Happy New Year from Tokyo: Welcome 2018

Today I picked up my order of Osechi-ryori, boxes of celebratory New Year’s foods. These are freighted with auspicious symbolism and beautifully packaged inside boxes called jūbako. (Haruka Masumizu describes the individual meanings of each item in Savvy Tokyo, December 26, 2016).

Even though I won’t be lining up outdoors with any crowds for shrine or temple visits—it’s a chilly night and they’re not my deities—I figured that I might as well enjoy the traditional feast along with everyone else. I certainly had no desire to be in a restaurant or resort to pizza tonight.

It made no sense to pass up on such distinctive, traditional pleasure just because I am a family of one and this food is usually shared. A friend had given me a bottle of Yamagata Nihonshu which was a lovely complement to the food. Afterwards I opened the bubbly.

Stores will be closed for two days. I’m not sure whether that means the convenience stores which are normally open 24/7 as well. However, I have put up a supply of water, milk, cream, wine, coffee, granola and the like to see me through. Together with the Osechi-ryori, I certainly run no risk of starvation. Boredom, perhaps. Well see how it goes.

I find myself somewhat in limbo. This is a highly connected culture and during this period especially, everyone goes home to their family seat. There is an orderly traffic jam on trains, in airports and highways as everyone leaves en masse. In two days that congestion will repeat itself as everyone returns.

The shut-down began on the 29th as some of the smaller shops closed their doors. About half were shuttered by yesterday afternoon. Very few were open when I enjoyed a brief walk mid-afternoon today. Streets were almost empty of cars or people.

I’m rather sorry to see this year end. It has been one of the blessed ones. Solidly grounded in gratitude and grace. Filled with more sunshine than usual.  Plus good health, good fortune, the pleasure of family and friends, creative pursuits and grand adventures abroad. Wow.

I don’t make resolutions. Decided not to set myself up for inevitable defeat years ago. But I rather love the resolutions Meghan Markle shared at the end of 2016 on her blog The Tig (which, alas, she closed earlier this year). Then look what happened.

With or without a prince and a palace, I can get into her spirit.

For this new year, the only thing I aim to do is to approach life playfully. To laugh and enjoy, to keep my standards high but my level of self-acceptance higher.

My New Year’s resolution is to leave room for magic. To make my plans, and be okay if they sometimes break. To set my goals, but to be open to change.

To let the magic know that there is an open door policy … and that it is always welcome to join the party.

I’ll toast to that!


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Reviewing My Progress in Sogetsu Ikebana

Levels one and two of the Sogetsu School of Ikebana are devoted to basics, basics, basics. Everything depends on the basics. One set of branches with one set of flowers and variations of three primary lines (Shin, Soe and Hikae) placed in different positions and slanted to different degrees. Over and over and over. Sometimes in round flat containers (Moribana) and other times in tall slender containers (Nageire). You might think of it in the same way as endless etudes for the same 88 keys of a piano.

By taking classes in rapid sequence, the constant repetition gradually builds my technical skill and my confidence. No surprise that.

The flowers and branches are things of exceptional beauty before we begin to manipulate them. However, creating a remarkable arrangement is hardly as simple as sticking one in at 15 degrees, another at 45, the next one at 75 and filling in the gap with the leftover leaves.

A highly codified Japanese aesthetic which combines the harmony of colour and container with sensitivity to season is part of the art. Fortunately (thanks to many years of interest in themes Japanese, a good grounding from my Vancouver Sogetsu Ikebana teacher Mrs. Sally Yukawa,  and the excellent chapter on Ikebana in Haruo Shirane’s book Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons), this code is not something I need to be taught. Refine it, yes; learn it, no.

Even so, within Sogetsu School that aesthetic is interpreted in a style more avant-garde than numerous other schools of Ikebana—a discussion much too broad for this medium and not a level that I work at yet. At present, I watch how the Masters do it and soak up as much as I can. (Unfortunately but quite correctly, the school does not permit the online publication of students’ photos of the Masters’ brilliant work. We can offer only our own amateur efforts.)

When considering the parameters of a specific arrangement, nothing happens without forethought and careful attention to detail.  For example, a single blossom on a branch of tight buds portends spring and suggests the future.  Or white Spirea blossoms arching down might suggest branches laden with snow.  Such characteristics figure as abstractions and symbols in the arrangement.

