Posts Tagged ‘performing arts’

Q & A: Study Leader Fred Plotkin on Opera

Monday, September 28th, 2009

Study Leader Fred Plotkin is an expert on music, food, and wine, and everything related to Italy. Opera is his great love—he has worked for Milan’s La Scala and the Metropolitan Opera—and he’s passionate about sharing opera with others. Fred is the author of Opera 101, Classical Music 101, as well as six books on Italy, and can be heard regularly on NPR. Here, he sits down with us to talk about his first love. Click here for more information on Fred and traveling with him.

Performers Take the Stage at La Traviata. Photo: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera

Performers take the stage during La Traviata. Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera

Smithsonian Journeys:  What is it that continues to captivate you about opera?

Fred Plotkin: Opera is the greatest of all art forms in that it encompasses so many others: vocal and orchestral music, drama, dance, visual arts, lighting, costume design and even, on occasion, film. It is the way that these elements combine that make each opera—and each new production of that opera—unique. An opera lover always has something exciting to look forward to. The ability to sit for three hours and be bathed in gorgeous music that helps us examine what it means to be human is an incomparable gift.

SJ:  How did your passion for Italy develop?

FP: Very early on I was captivated by the idea of the Renaissance man and all that entails. While most people I knew sought narrow specializations, I came to cherish the interconnectivity of different arts and sciences and the way politics, religion, and philosophy had impact on them. Opera, which was born in the late Renaissance, was an effort to bring all of these elements together in one art form. We see the Italian ideal carried everywhere in the world: rational architecture, humanism, respect for nature’s gifts, and a keen desire to understand the mysteries of the world and the soul.

SJ: What do you enjoy most about traveling with Smithsonian?

FP: I love the sense of enthusiasm and informal discussions prompted by the operas and my lectures. Also, the opportunity to meet some of the key individuals involved in the presentation of the operas gives a broader sense of what goes on to make every production a success.

SJ:  You are also known for your love of food and wine. How will Smithsonian Journeys travelers also benefit from this expertise?

FP: When I am not doing opera work, I write about food and wine.  For a past Smithsonian journey to the Met, I took part in the selection of the restaurants, menus, and wines we enjoyed at the opening and closing meals of our stay. I work with Journeys to create an itinerary organized to give you time to rest and reflect while you are immersed in the opera, and also affords you the chance to sample many of the rich cultural treasures and restaurants in your leisure time.

For 2010, Fred will be joining us on our Music Cruise in the Classical World and Opera Lovers’ Italy.

Moved by Music in Vietnam

Monday, May 18th, 2009

Hank Kenny is Senior Analyst and Studies Director at the Center for Naval Analyses, where he has directed projects on U.S. strategy for the past 13 years. Having first seen Vietnam during the U.S. war there, Dr. Kenny has been overjoyed to visit the region again and again, witnessing its dramatic progress during peacetime. For more on Hank and traveling with him, click here.

Vietnamese singers in Hanoi sing for visitors. Photo: Hank Kenny

Vietnamese singers in Hanoi sing for visitors at the Temple of Literature. Photo: Hank Kenny

Recently, on a Smithsonian Journeys visit to Vietnam, I was lucky to experience an amazing performance by some local students. When the group of young Vietnamese began to sing, I could not believe my ears. Was this Hanoi, the capital of the nation with which my country had fought a long, long war? The singers were young, mostly teenagers. They welcomed us with glee, and proceeded to sing “God Bless America.” I was amazed. When we clapped after each song they smiled, their eyes brilliantly radiating hope and joy.

My mind raced back to an earlier day, when Vietnam was “Nam,” and a young woman sang “I do not know why I am so sad tonight—because it rains or my heart is broken.” She sang for the many broken-hearted Vietnamese and American women whose love was gone, of sadness etched in the memory of Americans and Vietnamese alike.

But the concert of these Vietnamese youth symbolized a new day—a day of joy. It was in the faces of the young singers in Hanoi, and in teenage girls in beautiful ao dai dresses at the Temple of Literature. And there it was again in faces of the children we saw on our throughout our journey—in Hue we saw it in the peaceful countenance of young Buddhist monks. In Nha Trang, while visiting a preschool, we danced with little children who smiled with delight. In My Tho, young people weaved baskets and helped make coconut candy for our pleasure, and in Saigon they helped the shopkeepers who sold us bright apparel at phenomenal discounts.

Photo: Hank Kenny

Photo: Hank Kenny

The singers in Hanoi were blind. They stood in a row and followed the tunes of a piano player who was also blind. Some of those tunes were of Christmas, as it was that time of the year, and I wondered—in what sense is this a Communist country? Then, after a thoroughly enjoyable performance, they climaxed with “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Tears came to my eyes then, and again a week later when I left Vietnam with the words of that song still ringing in my ears—“mine have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

Experience the evolution of postwar Vietnam on any of our tours to the region.

Or, see Vietnam through Hank’s eyes, traveling with him in October 2009.