Friday, November 23, 2007

S'Natchez On The Nile

One of the wonderful things about being a writer is that, every now and then, an opportunity presents itself which is too good to ignore. Last fall, I accompanied the Houston Grand Opera's production of Nixon in China to the Edinburgh Festival. Come September, I'll be participating in a white-water rafting excursion down the Colorado River. What makes Tag-A-Long Tours' whitewater trip different from any other? In 1988, as part of a benefit excursion for the Portland Opera, they floated down the Colorado River with a group of opera singers and a Steinway piano. Soprano Pamela South tells me that singing under the stars in Canyonlands National Park (and hearing her voice ricochet off the canyon walls) was enough to make her skin crawl.

This year Miss South (a graduate of the Merola Program and a former Affiliate Artist with the San Francisco Opera) will head down the Colorado River again, accompanied by Jerome Hines, myself and several others whose idea of roughing it usually goes no further than a Hilton. If you're interested in joining us, call (800) 453-3292 for further information.


Of all the oddball operatic excursions I've ever embarked on, 1989's trip to Egypt with the Houston Grand Opera's production of Show Boat ranks as the most amazing by far. To replace Cairo's original opera house (which burned down during the mid-1970s), Japan donated, designed and built a brand new, $65-million performance facility for the Arab Republic of Egypt. As a result, this season (as gestures of goodwill) most of the nations with consulates or embassies in Egypt have been sending representative arts groups from their countries to Cairo during the theater's first year in operation.

When the United States Information Agency heard about HGO's impending revival of Show Boat, government personnel decided that Jerome Kern's classic Broadway musical would be the perfect piece of Americana to represent the United States. After endless negotiations, HGO's personnel left Texas on February 22nd aboard an Egyptair 747. That same day, I used a TWA Frequent Flyer award to fly from San Francisco to Cairo so that I could join the company on its international odyssey.

Ironically, Houston's music critics expressed no desire to accompany Show Boat to Cairo, claiming that since they had already seen the production at the Wortham Center, there was nothing else they needed to write about it. What these critics failed to realize was that the performance itself was not the story -- the real reason to accompany Show Boat to Egypt was to see how the arts can serve as a bridge between two cultures.

Traveling with an opera company puts a special tint on things. Because the Ramses Exhibit was opening at the Dallas Art Museum two nights after Show Boat premiered in Cairo, HGO's visit was officially dubbed "Texas In Egypt Week." As a result, the Cairo Marriott (which was hosting the company) went wild with hospitality. The hotel's catering staff built a mock Show Boat boarding ramp in front of Omar's 24-hour cafe, turned one of its restaurants into a "Texas Longhorn Steakhouse" and offered Tex-Mex buffets -- complete with blue-corn tortilla chips -- in the hotel's branch of the Roy Rogers Restaurant. If it all sounds crazy, try to imagine what it's like to order a "South of the Border Burger" while wading through a ten-hour time difference and looking up at a waiter who's dressed in a red gingham shirt, blue jeans and cowboy hat while sporting a name tag that says "Hi, I'm Mohammed!"

Although Egypt's antiquities are every bit as awesome as one has dreamed, modern Cairo is a bit like Tijuana with 15 million poor people in it. Traffic patterns are nonexistent (tenor Richard White returned to the hotel one day boasting that he had been in three accidents that afternoon) and it is not uncommon for people to make a U-turn in the middle of a bridge or for a donkey to bring traffic to a dead halt on an elevated highway. Descending a steep plank into a burial chamber within one of the pyramids at Giza gives visitors a distinct appreciation for Aida's ingenuity and determination to die beside her beloved Radames.

While sightseeing in Cairo, I was able to check out the Shah of Iran's tomb, attend a performance by a troupe of Whirling Dervishes and enjoy the sound and light show out at the Pyramids. Once I got over such delights as the dead cow floating in the irrigation canal, the donkey braying outside my hotel room in Luxor or the fellow in the bazaar who whined "Please, sir, all I want is a chance to rip you off," things settled down to a more normal pace and I began to adjust to the realities of life in the Third World.


Talk about different realities! For those who harbor fears about terrorism in the Middle East there is, as Egyptians are wont to say, "No problem." Armed guards are stationed everywhere with rifles in hand and, on domestic Egyptair flights, the cockpit door remains wide open so that German and Italian tourists can run to the front of the cabin with their videocameras. On one such flight, a tourist boasted to the pilot that he had flown F-47's during World War II. The pilot's genial response? "Wanna use the jumpseat and ride up front with us?"

So many bizarre and fascinating incidents took place during my Egyptian adventure that it would be impossible to cover them all in this column. Let's just say that, by the end of the run, the Americans, Arabs and Romanian refugees who had worked the show managed to overcome the severe communications problems posed by the language barrier. And a symposium on Show Boat engineered by members of Cairo's academic community proved to be as tedious, self-serving and unproductive as any musical symposium in the United States.

For many, the highlight of the Egyptian odyssey was the banquet hosted by Egypt's Minister of Culture, Farouk Hosny, in a private tent overlooking the Pyramids (an experience which resembled something out of 1001 Arabian Nights, with entertainment provided by Egyptian musicians and dancing horses). The Americans eventually got used to hearing Arab men bid 50,000 camels for Karla Burns (the huge black woman who played Queenie). On several occasions, including a midnight dinner cruise down the Nile, principal artists Lee Roy Reams and Adria Firestone stunned local bellydancers with their hip-swinging talents. As Firestone later told me, "Lee Roy can really shake it!"

For me, one of the greatest benefits of traveling to Cairo was the chance to sit in on a series of working sessions from technical rehearsal to sitzprobe to dress rehearsal and, finally, opening night. Watching a production come together as people tried to bridge a difficult language barrier while racing against time (there were only nine days between load-out in Houston and opening night in Cairo and the scenery arrived 18 hours late in the middle of the first downpour Cairo had seen in four years) was the kind of invaluable experience which teaches a critic why the true heroes of any production are the backstage crew.

Last, but not least, one of my most cherished childhood fantasies came true on closing night of Show Boat when I was able to stand in the wings for a performance of a big, Broadway show.

Ain't life grand!

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on May 25, 1989.

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