On occasion I also take a pragmatic approach. If faced with a challenging lesson, I choose branches and blossoms which aren’t going to irk me. I can count on strong-stemmed flowers with abundant leaves to hold their position and cover the mechanics of the arrangement. It’s also easier to rely on flexible branches which naturally bend in the way they must be placed.

So far, my arrangements consistently achieve harmony and balance as a result of my choices of materials and containers. I don’t have difficulty achieving a Japanese sensibility; in fact, some of my classmates as well as the day’s Master Teacher often comment on it.

The technical elements are more challenging. Although they are becoming less frequent there are numerous misses no matter how hard I concentrate. One of the primary blooms or branches is set at an angle too high or too low; it’s too long or too short; it needs to point forward not back; or if I have it forward it needs to go back.

At times it’s frustrating that the two-dimensional photos in the textbook and the instructions aren’t always crystal clear in these matters. However, it’s the same for the others whatever their level—even those practicing for their upcoming teacher’s certification exam. We all get some kind of censure along with any praise.

No matter. Each day, each lesson, each effort is a joy—even when it vexes me. Progress is a gradual thing. By late November one of the instructors comments on my excellent adherence to the rules. Sweet! For a moment every cell in my being glows.

When I first started with Ikebana I glibly thought that it was one of the more ideal arts. I didn’t need a great deal of work space or equipment or have to stockpile a bunch of paintings behind furniture and under the beds. And that’s not untrue.

However, I have come to learn that I dare not forget to fully savour the beauty I have created because my amateur photos are no adequate memento of the moment. The arrangement will cease to exist in little more than an hour. The teacher’s evaluation delivered, I must pull it apart and clean my work station. Quite unexpectedly, I feel an acute sense of loss that is much larger than the flowers.

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Thoughts on Food & Love on Christmas Day

Christmas, in my view, is more intimate than other occasions on the calendar. At least it is in the Pacific Northwest where I have experienced the majority of my Christmas celebrations. Inside the home trees, lights, fires and candles glow. Rich aromas permeate the air. Whether it rains or snows, the blackened windows reflect the backs of those seated and envelope the space. Everything feels closer.

More so at Christmas than at any other festive time, in my mind food is linked to love as beloved ones sit, eat and laugh in the circle of friends and family with grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins who otherwise might not attend gathered around. Geographies contract for those few hours we gather to pass plates laden with savory delights, dish up heaping helpings twice and loosen belts to sing, play games or try to walk it off afterwards.

Of course, being alone in Tokyo during my favourite time of year, not knowing a soul in the city, I had no idea how Christmas might pan out for me psychologically.  Unwilling to risk sinking into a black abyss while Ikebana school remained in recess until mid-January, I needed a self-preserving plan.

Champagne Louis Roederer, Brut Premier NV

Naturally, any plan of that kind needed a great dose of food-love. My Yokohama friends stepped up for Christmas Eve.  Earlier, after researching and test-driving a few options, I chose to reserve and enjoy Christmas Day lunch at Two Rooms in Omotesando. They offer a main dining room with white table cloth service and an adjacent bar and patio with city night view from the fifth floor of the AO building.

Not only is the restaurant within walking distance of my apartment, it’s a chic, but warm and lively establishment without being noisy in that irritating way. The cordial front of house staff not only gives meticulous attention to the food, wine and service, but also to me.

Matanzas Creek Sauvignon Blanc, Sonoma County, California, USA 2015

They expertly navigate the sometimes challenging borderlines of providing service the way Japanese clients expect it (demanding greater distance and reserve) and the way non-Japanese appreciate it (polished and professional  while being personal and engaged).

The open kitchen with an eclectic international staff hums with quiet teamwork—controlled activity that is a pleasure to watch.

Chardonnay for Two Rooms, Margaret River, Western Australia 2015

For those reasons, I chose Two Rooms for the first Christmas lunch meal that I didn’t cook myself in about 20 years. I started with a glass of champagne while I read the extensive regular menu and the special Christmas menu. The special menu’s main option offered a roasted chicken (the Japanese choice Christmas bird) with Brussels sprouts and other trimmings.

