I have just returned from China where I was lucky enough to join London Voices for some concerts of Benjamin Britten, marking the composer’s centenary year. After many years of touring, I didn’t think that there was much that could surprise me, but China certainly did.
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We emerged from the airport into a sunny, hazy morning after an eleven-hour flight. My confused body thought it was two in the morning and I’d only managed half an hour of sleep on the plane. (BA in-flight entertainment had introduced me to the dark delights of Kevin Spacey in House of Cards and I had watched four episodes back to back).
A petite lady was waiting with a sign on wooden pole that said ‘London Voices’ in both English and Chinese Characters….at least, I assume that’s what it said in Chinese! She led the choir like a long tired crocodile through the airport car park where two buses were waiting to transport the eighty four choir members to the centre of Shanghai.
The style of buses were a slightly grubbier version of the ones I had grown familiar with in Japan. Each seat was resplendent with lacy antimacassars. The journey to the hotel was a white-knuckle ride and we soon learned that buses are ‘King’ on Chinese roads and one honk from their horn caused the small cars to scatter away in their path.
I was to discover that the hooting of horns feature heavily in the Chinese soundscape.
Shanghai is laced with precarious looking flyovers threading through the high rise buildings. The road in this picture curled round in a long downward spiral reminiscent of the Mousetrap game from my childhood. All were attempted at a speed which was too fast for comfort or safety. Looking out of the window was both riveting and terrifying. The position of the elevated roads meant that we drove incredibly close to the ugly high rise apartments, often at the same level as some poor person’s bedroom window. So close, you felt you could almost lean out and knock on the glass. Each window was a vignette of both familiar and very foreign images, somebody’s washing hanging next to a mini shrine.
The hotel was much like many hotels I had stayed in around the world. It took a while to check us all in and get 84 people with suitcases into the small row of lifts. It was 11am by the time I got to my room and we had to leave to rehearse at 5.30pm, so I settled down in my large bed for a few hours sleep. Given the choice of eating or sleeping. I always take the latter.
When my alarm went off (I had set two of them to be sure), I had a complete ‘where am I?’ moment and had to stumble into a long shower before I finally regained full consciousness.
The first rehearsal venue was in a leafy, almost European style neighbourhood. Outside, we were greeted by a poster for the War Requiem Concert sporting the Maestro with a rather pained expression. We were led upstairs to a large room, dimly lit by fluorescent tubes. It looked like it had been decorated in the 1970s. There was a painting of Beethoven proudly hung under some Chinese characters. The air conditioning was fierce after the balmy temperatures outside and all the singers wished they had thought to bring a sweater.
This was the first time we met our conductor for Peter Grimes, Duncan Ward. He is only 24 and has recently been appointed as the first Conducting Scholar of the Berliner Philharmoniker Orchester-Akademie on the recommendation of Sir Simon Rattle. He bounced in with the rosy faced, public-school look of a junior doctor I recently encountered in A & E. Duncan was tremendously affable and explained that this was the first time the Hangzhou Philharmonic Orchestra had played Benjamin Britten and only the second opera they had ever done. The orchestra was rehearsing with the mostly western cast in their hometown. Duncan had come to Shanghai on the train, forgetting that this was a public holiday. He told us that he was puzzled to find that the metro had been absolutely packed with people carrying goldfish.
As he knew that we had only just arrived that morning, he kindly dispatched Peter Grimes in a couple of hours. 48 of us had sung in two semi-staged concerts with the LPO the previous week. 22 were new to the opera apart from an afternoon whiz-through on the day before we flew. This jet lagged rehearsal must have been particularly challenging for them, especially at the speed Duncan was skipping from section to section. This was our only choir rehearsal with the conductor and we wouldn’t see him again until we joined the orchestra in Beijing.
Rehearsal over and I was so tired that I decided to commit the cardinal sin of eating in the hotel restaurant. I just didn’t feel up to venturing out and some of the choir had eaten there before the rehearsal and said it was good and not too expensive. The menu was large in both physical size and content. There were photos, which were not only garish in colour but rather ghoulish in execution. The translations were literal and uninviting. Fried bullfrog and duck’s tongues with a side order of fish lips? Also, it seems the Chinese like to show the quality of the ingredients in the menu, so the raw elements were assembled into a bizarre arrangement somewhat akin to the finished product. A raw chicken, complete with head, sitting proudly on a bed of noodles topped off with a coriander garnish. The same with raw fish on a plate of vegetables. Added to this, the color saturation was boosted to make it look quite unappetising.
The waitress spoke no English so with much pointing and smiling we ordered, not really knowing what would arrive. When the food came it was actually quite delicious – particularly the vegetables, which were crisp and fresh, delicately flavoured with sesame and ginger. Noodles with slices of beef and a huge plate of water spinach stir fried with chilli and a tsingtao beer was about £9, which seemed very reasonable for a hotel restaurant.
