Music, theatre and dance in various forms have always been very healing for me – whether as a performer or as a member of the audience or as a remote viewer/listener via an electronic medium. While my primary motivation to travel to Paris in winter was to attend to wonderful wedding of my fabulous French friends Carole and Gildas, my second priority was to experience as many performing arts productions as possible. I was definitely not disappointed! “There are at least 800 performances on any given night in Paris!” Gildas informed me of this fact during a mystery tour I took with them. (More on that in a subsequent post.)
My first big performance outing was on New Year’s ( called Old Year’s in the Caribbean) Eve. Thanks to Carole, who had secured a ticket for me several months in advance, I was off to see The Nutcracker Ballet, a traditional Christmas favourite entertainment in Canada, as well as in France. It had been more than 30 years since I last watched this special 19th century spectacle on stage, and here I was in Paris of all places to see it again. Well, I was beyond delighted!
As I seated myself in the second balcony, I was amazed at the exceptional view I had of the entire stage at the Opera Bastille. And I could also see the conductor and all the instrumentalists in the orchestra pit. This well-loved ballet held the 3,000 viewers in the sold-out space in awe for about two magical hours, with one 20 minute intermission. I particularly enjoyed watching the harpists in the ‘pit’, as well as the conductor’s baton guiding the musicians through Tchaikovsky’s renowned score. But of course, it was the dancers who stole my heart and everyone else’s, with their beautiful, precise, flowing movements, demonstrating their strength and agility in this challenging physical art form. Yet it was more than that. In Nureyev’s choreographed production, it was evident that the enchanting tale of The Nutcracker was also relayed through the dancers’ facial expressions and mimed injections of humor, with which the audience could easily identify. The entire Corps De Ballet and the students in the dance school of the Paris Opera Ballet gave me a wonderful New Year’s gift with their world-class performance of a timeless tale. I left the opera house in a dream-like state, as is fitting a New Year’s Eve in the City of Light!
During the following week, I was well occupied by outings with Carole and Gildas. However, when Saturday January 3rd arrived, I was determined to see the world première of An
American in Paris musical before it closed and headed to Broadway! Again, Carole had tried to secure a ticket for me, but the house was completely sold-out on that last weekend of its run at the Theatre Du Chatelet. However, she advised me that rush seats with limited sight lines of the stage would be available for only $10 Euros. Well, on that Saturday morning, I was at the ticket office as soon as it opened. I was able to get a ticket with a caution that I might not be able to see the entire stage. In my mind, something was better than nothing for an occasion such as this!
As I had a few hours before the 3 p.m. start, I wandered around the Halles area of the first arrondissement. It was a very rainy day and quite cool, so I was glad of my boots, wool coat and hat as I braved the elements with an umbrella for shelter. I was also on another mission: I went in search of a well-known American
Café, as well as the location of a jazz club, called Le Duc Des Lombards. I lucked out on both counts. It was really just by chance that I came upon the Joe Allen Restaurant and Bar. I had an ulterior motive too: once I found it, I had hoped to meet the Canadian chef for which the place is famous – Graeme Bent. My cousins from Nova Scotia are acquainted with his family, so I had hoped to say ‘hello’! However, he was not in at that time, but I did enjoy my chicken Caesar salad with a mild apple cider on the side. The place was packed, and by the time I finished my meal, I had to run for the opening of the theatre at 2:30 p.m. so that I could find my seat. I made it on time, although I did get turned around once and was courteously redirected by a friendly Parisian, who understood my French perfectly!
A polite usher confirmed that it was not possible to take photos once the performance had begun. This is a standard practise in most theatres these days. For the same reason, I could not get action shots at Opera Bastille for The Nutcracker. While I noticed that people did use their smart phones to capture memories from the stage, I respect the rights of the artists, as I wish to receive the same consideration for my own creations.
I was thrilled to discover that the sight lines for the stage were quite good, except for far stage left. As it turned out, very little of the action took place in that area, so I felt well satisfied by my $10 Euro investment! The plot is a well-known one, as the original film version starred Gene Kelly, and most people know at least a couple of the tunes, such as ‘I got Rhythm’ and ‘S’Wonderful’. As the production was set in English, I could easily follow it, while French speakers referred to moving lines of translation above the stage. Sometimes I looked at it and chuckled to myself. As I have learned, it is often challenging to translate an idiom from one language to another; they tend to lose meaning. However, the overall sense of the action was not lost on anyone.
