Oriental escapades

The Middle East

PersianCarpetMy first visit to the Middle East was in 1976, to Teheran, to perform Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly. We performed at the Rudaki Hall, a most beautiful theatre, brand new and opulent. We rehearsed in the abundant spaces of the marbled foyers until we went on stage for the final rehearsals with a set. This was in the time of the Shah, whose reign was rapidly coming under threat from Islamic revolutionaries, and who was eventually forced to live in exile.

While I was there, I took the opportunity to walk around the city. Between the road and the pavement was a huge ditch called a jube (sp?) and, prior to the time of prayer each afternoon, the ditch was filled with running water.

 During one particular walk, I turned a corner to see a dog urinating in it. About 100 yards away, a butcher was washing his plates and cutting boards in the same ditch. It was probably no wonder that I became ill. In the early stages of rehearsals, I was struck by a bout of amoebic dysentery, and was admitted to the American Hospital for just over a week. The only thing I could eat after this illness was boiled rice and natural yoghurt; I shed pounds and pounds. It actually took two years for me to be free of the amoeba. Apparently, all vegetables and salad ingredients should be washed with a disinfectant, as most of the outlying suppliers of said ingredients used human waste as a fertilizer.

I recovered enough to do my performances, even though I had missed a lot of rehearsals. My Butterfly was an Iranian national who had studied at the Julliard School of Music in New York. Her husband was a very important Minister in the Shah’s regime, and I suspect that is why she was cast in the role. It was not a voice pleasing to the ear although a very beautiful woman. At the pre-dress rehearsal, her husband came bounding onto the stage and dragged her off saying (in Farsi) that she could not disgrace the family name. The stage director, a Japanese lady and former singer, Dr. Otani, donned her own kimono and sang the dress rehearsal. After frantically trying to find a replacement, they were successful in securing the services of Atsuko Azuma, who flew in from Milan the day before the first night, complete with her own kimonos. Her skills in authentic Japanese movement were amazing, from kneeling to standing, the use of the fan to cover her face and so on. She had obviously studied the art of the Geisha for years. There was no time to rehearse, but we fitted around each other in the performances.

Madam Butterfly – ‘The whole world over’ (Dovunque al mondo)
Norman Bailey (Sharpless)
NO, cond. Mark Elder

I had (and still have) a great interest in Persian rugs, so I decided to take a flight from Teheran to Isfahan to see the carpet manufacturers. It was a very small twin-prop plane, which seated about 12 passengers. Once we were all seated and strapped in, an Australian voice, which I assumed was the pilot talking to the co-pilot, came over the tannoy system.

“I hope those bloody mechanics repaired the port engine…if it happens again, then we may not be so lucky … [pause] … What bloody idiot left the tannoy turned on?

Then everything went dead. By this time all the passengers were out of their seats and rushing to the door. Again his voice came over the tannoy.

“Sorry mates, there’s nothing wrong with the plane. We were just having a bit of fun”.

The flight to Isfahan and back was uneventful; however, the experience of seeing the techniques of carpet weaving was unforgettable. There were huge factories that made (still by hand) wonderful carpets and rugs to a very high quality. A great many of the weavers were children, who rapidly lost their sight because of the close, extremely intricate weaving, but there were always more to take their place. It seemed like slavery to me.


The factory-made carpets were of an incredibly fine quality and, as a result, very expensive. Although I love them, I have a preference for the rugs of the more tribal, nomadic carpet makers, who set up their tents and continue on a loom they started a week before. All their dyes are natural, and when they up camp to another location, the same recipe for the colours alters, because the plants they use grow in different soils. Hence the deviation in the colour of the fibres….magical….it all tells a story.

When I returned to Teheran, I went to the bazaar and was talked into buying a Bokhara rug that I did like (Elephants foot gull motif), which was hand-made and of fine quality. When I returned home I discovered that the rug was made in Pakistan, and that the colours used were not authentic to a ‘Persian’ rug. There was an abundance of green, and I soon discovered that green is the ‘sacred’ colour and used only very sparingly. I learned a not too expensive lesson. I still have a passion for oriental carpets and rugs and purchase them when I can, but only from household clearance shops who, sometimes, just don’t know what they have in the way of quality.

The Near East

I first went to Israel in the late 70’s with a choir from Stuttgart to sing as tenor soloist in the Dvorak Stabat Mater with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.  These concerts were, conducted by the choir’s music director, Helmuth Rilling. The choir was the GächingerKantorei, but there was a spelling mistake in the posters and programme and they were billed as the ‘Gächinger Konditorei [cake shop]’.  The soloists were put up in the orchestra’s guest house just outside Tel Aviv, and very comfortable it was.  The house manager was a Brit (Jewish by religion) and came from Manchester.

DeadSeaPaperWe were there over Pesach, the Jewish holiday that almost coincides with Easter in the Christian calendar.  Between performances in Tel Aviv (Ben Gurion Hall) and Jerusalem we had free time.  I rented a car, and took myself off with two colleagues to the Dead Sea, Masada, Jericho and a town on the Sea of Galilee.  We took a swim in the Dead Sea, where we floated whilst reading a newspaper; took the easy route up to Masada (not on foot); and ended up at the town by the Sea of Galilee.

The end of Pesach was approaching, and we were awaiting the opening of a restaurant at sunset by the waters edge. We hadn’t been able to eat bread during our time there, and were really fed up with matzos, but the smell of freshly baked bread was now permeating the air.  There was a sudden rush to the water’s edge and everybody was throwing the left-over matzos into the water.  I have never seen anything like it, the fish were going mad, leaping out of the water, landing on one other, just to get their fair share.  The bread tasted really great as did the meal that followed.

