La traviata in Stockholm

I promised you the review, and here it is! While setting an opera in a strip club is always a little awkward (do you have people strip? it might attract people to the opera, but it’s also a tad distracting), Kasper Holten pulls it off with a gritty, modern production. Homeless Violetta (and Alfredo’s obvious sense of guilt) in act III is especially excellent. So is the stern, Bible-thumping interpretation of Giorgio Germont. If only Violetta had received a tad more acting coaching! (Lana Kos emotes effectively, and she could clearly act the role very well with better guidance about her interpretive choices.)


Sightseeing in Stockholm

Any city was going to be a let-down after Copenhagen. Stockholm isn’t quite as perfect: food costs more, the transit system is worse, and even the weather didn’t hold up as well for my visit. Also, no Kierkegaard. All of that notwithstanding, it was a really fun place to be a tourist for a day! Everything I did—touring the City Hall, visiting the Vasa Museum, touring Old Town, and attending the opera—was absolutely worth my time and money.

City Hall

Lots of cities have impressive city halls, but Stockholm really stands out for the variety of architecural styles and decorative techniques used. It’s also fun to tour because of the Nobel Prize tie-in. Although the prizes themselves are given out in Stockholm’s concert hall, the banquet, ball, and reception are held here. Did you know that university students in Stockholm can enter a lottery to purchase a ticket to the banquet!? I knew I picked the wrong place to study.

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Wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen!

(First things first: If you don’t know what the title is referring to, go watch the excellent Danny Kaye movie musical Hans Christian Andersen. This post will still be here when you finish.)

I’m in love. I’ve never felt as strong an urge to stay and live in a city as I did in Copenhagen. I can’t quite explain why. The beautiful green spaces? The good infrastructure? The fish-based cuisine? The lingering traces of Kierkegaard’s presence? I know it gets awfully cold in the winter, and I probably wouldn’t like that, but on this trip it seemed like the perfect city.

Authors, philosophers, and other famous people

Have I mentioned on this blog how much I love Kierkegaard? I know it’s one of those totally unoriginal teenage obsessions, but I can’t help it! So of course tracking down Kierkegaard-related sites was a priority during my time in Copenhagen. I didn’t go quite as far as this author, but I made sure to see his grave, his statue, and the exhibit about him in the Museum of Copenhagen. The latter was small but really cool—it organized paraphernalia from his life into different categories of love. These were paired with relevant quotes from his works (of course, Works of Love and his notes played a large part) and with objects and stories submitted by current Copenhageners. The Regine Olsen episode of Kierkegaard’s life is fascinating, so I loved how much emphasis it got. The city’s other famous author, Hans Christian Andersen, is in the same cemetery. One of his stories is also commemorated in the city’s most famous attraction (supposedly the most disappointing attraction in Europe), the harbor statue of the Little Mermaid.

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Happy birthday, Hamburg harbor!

My train to Hamburg was packed. Not just in the sense of “it sucks that you can’t find a seat for this six-hour, early-morning journey,” but in the sense of “no one can get to the bathrooms and also we’re not sure we can take on any more passengers, because the standing room is all taken.” We can partially blame this on the Deutsche Bahn strikes (fewer trains than usual were running), but apparently it’s mostly because I was heading to Hamburg just in time for one of their biggest events of the year: the Hafengeburtstag. That’s literally the “harbor birthday,” and ships from all over the world come to parade, race, and mingle. Of course, there’s also lots of fireworks and street food. (I ate plenty of herring—both raw and pickled—and Schmalzkuchen—fried balls of dough with powdered sugar.) So I threw most of my other plans for the weekend away and helped Hamburg celebrate its harbor’s birthday in style!

The other main tourist attraction I managed to get to was Miniatur Wunderland, the world’s largest model railway. It’s impressive for its sheer size, and it also does a good job of conveying the overall differences in terrain and architecture between the represented regions (Switzerland, Austria, Hamburg, the fictional German town of Knuffingen, Bavaria, Middle Germany, America, and Scandanavia). It has an airport, concert halls, soccer stadiums, a space shuttle, UFOs, ships, and lots and lots of trains. There are also some fun Easter eggs in the tiny figures—everything from an elephant pulling a steamroller to a man bungee jumping from construction equipment.

