show, and an elephant act to top things off. The elephants were brilliant and it was a long-ish act so it stuck with me. But I couldn't help but think, "Are they happy??" I actually don't even like animals so I caught even myself off guard with this one. But I couldn't help but think about my trip to Kenya and the sheer beauty of seeing elephants in their natural habitat. While these highly-trained elephants were impressive, they were missing the majesty that left me so awestruck on the Serengeti. 

I'm not a circus girl, I think I can safely say. But did I have an enjoyable evening? Yes. Overall it was a highly entertaining show, with lots of laughter and some impressive acts. The strength and flexibility of the people involved helped me jump back on the yoga train. Though I have no intention of EVER trapeze-ing it through the air. Let that be clear. I'd say this is a must-visit with children and a fun optional variant if you're looking for a relatively inexpensive way to pass a light-hearted evening.

Now for the real fun...your "circus" word associations. Go!

Sunday, May 12, 2013

День Победы: May 9th

On Victory Day here in Russia I ran into a group of French tourists on the metro. I was thrilled to momentarily return to my first language love, and helped them locate the next metro stop they wanted to see...people actually tour the metro here. And with good reason! But we'll file that topic away for another day. My friends expressed their surprise at the extent of the Victory Day celebration they were witnessing, despite having their own fête de la victoire on May 8th. They were not alone.

Victory here is a BIG deal! It starts off with a serious display of machinery at the Victory Parade. You can take a quick peek (or watch the entire thing!) to get a feel. In case my earlier posting on tanks left you wanting more, this is it!
Impressive, right?! I didn't brave any crowds to try and witness this one in person, but rather enjoyed some clips from the comfort of my own home...a precious morning off does not need to be rushed! Besides, I needed to save energy for the day's itinerary.

First up, a stop at Сад Эрмитаж. It's a lovely little park where you find another one of Moscow's opera theaters, Novaya Opera.  But there was no opera on tap for this girl today, location aside. This park tried to create some 1940's flair in modern Moscow with an old car display, a concert of war songs and dance, some youth dressed in military WWII costume, and plenty of Russian military men on hand.  

My favorite moment while here was this sweet couple that started to dance to the older tunes. To think of all this veteran witnessed and all the changes this couple has seen over the decades is unfathomable. But to see them caught up in sweet remembrance was beautiful.
Almost as beautiful as Nastya's picture as a little boy turned out. I'm only sorry I didn't work harder to squeeze my head through the child-sized hole provided.
Next up, was a quick photoshoot in the courtyard of the Moscow Museum of Modern Art...a courtyard shared with the Moscow cafe that offers my absolute favorite tea: ginger, mint and lemon.

 Even on a day off escaping this beautiful Bolshoi tends to be an impossibility. Especially on Victory Day, given that one of the city's long-standing traditions takes place here. Directly in front of the theater, veterans gather to greet crowds. In yet another beautiful Russian flower tradition, veterans and others who lived through the war are presented with flowers from anyone and everyone. Of all the day's events, seeing this tradition was one of the most touching. I don't know who these people are on every other day, but seeing them recognized in such a way at least one day of the year is truly beautiful.

Poetry performances were given by people of all ages. (Note: I LOVE that Russians memorize poetry!!! I have yet to meet a Russian who can't recite at least one!) We witnessed an 8-year-old's admirable performance. Russian is all the more impressive when I hear children speak it.
Last stop in the city is by far the most popular on the 9th...Поклонная Гора (Poklonnaya Hill) and Парк Победы (Victory Park). The crowds were out here in full force, reveling in the holiday sunshine. Unfortunately they had completely depleted the ice cream and water resources at ALL the vendors' stations we passed!

We passed on the evening salute, and instead ended the day with a sister slumber party and watched the Soviet wartime film, Отец Солдата. The story is that of an older Georgian father who's journey begins when he sets off to visit his injured son in a hospital. He eventually finds himself at the battlefront and, when he does finally find his son, the scene which unfolds is unforgettable. Rather than give away the entire plot, I'd encourage you to find this film and turn on some subtitles. While the version below likely won't do much for you, this movie for me was truly unforgettable. 
Sunshine, my sister, some interesting insight into Russia's experience and remembrance of WWII, and lots of victory made for a pretty fantastic holiday! 

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