Notes from Away: Cleopatra's Voice
Thursday, May 21, 2015 7:25 AM
SHANGHAI. When we finally arrived for the concert, we were quite wet from the rain, and rather cross.
Shanghai has four major concert halls. Three of them are located in the western half of the city where we live and work, in the district called Puxi, meaning west (xi) of the Huang Pu river.
One is the gleaming new home of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, finished just this year. A second venue, not unlike Boston Symphony Hall in size and ambiance, and similarly a jewel of architecture and acoustics, was built in 1930. Fifteen years ago, this lovely building, the Shanghai Concert Hall, was threatened by the construction of an elevated highway. The city paid millions to raise it from its foundations and move it - a few inches each day - some 100 yards back from the highway and into a park full of newly transplanted, fully grown trees.
Now this rainy evening found us rushing to yet another of the city's concert halls, located miles away, in the district called Pudong, meaning east (dong) of the Huang Pu river. The red taillights of crawling traffic glistened on the rain-slicked Friday night streets, and the two of us had been an hour in transit when we panted up the stairs of the Oriental Art Center, just barely on time to rendezvous with our friends. They had the tickets.
Arrangements had been hastily made by text message, and we didn't even know what performance we were coming to hear. No sign of friends, though, as the gong was sounding and the lobby was emptying. A phone call was made. "We are here. We are at the top of the stairs. Where are you? . . . No way!"
Long pause. Way. Wrong concert hall.
It turned out that our friends were waiting for us in Puxi, back across the Huang Pu, at the fourth of Shanghai's concert halls, The Grand Theater.
Thus commenced our second hour in transit that evening, with a walk in the rain back to the metro, the humid ride to People's Square, another walk in the rain (and we had only one umbrella), then confusion about entrances, and finally as we stood outside the brilliantly lit, modern-designed, glass-fronted, interior-balconied, marble-floored, breathtaking building, we were forbidden to enter until our friends (yes, still friends) came out after intermission, with profuse apologies, and with our tickets. It seemed better not to inquire how the misunderstanding had occurred.So the world outside seemed "too much with us, late and soon," in Wordsworth's phrase, as we settled into our seats, and I at least was a bit out of sorts as we waited for the music to begin.
On stage a small group of musicians with strings and woodwinds formed a semi-circle. The folded program, hastily consulted, said "Drama Queens" and our friends whispered we would hear a European soprano. The lights dimmed around the full house, and out she came to warm applause, with blond hair piled up high, and wearing a magnificent skirted dress of a splendid red.
The musicians began to play, in the baroque style, and she began to sing, and her voice filled the hall. It was lovely.
She was singing the music of Handel. Electronic screens at the sides of the stage translated the Italian libretto into Chinese and English. She was singing as Cleopatra. Singing of Mark Antony and Julius Caesar, and the imminent fate (remember the poisonous snake in the basket of figs) that she would choose to end her sovereign life.
The words on the screens provoked daydreams, and her voice was entrancing. I closed my eyes as I often do at concerts, to listen more intently, and to see more intently.
At one point, it seemed as if a single note of the violin was extended like a hand to be grasped, and I thought of Romeo and Juliet, when the two young people circle each other in masks, and speak of hands in prayer ("that pilgrims' hands do touch, and palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss"), before they grasp hands in a shock of recognition though they don't know each others' names, and while I saw this scene in my mind, I heard the singer's voice also rise up and extend like a hand to be grasped, and then the notes of voice and violin touched in the air for a long while, like fingers entwined, before separating and dancing away into the music again.
I opened my eyes and looked to my left. A father and mother had brought their daughter to the concert. She looked about twelve years old. Eyes bright and face bright, she was following the music, with her hand gently lifting and falling in time, the hope of the world.
Stephen Harder is a resident of Rockport, living and working in China.