As I sit here idling away a free afternoon, sipping on a tasty local artisan ale in a deserted Colombian bar, Chumbawumba playing on the jukebox, the swell of the city ebbing and flowing around me, two intrepid little ladies have just dived headlong into the middle of heavy traffic and started waving their arms around for all they’re worth.
“I get knocked down, but I get up again!” intones the jukebox, with no small amount of irony.
Such wantonly dangerous behaviour seems to come as a surprise to nobody except me.
It turns out these reckless traffic dodgers are actually budding entrepreneurs. In what proves to be an obviously well-rehearsed routine, the first lady stops the oncoming traffic on the main road with upraised, outstretched hands, whilst the other immediately starts waving vehicles out from a heavily clogged side road. After letting a dozen or so cars out, they then both sprint, as fast as they can, the 30-or-so yards to the traffic lights, where those dozen cars have been caught by a red light, and proceed to collect their remuneration from the grateful drivers who otherwise would spend the better part of their Saturday afternoon stuck in a busy side-street.
The only variation in their routine comes when they aid the passage of an ambulance through the clogged junction, but apart from that, immune to impending danger, they expertly execute their drill again and again, and, amazingly, it seems to aggravate nobody. Were this London, they’d have been mown down several dozen times, both accidentally and on general principle, by buses, taxis, and Chelsea tractors, but not here. Here, the locals just smile and embrace the chaos.
Welcome to Bogotá, the capital of Colombia.
I’m here rehearsing a new production of Salome, directed by Joan Anton Rechi, for the splendidly named Teatro Mayor Julio Mario Santo Domingo, a modern artistic hub in the northern part of the city.
Opera singing has taken me to some pretty far flung places, but not for a second did I think that I might end up working in Colombia. I mean, there’s surely no culture of opera here, right?
Wrong. The Teatro de Cristóbal Colón (the Christopher Columbus Theatre), also known as the “Teatro Colón”, was inaugurated on 27 October 1892, marking the fourth centenary of his discovery of the Americas with a performance of Verdi’s Ernani. Based on the Palais Garnier in Paris, but scaled down to about half-size, this theatre regularly staged operas by Puccini, Verdi, and their bel canto predecessors, over a century ago. Tosca, apparently, was performed there only a matter of months after its premiere.
Our performances of Salome will constitute the first Richard Strauss opera to be performed in Colombia, and a national premiere of such an iconic work is a lovely project with which to be involved. I was lucky enough to participate in the Chinese premiere of Parsifal in Beijing a couple of years ago, and the Australian premiere of Shostakovich’s 13th Symphony in Melbourne a few years before that.
There’s something wonderfully refreshing about performing these great pieces to an audience who are totally unfamiliar with them. Positivity surrounds you. The public are excited to experience something new to them, and therefore there is none of the usual crushing weight of jaded expectation upon the shoulders of the performers. It affords you a certain amount of creative freedom, and, in the increasingly historic and rarefied artistic medium of opera, that’s nothing to be sniffed at.
Bogotá itself is huge. And high. Eight million people live in a long, thin valley high in the East Andes at an altitude of 2640 metres (8850 feet). That’s more than twice the height of the highest part of the UK, Ben Nevis in Scotland, and, as you might imagine, singing at that altitude takes a bit of getting used to.
It’s not so much that you struggle for breath, or that your range or quality suffers. It just means that you have to tank up with more air than you would need to sing a given phrase at sea-level. There’s less oxygen up here per volume of air inhaled, so to deliver the same amount of oxygen to your muscles means taking on a correspondingly much larger quantity of air. You have to breathe more deeply, more regularly. Adjusting to this doesn’t mean that your body remarkably becomes more efficient at processing oxygen over a couple of days, it just means that the sensation becomes familiar, and you grow used to compensating.
That being said, you do need to move a little slower than you might expect. Even a couple of flights of stairs will leave you quite short of puff if you go at them too quicky. Far better to simply adopt the easy gait of the locals and not wear yourself out.
The locals themselves are a warm, generous people, welcoming, cheery, and scrupulously polite. I can’t help but grin whenever I thank someone and receive a “Mucho gusto!” in return. The “mañana” mentality is fully in evidence here, but somehow it encourages you to just relax and go with the flow.
Even the news that most of our scenery had burned down in an unfortunate workshop fire didn’t seem to faze anybody. Graceful acceptance of the vicissitudes of fate and a wonderfully positive “It’ll be fine!” attitude mean that nobody was particularly stressed.
I can feel myself slowly adjusting to the easy pace of life here, and I have to say that I love it. For years I’ve harboured a dream of riding my motorbike down the Pan American Highway from the tip Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, and spending time amongst the warm people of Bogotá has served to remind me of why I wanted to embark on that adventure in the first place.
My friend and fellow motorbike enthusiast Richard Berkeley-Steele arrives tomorrow to begin rehearsing Herod. I think we’ll have to seriously explore the possibilities over a few more of these delicious local artisan ales…