We had a performance in Tel Aviv on Good Friday – religious holidays mean nothing to a performer, as the show must go on.  We entered the stage in the Ben Gurion Hall and took our places.  In the front row was a man with an eye patch.  It was Moshe Dayan, the Minister of Defense, and former Israeli Military Chief of Staff.  There were a couple of empty seats either side of him which I assumed was for security.

My opening line in the piece was ‘Stabat Mater Dolorosa’, but being Good Friday I sang ‘Shabbat Mater Dolorosa’.  Nobody even noticed, perhaps my diction wasn’t good enough or perhaps the public thought that I had a lisp.  There were several performances in Tel Aviv and others in Jerusalem and Haifa. Here is a live excerpt from another performance in Ben Gurion Hall

DvorakStabat Mater – 1st mvt.
Israel Philharmonic, GächingerKantorei, cond. Helmuth RIlling


While in Jerusalem, I Jerusalem_Holy_Sepulchre_BW_24did all the tourist sights, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where it is thought that Jesus was crucified and laid in the tomb, but there is still much debate on that fact.  I found it rather distasteful that there were ‘traders’ – probably Palestinian, judging by their clothes – outside the Basilica renting crosses and crowns of thorns to the assembled public, and charging them high prices for photographs. As the Basilica was in the Christian quarter of Jerusalem, I don’t think the traders would have been Catholic or Greek Orthodox or even Jewish. Still, I suppose that one has to make a living in any way one can.  The walk and climb along the Via Dolorosa was interspersed with seduction into coffee shops and, of course, carpet bazaars.  A wholly (not holy) memorable experience.


The Far East

Japan – what a great invitation and experience!  My first experience was in 1990 with the Orchestra de Paris under the direction of Semyon Bychkov in performances of Berlioz’s Damnation de Faust.  These took place at the immense auditorium in Tokyo called the Bunka Kaikan and we also went to the port city of Tokyo, Yokohama. (Below is an excerpt from another performance I gave of that work at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh, during the 1987 Edinburgh Festival. The mezzo-soprano is Ann Murray, the baritone is David Wilson Johnson, and the Edinburgh Festival  Chorus and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra are conducted by Neeme Järvi.)

Prior to this visit to Japan, I had been singing Tamino in Die Zauberflöte at the Opéra de Paris, at the Bastille.  The production was sponsored by the Nikkei Shinbun, and the head of that organisation invited the artists to a Gala Dinner in the theatre after the premiere.  I was seated at this gentleman’s right elbow and, through his interpreter, he invited me, if ever I were in Tokyo, to make contact.  I told his ‘mouthpiece’ that I would be there the following October, only a few months away.  I was given his business card and off we went in different directions.

On arrival in Tokyo at Narita airport, I was transferred by limousine to the Hotel Prince Takanawa (nothing to do with Kiri).  It was fairly early in the day, and I called the MD of the Nikkei Shinbun.  Within an hour I had a limousine and the translator I had met at the Bastille at the hotel.  One afternoon, I was picked up by ‘my driver’ and taken to the financial district, where the Nikkei Shinbun had their HQ. Deep below a concrete tower, I was taken to a Sushi restaurant and was told that the ‘Boss’ would be there soon.  He arrived not much later and asked (through his interpreter) if I enjoyed sushi.  I replied that it was my favourite and could eat it all day.  I was given a menu (in Japanese), and asked what I would like to eat.  I put the menu down and said that I would like maguro, toro, hamachi, unagi and uni, and anything else he would recommend.

sashimiEverything I asked for came in sushi nori style and also as sashimi.  There was, however, another treat when they brought a live fish to the table and carved very thin slivers from its side.  It was delicious, but I was shocked that the fish was then put back into a tank.  Well, you can’t get fresher than that!!  I didn’t try blowfish (Fugu in Japenese which literally means ‘river pig’) and sometimes called ‘Puffer fish’ which is more poisonous than cyanideApparently, there has to be a sign outside the restaurant saying that the Chef is qualified to serve blowfish, as you can only eat certain parts of it.  After that wonderful meal, I was taken to a private Geisha club in the Ginza that the MD frequented.  We were shown to a private booth, and a trolley of alcohol (with his name on it) was wheeled in.  Some authentic geishas joined us, along with a Caucasian girl who could talk to me in English.  It wasn’t in any way sordid, but a very relaxing evening.  On returning to our car, the whole of the Ginza was full of parked black stretch limos, at the kerb and down the centre of the street. One of our meals together was captured for posterity in the photograph below.


The day before my departure I asked if the ‘Boss’ could recommend a shop where I could buy Diana, my wife, some fresh water pearls.  It was instantly done, and I was whisked off to the store.  I was being shown some exquisite pink pearls by an assistant whose name tag said ‘Ebi’.  I started to laugh, as Ebi is the name for a shrimp.  Fortunately, she laughed with me, and we continued with my purchase; I was given an incredible discount. I wanted a necklace and a bracelet that could be joined together to form a long necklace that could be wrapped twice around the neck.  My purchase was completed, the pearls were strung and I collected them on route to the airport.

My next visit to Tokyo was as Otello with La Scala conducted by Riccardo Muti and directed by Graham Vick.  This was in 2004.  I had previously sung this for La Scala in Milan some months earlier. We rehearsed in rooms at the Bunka Kaikan but the performances were at the NKO Theatre, another huge auditorium.  The Japanese public go mad for classical music and opera, as they only get to see and hear it with visiting companies. I am happy to have been a part of their enjoyment and would have loved to return.  Unfortunately, my life changed dramatically less than a year later.  More on that in another post.


3 thoughts on “Oriental escapades

  1. I’m still enjoying it David, apart from your clips which are a pleasure to listen to, I love the anecdotes, adventures! Your dysentery tale sounds familiar, after a similar experience, we always carried potassium permanganate crystals with us. Looking forward to the next episode. D & T xx

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