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Sex jokes and transphobia at the Stuttgart Opera

On Tuesday, I went to Stuttgart to watch Calixto Bieito’s staging of Rameau’s opera Platée. Bieito is infamous in the opera world for brutal, graphic stagings full of sex and violence. (Also for the Ballo with the opening tableau of everyone seated on toilets. But I digress.) This production was heavy on the sex but light on the violence. It also had a social point to make, though I thought it was too little, too late. We’d been laughing at dirty jokes the whole opera—we weren’t really emotionally prepared to properly react to the sudden, serious portrayal of transphobia.


If you know me well, you probably know that I am not a fan of dirty humor. Often, the other people in the opera house laughed as I remained unamused by the endless gags about sexual organs and fluids. Quite a few moments seemed utterly tasteless and pointless, as when Dionysus was presented with a giant jello penis, which she caressed and ate onstage. That said, I found other things genuinely funny. The beginning of the overture happened without the conductor (Hans Christoph Bünger)—he was onstage after a night spent with Thespis! (The music woke him up, and he hurriedly edged past the first row of the audience to enter the pit.) Also, Mercury’s and Citheron’s relationship, which involved a lot of teasing, donning of silly wigs, and shutting each other up with kisses, was utterly adorable.

Mercury, Citheron, and Platee
Mercury, Citheron, and Platee

The best part of Bieto’s approach to this opera—the part I think other directors could learn from—was his irreverance. It’s not that he didn’t love Rameau’s score (you’d have to, to choose to stage such an obscure work), but he didn’t treat it as something to be preserved and transmitted intact at all costs. Actors mumbled and sobbed and laughed and stomped over the music. Citheron mockingly repeated some of Mercury’s more over-exaggerated lines. La Folie silenced the whole orchestra and led into her aria with an electric guitar solo. (When the orchestra re-joined her, she flipped the conductor off.) The ballets featured charmingly simple but appropriate choreography, done by the chorus rather than a corps de ballet. Everyone on the stage was clearly having tons and tons of fun with this show. And that really came through to the audience—commitment, energy, and excitement were never lacking. Continue reading Sex jokes and transphobia at the Stuttgart Opera

Seagull steak

My “WTF” tag is getting a lot of use these days.

I had this strange idea that because the Seagull tonight wasn’t actually a Volkstheater production (it was by the Otto Falckenberg Schule, in the Volkstheater’s black box space), it might be a little more normal than most things I see there. Hah! This is Germany. Normal and theater don’t go together. But usually I can puzzle out what is going on. Here, I had absolutely no clue what director Stephanie van Batum was thinking.

It actually started fairly normally. I mean, sure, we were in the modern era. A fashion runway served as the stage. The women all wore crop tops and impossibly short skirts. Trigorin made notes of anything that inspired him on his smartphone. Kostja had to remove the plastic packaging from his ‘seagull’ meat before dropping it on Nina’s doorstep. But we were seeing Chekhov’s play. I didn’t love the overdrawn, caricature-like portrayals of most of the characters—particularly in such a small space—but that choice did work to emphasize the play’s darkly comedic aspects, and it made the two more naturalistically acted characters (Nina and Kostja) stand out in contrast. (Nina became more over-the-top as she was seduced by the lure of fame and of Trigorin.) The young ensemble was, without exception, extraordinarily talented.

And then the final scene happened. People had… transformed. Doktor Dorn was Andy Warhol. Arkadina: Marilyn Monroe. Sorin: Hugh Hefner. Trigorin: James Dean. Mascha: Amy Winehouse. They stood along the runway and delivered their lines infuriatingly slowly, with lots of long pauses. Nina and Kostja—still themselves—stood at the end of the runway and vibrated to thrumming bass. (Were they on a train? Or in a station? I didn’t quite understand the noise and shaking.) They dripped sweat. They talked unnaturally quickly. Nina was confused—was she a seagull or an actress?—but she managed to find her footing and step onto the runway. She suddenly stopped vibrating and regained her normal voice. Kostja simply fell over, presumably dead. The others took no notice.

This is not a review but a plea for help. Does anyone have any idea what could have been happening here? I understand that the choice of celebrity for each Chekhov character reflected that person’s attributes, but why the transformation? Why the shaking? Why the utterly undramatic death that didn’t even seem like a suicide? I’m lost.