I collapsed into bed and, despite it being the afternoon back in England, I managed to sleep for nine hours. I’m sure that my ability to sleep is how I manage to get through these hectic travel schedules and am able to stay well and still sing. When I awoke, I opened my curtains to see this view of the nearby high rise blocks softened by a haze of smog.
Breakfast was interesting. Instead of just an egg chef there was also a soup chef. You could choose your ingredients and he would add them to a steaming bowl of broth along with some noodles. There was the usual western fare of bacon and sausages, croissants and cereals (without any bran content) but also Chinese porridge, steamed custard dumplings which looked like dim sum, strange small hard green fruits which were a cross between apples and plums. Of course there was a full range of fish, sushi and curious black boiled eggs which looked like they had been made in another century.
After breakfast I ventured out for my first wander. It was quite hot and I was greeted with the waft of smells, both good and bad. Fruit sellers had exotic things I’d never seen before, sitting beside bananas and satsumas. I stocked up and bought some milk to make a cup of tea in my room in case of patches of jet-lag insomnia. Beside familiar chocolates were shrink-wrapped snacks containing completely unrecognisable curiosities. Lots of dried fishy snacks of course. Food was all very different but the neighbourhood still looked almost western.
That afternoon and evening we had two rehearsals of the Britten War Requiem (with the full complement of singers). The buses took us off to the same rehearsal venue. This time the room was filled with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra and we immediately did a full run through. The Maestro, Charles Dutoit, was right at the other end and unfortunately for us, there was a double bass player directly in front of him. Mr Dutoit was sitting on a high stool but was hardly raised at all. Added to our distance, we were sitting in four rows on the level floor and it was almost impossible for many of us to see his hands. All we could do is hope that the concert hall would be better for seeing him and we would have to do our best for this rehearsal.
After three hours rehearsal we had a long break of an hour and a half and I headed off with three of my alto colleagues to find some food. Not an easy task when a symphony orchestra and enormous choir all flood the neighborhood simultaneously. We ended up following a Chinese violin player upstairs into a western style coffee shop. It turned out she was visiting Shanghai too, so following her had been a mistake as the two chicken salads that arrived turned out to be semi-frozen and smothered in creamy sauce.
One of our party ordered a fruit salad and bravely tried out the Chinese phrase she had learned for “no cream please, as I am allergic to dairy products”. It duly arrived in a deep bowl of cream. Maybe she needed to work on her intonation, or she had missed out the NO part. I was glad when my order didn’t arrive and back at the hall I had to make do with my emergency banana and some very over packaged, individually-wrapped, tiny prunes called American Plums that I had bought earlier. All this meant we were very hungry and quite grumpy by the end of the rehearsal.
Fuchsia Dunlop, the cook and excellent food-writer specialising in Chinese cuisine had very kindly emailed some eating recommendations to her friend Clara in the choir. Clara had kindly passed them onto us. We asked the receptionist to write “take me to” and the name of the restaurant at the top of the list onto a piece of card, and four of us jumped in a cab and went straight there – it seemed the only sensible thing for four hungry altos to do!
It turned out to be a tiny restaurant in the French Quarter and while we waited for a table, we got chatting to a Chinese lady with a couple of dogs who was sitting outside and spoke excellent English. She asked if we were with the choir and it turned out, by some bizarre coincidence, that she was the assistant conductor who had prepared the Shanghai Symphony for our concert. She was amazed that we had found this restaurant as it was so far off the tourist track. (Thanks to Clara and Fuchsia!) When we finally sat down, we realised that we needed help ordering – no garish photos here – so popped out to ask for her recommendations. What a feast! At last we had started to experience some real Chinese food.
We tried to be brave and order “fish head” which was actually the most expensive thing on the menu, but the young chinese people on the table next to us had just been given the last one. They were understandably being much more adventurous with their choices than us with their ordering but our new conductor friend had been kind to us poor westerners. We had an amazing dish of pork ribs which were sweet, sticky and a glossy-black due to their cuttle fish ink marinade; a delicate soup, with a green vegetable and wafer-thin, flat noodles and an amazing plate of mixed meat and Prawns in dried chillies.
Our waitress assured us that we needed some Shanghai Hairy Mitten Crab, which was obviously in season. We had already seen many shops and stalls that were stocked entirely with piles of the handsome chaps. She deftly prepared them using sharp cutters and used the end of the legs to poke the delicate flesh from the thighs. It was a work of art by the time she had finished.
Replete, we decided to walk back to the hotel (My role in the absence of my reading glasses was to hold up the assistive light on my phone so our designated navigator could see the very small map). When we finally got back after about 45 minutes, we all felt we had successfully completed our first mini Chinese adventure and were keen to go exploring the next day.
