Birds of paradise, Dvorak, and Puccini

by Rob Tiller

On Saturday afternoon I walked over to the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences to see the Birds of Paradise exhibit. I loved it! It was about the exotic and colorful species that live mostly in the rainforests of New Guinea and Australia. There were sections on early European encounters with the birds and the efforts of trailblazing naturalists, but the heart of the exhibit was gorgeous recent photos and videos by Tim Laman, who worked in partnership with ornithologist Edwin Scholes.

In 2004, these two brave souls undertook to document all 39 species of birds of paradise. This required numerous expeditions through dense forests and up into the mountains. Some of the species do their amazing displays in the treetops, so documenting them required building blinds high up in trees and sitting there for days at a time. Getting to the sites and getting the shots sounded more like the first ascent of Everest than a bird walk. This was high adventure. There’s a good web site about their work here. For an aspiring nature photographer, it was really inspiring.

And the birds are amazing! Some have iridescent colors, and others have wire like structures coming out of their tails. Some can transform their shapes into modernist sculptures. Their mating displays are hugely dramatic. It made me feel privileged to live on planet earth, where remarkable adventures are still possible, and such amazing creatures still exist.

We went to the N.C. Symphony that night, and heard Dvorak’s 7th Symphony. The orchestra was led by guest conductor Christian Knapp. Described in the program as “one of today’s foremost young conductor’s,” he seemed a bit shy and eccentric when he first appeared, and his gestural style seemed quirky and unathletic.

But he could play the orchestra! By that I mean, the orchestra was his instrument. He had a strong artistic vision, and the will to shape the music. His rhythmic flexibility was a welcome change from Grant Llewellan’s typically more foursquare approach. As Olga, my piano teacher, observed recently, the music is supposed to be interesting, not boring, and to make it interesting we have to find rhythmic solutions that go beyond the metronome.

On Sunday morning it was too chilly for golf. I took some pictures with my new wide angle lens, then went to O2 Fitness for a two-hour workout. I had success with my handstand (on the eleventh attempt)! I was focusing on doing a good variety of functional movements along with a lot of cardio: jumping rope, rowing, running, stairs, and elliptical. My average heart rate over the two hours was 135, with a high of 161, and I burned 1537 calories.

We had tickets to the Sunday afternoon performance by the N.C. Opera of Puccini’s La Boheme. I was planning to go mainly to give our local musicians some moral support, and wasn’t especially looking forward to it. In the past, I’ve found Puccini not quite to my taste – overly lush, with big, obvious emotions, and not much subtlety. But I also recognized that his music is dense and complex, and thought I might get him better if I listened more.

I’m so glad I didn’t skip it. This was a visually and musically spectacular production that was satisfying on every level. The sets by Peter Dean Beck were highly evocative (a long step up from NCO’s usual standard). The costumes were expressive and lively. The orchestra was a group of experienced professionals who sounded great. Guest conductor Robert Moody seemed to have a good feel for the music and good rapport with the singers.

The leads were all good, and tenor Eric Barry as Rodolfo was terrific. He did his big arias with great sensitivity and feeling, but he also had a sweet, funny presence, and good chemistry with his Mimi, Angela Fout. I enjoyed her singing, too, which I didn’t find quite as technically satisfying, but did find very expressive. Baritone Troy Cook as Marcello was also a fine singer and good actor. The chorus sounded good, the children’s chorus sounded good, and even the marching band sounded good. The crowd scenes were wonderfully staged – very lively. The English subtitles, projected above the stage, were also well done.

But the really amazing thing was how all these performers and technicians came together, melding into something that was, for 2:40, a complete world. This is the magic of opera. I really was drawn into Puccini’s vision of 1840s Paris and sweet, romantic, artistic Bohemians, and I cared about those dreamers. I got quite misty when poor Mimi died. It was a complete, powerful experience.