Thursday, August 30, 2012

Richard Strauss's "Salome"

Saw the Met's 2008 production of Salome at the Summer HD Festival last night. Really wanted to hear it after reading about the rapturous response of the audience to the opera's premiere in Alex Ross's book The Rest Is Noise, and after loving The Rosenkavelier heard at another Summer HD Festival.

Karita Mattila was an electrifying Salome. She was no girl, but her girlish manner was very much a part of her interpretation of the daughter of Herodias. In her depiction, Salome was a spoiled and wilful child of privilege, a seductress already confident of her alluring power over men. All of which made her attraction to Jochanaan, the desert prophet, so much more unlikely and yet inevitable. She must have what she could not have. Compared to the indecisive Herod (Kim Begley) and her washed-up mother (Ildikó Komlósi), Salome was unstoppable because she was willing to die to get what she wanted. As she sang, the mystery of love is stronger than the mystery of death.

Juha Uusitalo sang Jochanaan with winning sympathy. The music-writing helped here, giving the Biblical warnings and curses a shining grandeur. His virtue kept him safe from Salome, while he was still living. When she finally won her kiss, by gnawing at the lips of his decapitated head, she sang, "Ah! I have kissed it, I have kissed thy mouth; there was a bitter taste upon thy lips. ... But perhaps this was the taste of love."

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Adventures incited by WL

Last Friday, after having dinner at Buvette (French and Italian tapas place in Greenwich Village), I watched the film Teddy Bear with WL, DM and BCH at Film Forum. Directed and co-written by Mads Matthiesen, the movie followed a shy bodybuilder's search for love. Dennis had to leave the house in the Copenhagen suburb that he shared with his possessive mother for Thailand where he found true love after a series of mistrials.

The ensemble acting was terrific. Kim Kold was an endearing boy in a superman's body. Elsebeth Steentoft brought a frightening intensity to her role as the dominating mother. She was the emotional blackhole that nothing could fill. As true love Toi, Lamaiporn Hougaard was sweet but not saccharine. Her spirit rippled across her face when she was crossed.

WL invited me to hear Taka Kigawa play "The Art of Fugue" last night at (le) Poisson Rouge. Kigawa sounded jerky at the beginning as if he was slightly nervous. The playing was somewhat detached. "Remote" came to mind, but not necessarily in a negative sense. WL remarked that he played legato frequently, and so was less crisp in his articulation than WL liked in his Bach. He held down the last note a little too long. Afterwards we went to the 24-hour Cuban diner Coppelia for desserts. My torrejas de oliva, a kind of bread pudding, was very good.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Freedom and Recognition

TLS August 10 2012

from Christopher Bertram's review of Rousseau and Freedom, edited by Christie McDonald and Stanley Hoffman, and four other books on Rousseau:

The common thread that runs through his work is the question of how to satisfy our most basic human cravings for freedom and recognition in a world of interdependence. Rousseau was obsessed with the idea that as our needs multiplied beyond the point where we could satisfy them using our natural powers, we had become dependent on cooperation with others to get what we want, a theme explored most famously in the Discourse on Inequality. This dependence on others fosters a deformation of the self as people turn themselves into the characters they believe others will find attractive or useful. But we are all playing this game together, an the sense that the love and respect that others show us may just be feigned for instrumental reasons, a sense that derives support from what each of us does ourselves to bend others to our will, gives rise to a deep sense of anxiety and to feelings of pride, vanity, rage, contempt, self-loathing and jealousy. We engage with others no as we "really are" but via an endlessly recursive play of beliefs about what others believe, a play that underpins hierarchies of oppression and domination. These powerful forces simultaneously socialize and isolate us, leading us to suppress our natural sensitivity to the suffering of others and to develop elaborate rationalizations to justify power and position that take the form of political ideologies and moral codes.


Rousseau's distate for bloody political conflict is not the only thing that distances him from his revolutionary successors. The French Revolution would not have been possible without a rejection of some of Rousseau's central doctrines. In The Social Contract, Rousseau had argued that popular sovereignty must be directly exercised and cannot be exercised via representatives. The Abbe Sieyes, by contrast--the first theoretician of the Revolution--repudiated this: the representatives of the Third Estate incarnated and represented the nation. Later, the Jacobins would claim that the edicts of the Committee of Public Safety were expressions of the general will, but for Rousseau, the people must always speak for themselves. For this reason, he favored small republics, where life was simple and face-to-face communication possible....

Friday, August 24, 2012

Hong Kong and Bali

It was a good idea to travel elsewhere while visiting Singapore. GH and I flew to Hong Kong on August 13 for four days, and then to Bali immediately for another four days. Four days are not really enough time to visit both, but that time was all we had. Visiting these two places one after another accentuated their differences for us.

Hong Kong I remember for its crowds. The streets and the trains were crowded throughout the day, even as late as nine pm. Causeway Bay, where we stayed in a boutique hotel, felt like a real neighborhood, different from the downtown on Hong Kong island and from the fancy hotels in Kowloon, though not far from both on the efficient MTR. Hong Kong was well-organized, but organized in a seemingly more haphazard way than Singapore. It had the energy of private enterprise, not the predictability of Singapore's large-scale government planning. A colossal integrated development like Marina Bay might not ever happen in Hong Kong, but people initiative would ensure constant change. The Soho area, with its mix of fruit and vegetable stalls, Western-styled cafes and wine bars, art and antique galleries, was symbolic of this energetic adaptation.