Here I was in Paris, watching a musical written by Americans George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin, which really created a picture for me of what it may have been like just after World War II and the end of Nazi Occupation in this City of Light. The romantic leads were truly incredible: both are professional ballet dancers with fine voices and a great command of the stage. You can read a complete review here. They succeeded in thoroughly convincing me about their love for each other despite the challenges of post-war Paris, as an American GI who stayed behind and fell in love with a French girl of Jewish ancestry. The stage setting also depicted Paris as it would have looked during that era, and the cast cleverly moved the props on and off the stage without having to make any big scene changes. Without a doubt, I was entertained and instructed by these talented professionals, and of course, the music was so uplifting. The whole creation transported me to another time – in Paris!
As I was on a ‘high’ after that magical show, I thought I would try my luck at Le Duc des Lombards, which was located about 10 minutes away. Unfortunately the two jazz performances were sold out that night, but I was able to return on another evening a few days hence. I headed back to my cozy AirBNB apartment in Montmartre on the convenient Métro, as I had big music plans for the next day too.
Because Sunday January 4th 2015, was actually the Christian celebration of Epiphany (when the Magi, (aka Wise Men) visited the Baby Jesus). I made my way to the world-famous Notre Dame Cathedral for the international mass to take place at 11:30 a.m. Although thousands of parishioners and visitors filled the immense sacred place, I was able to get a seat very close to the area where priests conducted the liturgy and the soloists lead the
congregation in songs of praise – some of which were in Latin, while the rest were in French! As well, I enjoyed the choir’s rendition of J.S. Bach’s Cantata BWV 123 for Epiphany: ‘Liebster Immanuel’. Although it was very chilly inside, and there was a slight distraction from hundreds of footsteps of tourists admiring the architecture around the perimeter, I was completely mesmerized by the voices and the beauty of the setting. One of the largest stained glass windows has been in place since the 13th century and parts of the organ date back to the 17th century! I felt very joyful when the hour-long service was over, even though I was shivering!
I have already reported about my next musical foray: ‘The Flute Project: Guitar and Flute’ which took place at the Trinity Church on Thursday January 8, 2015. You can read about that moving performance here.
Yes, I actually did sing a little too: that surprise performance took place during the happy occasion of the wedding of my French friends Carole and Gildas on Saturday January 10, 2015. I had slightly modified a couple of verses of ‘La Vie En Rose’ so that the song focussed directly on them. My a capella performance is referred to here.
It was almost the end of my visit when I got a taste of jazz , for which Paris is famous since World War II. My return to le Duc Des Lombards jazz club in the Halles district of the first arrondissement with a reserved ticket was a fitting grande finale to my musical adventures in Paris.
I arrived at 7:30 p.m. on Monday January 12th for the first performance of the evening by Kavita Shah, a New Yorker of East Indian origin. When I walked in to the intimate venue, the place was already close to its capacity of 65 seats. A group of businessmen dined and casually conversed while technicians ensured that everything was in order on the small stage. Other jazz enthusiasts seemed to be seated at their favourite spots. A friendly waiter took my order for mint tea. He also confirmed that photos were not allowed. When Ms. Shah arrived, she passed casually among the crowded tables and smiled at everyone. She then went upstairs for a few minutes and then quietly came down to take the stage while she watched her fellow musicians: drummer, pianist, guitarist and double-bassist as they warmed us up with the first selection. Then she spoke to us in both English and French and told us about some of her own compositions and how she had fused eastern melodies with mystical stories. The blend of jazz with unfamiliar foreign musical influences resonated sweetly in my head. Her clear soprano voice, pure in tone, seemed to melt perfectly into the timbre of the various instruments. Sometimes I could not distinguish the sound of her voice from the guitar or piano when the notes were in unison. The whole room was spellbound by her low-key demeanor and superb talent. I was carried away be the loveliness of the music and her clarity of the words in each song. I was completely ‘blown away’ by her duet of ‘La Vie En Rose’ with the double-bassist. The two diametrically opposed ‘instruments’ complemented each other despite the extreme differences in their harmonic qualities. Suffice to say it was a very ‘funky’ upbeat presentation of this French classic. When they finished to loud applause, the double-bassist announced that the song was dedicated in love to the people who had lost their lives in the terrorist attacks in Paris the previous week.
That was about the quickest hour and a half that I ever experienced in my life! The show was over all too soon. I could easily understand why critics call this tiny salon one of the finest jazz venues in the City of Light.
As I reflect on those wonderful and varied artistic performances, I feel truly blessed to have been able to partake of this amazing aspect of Paris life during my short time there. Now I dream of returning for more!
* This piece is dedicated to Leng Sorhaindo, renowned Dominican piano teacher (retired) and accompaniste extraordinaire. She asked me several times about my musical experiences in Paris, with great interest. As a singer, I am privileged to be associated with this exceptionally talented musician and supportive friend. Thanks Leng!