Speed Train from Shenzhen to Wuhan - Day Four

8 December 2013 in | Comments (0)

I’m currently in China on a UK-China university trip, accompanied by people from 9 other UK universities. I have less access to the internet than usual, and no access to twitter, so instead find myself writing offline blog posts, which I’ll post when I’m able. Here’s the second.

So interesting to be in a place where everything is new. The train station in Shenzhen is new, and enormous, a vast open space – the Chinese are good at their vast open spaces, their huge public concourses and gathering places. Shenzhen reminded me of Dubai in some regard – I suppose because that’s the only other place I’ve been to that is so entirely new, and so much about building-bigger-better-now, though of course Shenzhen is ten times the size of Dubai already. Shenzhen no doubt has its bling but I didn’t come across it; instead, the area we were in had a lovely human scale to it. And of course, Shenzhen’s migrant workers are Chinese. My favourite sight: last night as my colleague Hongji and I were driven back to our hotel from Shenzhen Polytechnic where we had given a somewhat shambolic masterclass, we passed through an enormous intersection, building sites all around, where on one corner a large group of women were dancing to blaring music, their arms in the air, moving in unison.  One of our hosts said that this activity – large group dancing – is becoming more and more popular currently. I wanted to join them.

Flying through the countryside now – the train goes 305km per hour (there’s a a digital speedometer at the front of the carriage, next to the sign for the loos) at its fastest – we are passing through lovely hills and peaks and over rivers and fishing ponds. There is widespread development everywhere, with roads and railways and factories and whole cities springing up. But the lovely shape of the landscape, with it’s inhabited plateaus and valleys, land terraced for cultivation, its sudden empty hills and, in the distance, tall peaks, is marred by the pollution, with a dense haze covering everything, forests where you can see the tops of the trees have turned orange. It’s difficult not to feel tremendously saddened by it – with the country’s huge population pressing in on itself. About an hour and a half out of Shenzhen – we are travelling due north toward Wuhan – the air cleared suddenly as we passed through an area with little development. Red soil. Occasional clusters of old buildings with pagoda-style curved roofs. Then we pass through another tunnel and suddenly there’s another village with fifty skyscrapers all being built simultaneously. I find the scale of building and development oddly moving. Human potential, and endeavour, and all that. 

China Trip - Day One

4 December 2013 in | Comments (0)

I’m currently in China on a UK-China university trip, accompanied by people from 9 other UK universities. I have less access to the internet than usual, and no access to twitter, so instead find myself writing offline blog posts, which I’ll post when I’m able. Here’s the first. The photo is the name of Bath Spa University in China.

I arrived yesterday in China so am a total expert already. I’m in Shenzhen, which is only 20+ years old, but has 15 million people in it. It was one of the first enterprise zones opened up in the 1980s, and it really began to grow in the 90s and has boomed over the past decade. It is next to Hong Kong. Where we are staying is - I have no idea where we are really, but there are four theme parks in the area, and it is a kind of garden city suburb. And because we are in the tropics, not far south of the Tropic of Cancer in fact, the flora and fauna is very dense and tropical - flora, that is, no fauna as far as I can see, and it is v warm - 26 today, despite being winter. Tomorrow we are being taken to visit the Shenzhen Virtual University which is a huge science park-style collaboration between industry and academia. This afternoon we had a series of presentations from both British and Chinese academics all talking about digital media projects in education.

Facebook and twitter are blocked, which feels very odd indeed. I tend to use facebook when I travel - alone in hotel rooms in the evenings - and not much when I’m at home, so it feels peculiar to be without it, but more so twitter, which I’ve got so used to using to communicate with people with similar interests around the world. Not having access to these platforms makes me realise two things: first, that my idea of ‘around the world’ is a bit limited, and secondly, how much I enjoy it – how much saying the odd thing here or there online, and having people respond, has become part of my writing and working life.  I tried to open a Weibo account, which is the Chinese equivalent to twitter, which publishes in English now too, but you have to have a Chinese mobile number to join. 300,000,000 people speak English in China now, so I thought I might say hello to them. Ha ha.

It’s actually much less unfamiliar than I thought it would be, on first impressions. To tell you the truth, the Chinese people in Chinatown in San Francisco and Vancouver seem somehow more Chinese than the people here; perhaps that’s because the Chinese people who hang out in North American Chinatowns tend to be old. This part of Shenzhen is full of groovy fashionably dressed affluent young people with laptops. I went to a cafe yesterday that was exactly like a cafe in Toronto or San Francisco or London - good coffee, groovy teas, cakes, exposed brick wall on one side, wireless, magazines, funky chalkboard graphics; it’s amazing to see how that Portland/Seattle design aesthetic has become so dominant all the way across the planet.  But perhaps that feeling of familiarity might change once we get out of Shenzhen - next stop Wuhan, on Tuesday, by speedtrain. Wuhan is up the Yangtzee – toward Central China, colder, and more traditional too - an old city, though of course it has expanded exponentially.

Anyway, tonight they are playing loud Chinese music in the park next door to the hotel. Bring on the dancing pandas! Or maybe not.

Dorian Gray reviews

1 December 2013 in Dorian Gray | Comments (0)

It’s been a few weeks now since ‘Dorian Gray’ had its first two performances in Bratislava; there has since been a third performance. Some reviews have appeared, in the German/Austrian online publications Klassikinfo and Klassik, as well as a piece in the NY Times. We are expecting a few more reviews to surface, and the piece will continue to be performed once or twice per month over the next six months. One of our hopes, ‘our’ meaning the opera house, the publisher, the composer Lubica Cekovska and myself, is that the opera will interest other houses and companies and that other productions of ‘Dorian Gray’ will staged elsewhere.

Attending the final rehearsals and first two performances of ‘Dorian Gray’ was a wonderful experience for me. The National Theatre of Slovakia was very kind to me, wonderful hosts, and it was a huge pleasure to meet the singers, the other performers, and the orchestra.  The creative team, led by director Nicola Raab and conductor Christopher Ward, did a fantastic job – staging an entirely new opera is no simple undertaking, and staging a new opera in English in central Europe was an feat of collaboration and good will.

I learned a few things about writing for opera – one thing that was unusual about this experience is that Lubica and I went from writing the work to a full production; I think, normally, most operas are workshopped or semi-staged before a full production will be staged. We were lucky in that we had the story of ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ to provide us with a backbone for the opera – the story is a great driver for the production. With hindsight, I think I would have tried to get a few laughs in there – comedy is tricky in opera, but there is potential for physical comedy, certainly within the first scenes between Dorian and Sybil Vane. The story is so grim – as one audience member said to me, things start out bad, and then get worse – but a few jokes are always welcome. Of course the original text brims with Wilde’s wit and verve, but that’s hard to convey in a libretto; all the text of the libretto comes directly from the Wilde, but another audience member said to me, you can never understand what singers are singing, no matter what language.  The singers did an incredible job with learning to sing the English libretto – but at the end of the day, nobody goes to the opera because of the libretto, because of the words… it’s probably one of those things that you don’t ever think about apart from when it’s done badly.

Again, it was one of the great experiences of my life – both being involved in writing it, and then seeing it performed. And, when so much of my life is engaged with the digital, it was fab to spend a chunk of time fully immersed in a distinctly analogue world.

Speaking of digital, I’m now in China. Actual China. I’m here, though neither twitter nor facebook function here, so I’ll be blogging a bit more than usual, I suspect.