From the promenade in Tsim Sha Tsui, the skyline was far more impressive than Singapore's. It stretched endlessly from one end of Hong Kong island to the other. We took the old Star Ferry back to the island. I liked the fact that the ferry was still used by locals, and not just the tourists. The next morning, we took the tram up Victoria Peak early, and so avoided the tourist hordes. The peak gave beautiful views of the harbor, dotted with ships. During the day, we walked around the flower and bird markets in Mong Kok. At the Hong Kong Museum of Art, I saw the show "Imperishable Affection: the Art of Feng Zikai" and liked the work of the modern cartoonist (1898-1975) very much. Each cartoon, whether satirical or compassionate or just observant, looked spontaneous and complete.

Victoria Peak - photo by GH

A highlight of Hong Kong was our massage at Shanghai Onsen. Shower, steam room, sauna, free snacks and drinks in a corporate-looking lounge. My masseur, who looked to be in his late 20s, came originally from farway Liaoning, to the north of Beijing. He had the pale complexion and tall frame of a northerner. He had a nice touch. At night, when he wanted to relax, he would pour himself a glass of wine and listen to old Chinese classics. On weekends, he would escape with his fiance and friends to Shenzhen to eat, drink and chat. He did not want to be working as a masseur forever. He planned to apprentice himself to a chef in Szechuan and return to Hong Kong to open a Szechuan eatery. His practiced hands moved soothingly and professionally. He knew the right words to say at the right time. We spoke in Mandarin. Did I say he had a nice touch?

Back in Singapore, we had to take a later Air Asia flight to Bali than planned. Since we had time to kill, we went to Little India. Migrant workers mingled with locals among the old shophouses. GH liked it quite a bit, as did I. I would live there if I had to go back to Singapore.

Our plane got in at midnight. We took a cab to Bali Garden Resort in Kuta, where we stayed two nights. Kuta was overly touristy and commercial. I liked the beach, however, and the hawker stalls at one point where I had a delicious soto ayam and fruit juice. I also liked looking at the surfer dudes wandering bare-bodied on the narrow streets in their flip-flops. A local cab-driver who called himself Hendrik took us to see the sunset at Uluwatu. Ulu, he explained, means the end of the road. Watu means stone. The town and its temple lay at the southernmost point of the island, on the stony cliffs at the end of the road. I was engrossed there, not by the temple, but by a dance performance of the Ramayana by masked and costumed dancers. To the chanting, whooping and tongue-clicking of forty half-naked men, Ravanna kidnapped Sita from Rama again. The Monkey and the Bears delighted the crowd with their antics, and the performance ended with Hanuman freeing himself from a circle of fire.

Uluwatu temple - photo by GH

Rama leaves Sita - photo by GH

On the way to Ubud, we stopped at two temples. Goa Gajah is famous for its bathing pool and elephant cave. After Kuta, Ubud was both classier and quieter. The town had more upscale shops, more art. We did not stop at the town but spent the day at the Payogan Spa Resort. It was a beautiful setting, among the mountains. We had a traditional Balinese massage, swam in the pool and drank white wine by the water. I don't think that I could do this for more than a day but for a while the sense of relaxation was very calming. We took our time. We will go back to Bali sometime.

Payogan Spa Resort - photo by GH

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Two Readings in Singapore

This was the longest time that I have ever spent in Singapore since leaving it. I will probably come back to this month from time to time, but I just want to remember, for now, the two readings I did there. Paul Tan from the National Arts Council referred me to Paul Rozario at The Arts House. Paul R. was extremely friendly and helpful in setting up the reading, which took place on August 4, in the former Ministers' Lounge in the old Parliament House. William Phuan, the director of The Arts House, was present throughout the evening too.

Photo by Lianguo

I was surprised and glad to see Robert Yeo in the audience. I have known his poetry since secondary school, but had never met him properly. It was fun to go out afterwards with him and Alvin Pang, who kindly agreed to moderate the Q&A, for supper at Adams Road Hawker Center. I was especially pleased to see a number of ex-students from Chua Chu Kang Secondary School turning up. They must have learned from Facebook and elsewhere that I am gay, but came nevertheless to hear me. I read from both Equal to the Earth and Seven Studies for a Self Portrait. Am I deluding myself too much if I believe that, for that night, being gay assumed its proper place in my relationship with them: unembarrassed on both sides, open yet courteous?

Photo by Bee Lian

Photo by Wei Na

The second reading, at BooksActually on August 10, was to launch my new chapbook The Pillow Book published by its Math Paper Press. The book was, however, not ready, but Kenny and I decided to go ahead with the reading anyway. Dominic had helped to include the event as part of IndigNation, Singapore's Pride Month, and I did not want to cancel on friends and gay celebrants.

Photo by Shasta Grant

It was a good-sized crowd, about 30 people. Guy had arrived in Singapore by then, and so was in the audience. Friends from school and church were there: R and her colleague, A; E and hubby D; HW and HL. I was also pleased to see other Singapore poets there: Shu Hoong and Kai Chai. I was able to tell Kai Chai personally how much I enjoyed his collection pretend I'm not here. Alvin, bless his heart, heard me read again. WS and C, whom I met at IndigNation's opening event, came too, and WS videotaped the reading. You can find the videos on Youtube. It was fun too to see Shasta Grant, hubby and son halfway around the globe; they like Singapore so far and may stay for a long time.