The Shanghai Spring Children’s Choir (who were excellent) were seated in a section of the auditorium and were a picture in their rainbow coloured t-shirts as they stood up to sing. Afterwards we had a free afternoon before the concert at 7.30pm so three of us jumped into a cab.
Taxis proved to be inexpensive, never costing more than the equivalent of £3 as long as you got a driver who was willing to turn the clock on. Some tried to quote an inflated fixed price but you just had to firmly say no and wait for another one to come along. We got dropped off right in the heart of the town, which was heaving.
We crossed the busy road, our ears assaulted by the honking of horns, and headed up a tiny side street and suddenly we were in old China. Food sellers were cooking the most amazing (and also scary) street food. Smoke and steam mingled together bringing smells both delicious and disgusting. An orchestra member explained that the worst smelling thing, which looked fairly innocuous on a griddle, was appropriately called Stinky Tofu. The traditional method for preparing the curd is to make a brine from fermented milk, vegetables, and meat. It can also include dried shrimp, amaranth and mustard greens, bamboo shoots and Chinese herbs. The fermentation of the brine can take several months and the resulting tofu smells like a cross between stinky cheese, rotting meat and something bitter all rolled into one – with a underlying note of manure.
I was sharing today’s adventure with a beautiful, Swedish mezzo soprano (also a very accomplished conductor) called Sofi. She has long, Scandinavian blonde hair. The other singer was the equally lovely alto, Tamsin, who is a statuesque six foot tall and also has flowing locks.
I certainly wasn’t going to lose them in a crowd as they towered over the locals and it transpired we would soon become the object of fascination for the Chinese people. They started to ask for their picture to be taken with Tamsin, who was declared to be “very beautiful” by all her admirers. This was to happen through the entire trip.
We had arrived in China during a national holiday week and there were many country people who had come to town to do some sightseeing, just like us. We were an unusual feature of their visit and there are now quite a few pictures in the provinces of locals posing with the strange, tall, western ladies. Tamsin told me that when they first got onto a subway train, everybody laughed. She declared it must have seemed like a couple of tall, purple-spotted giraffes had got on.
As we entered a temple and were jostled by the crowds, I didn’t feel at all nervous. The atmosphere was happy and there were so many things to see and experience. On our way in, a lady tried to persuade Tamsin to try a massage, which seemed to consist of being hit by a bunch of twigs, The crowds were intrigued by the spectacle. I love the expression on the people’s faces in the background of this picture.
Visitors were lighting bunches of twigs and praying, but it was far from a quiet, reverent place. At one stage, we followed a monk, thinking he would perform some ancient ceremony and he surprised us when he took out his iPhone 5 from under his robes and took a picture of the statues.
As we went out of the temple, the queue for the gardens was enormous, so we just drifted through the crowds, taking it all in and popped into a little music shop to look at singing bowls. The shop assistant treated us to a demonstration of an oriental flute.
Tamsin was very keen to sample some street food but I was still wary of doing so just before the first concert.
After a couple of hours, we were flagging a bit and spotted some western writing saying ‘roof top restaurant’. We emerged from the lift into a large dark room, but were taken through to a roof terrace, which was a calm oasis above the throng of the bustling streets. We ordered a simple meal to share of crisp steamed vegetables in a large bowl of soup and some stir fried vegetable noodles before, revived, heading out to haggle for some fresh-water pearls.
After shopping success, there was traffic gridlock in the main streets, so we headed down a tiny alleyway and came out in a pedestrian only market which wasn’t quite so busy. At the end of the road, we were able to hail a cab to take me back to the hotel. I needed a shower and to pick up my concert clothes. I left Tamsin and Sophie in search of a foot massage. They had been clever enough to take their things to the venue in the morning. A bath and a cup of tea revived me and I climbed on board the bus to be greeted by the excited chatter of sight-seeing tales and haggling success stories.
The concert went well despite a relatively poor attendance – Benjamin Britten proved to be a challenge for most Chinese concert goers. There was also lots of flash photography and children crying out and dropping things and some incredibly loud sneezes and coughs from the audience – which inevitably happened at the most poignant musical moments. At the end of the concert, the children’s choir came onto stage to a riotous reception from the audience, London Voices and the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra.
The buses took us back to the hotel and a big group of us headed to a nearby place recommended by the tour manager. It had been a bicycle lane in the day time! You chose your skewers of vegetables and meat, popped them into a plastic basket and handed them to the man cooking on a large outdoor griddle. We never really got what we ordered and Tamsin accidentally bit into some stinky tofu (and had to spit it out immediately), but the food was delicious and plentiful. Here’s my old Guildhall music college friend Peter Snipp choosing his food. Apart from singing opera he also does an excellent Tribute to Matt Monro. The group shared a few large bottles of beer and we had a wonderful evening.
To view a fuller selection of my pictures click here to visit my Chinese Gallery.
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