However, my waiter assured me it was easy to substitute any other main menu item for the special menu bird should I wish. I wished. Having a splendid, accommodating restaurant nearby is better than having a fairy godmother.

Café Latte

Two and a half hours later I said warm goodbyes to all with the same feeling I have enjoyed at any number of tables where I gathered with friends and family to enjoy a splendid feast. I strolled home along Aoyama-dori for the requisite post-Christmas-lunch nap.

Recovered, after dark I hopped a train (packed like a sardine in a tin) to enjoy the Megurogawa Minna no Illuminations. There sakura cherry trees along the river bank are lit in petal pink for the season. A few locals were about, going to and fro; otherwise, I had the winding river path to myself.

As I walked, from time to time I talked. It doesn’t require A Child’s Christmas in Wales to “say some words to the close and holy darkness.”

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Christmas Eve in Yokohama and Tokyo

Last weekend I hopped the train to Yokohama—about an hour out of Tokyo—to join friends for the Christmas Market in a former warehouse district now  converted to event and boutique space. On Christmas Eve Sunday I’d been invited back for Christmas lunch Japanese style in their home.

That featured a selection of fish pates on crackers, scrumptious pumpkin salad (because I’m allergic to potato), green salad with prosciutto and balsamic vinegar, fresh bread (home baked by M the man of the house), a teriyaki roasted chicken and a chocolate cake log. In addition, K prepared home made black sesame seed ice cream simply because it’s my favourite. (How sweet is that?) I brought the bubbly.

Of course, I forgot to photograph anything as we were busy having a good time not clutching our phones. I remembered just before we cut into the cake.

As is typical when friends gather to eat, I got back to Tokyo in the early  evening too full to look at food. However, when there’s a ½ bottle of Veuve Clicquot in the house for the occasion there’s nothing to do for it but indulge.

In case I got hungry (I did) I put out the Japanese oranges—not wrapped for shipping in bright cardboard boxes—but in piled in plastic bags with twist ties at the local grocery store. Then I put out a bit of sliced beef, vegetables, pumpernickel bread, and cheese.

The Sweet Thea’s Christmas cake (made in Langley, BC) traveled with me from Canada as I wasn’t going to go a year without a proper fruit cake. To make it look more festive I added a couple of sugar cookie Christmas trees bought in a local bakery to the plate.

As it was the Fourth Advent Sunday I put on the carols, darkened the room and lit the candles. After a bit I turned on the YouTube fireplace and the tree lights. I poured a glass and marveled at the stillness and beauty that a slight of hand with tinsel, music and light can create out of the darkness as Christmas enveloped the room.

Here in Tokyo I thought about Christmases past. The little church in Black Creek where after a Christmas Eve of gloriously singing our merry-bright childhood hearts out, at the end of the program we received, in a paper bag of nuts and candy, a Japanese orange. How far apart those worlds seem and how close.

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Getting into the Spirit

Twenty-two minutes before the Solstice sunset I was seated on the 41st floor of the Park Hyatt Tokyo in Shinjuku with a glass of champagne. Looking west through semi-sheer blinds diffusing the view, a large orange ball hung over the Japan Alps. Suffused by haze the orb seemed to expand as it sank toward the peaks gilding everything with shades of orange, turning the blue skies to dust and dun.

At ten minutes before, the curtains rose to reveal a clear coin of white-gold light. That burned through the haze and glowed in deepening tones of red which lit the city below, the room and even my black clothing before it extinguished like a dying wick beyond the mountains.

And out of the dusty line in the distance Fuji-san stood silhouetted against the sky. To the southwest a crescent moon, and lights hanging from the skyscrapers like Christmas tinsel.

From now on the darkness lessens by about two minutes each day. But even the darkness (if you examine it closely) is luminous.

This evening I took the subway trains to Roppongi Hills where Keyakizaka Illuminations has the trees along the avenue lit up in white and blue (with brief shifts to romantic red), framing Tokyo Tower which  glows orange.

The streets were a crush of families, couples on dates, entertainment in the plaza, groups of Santas cruising by on high-performance motorcycles and wandering the streets.

Two adorable Santa-toddlers enjoyed the Christmas trees in the lobby of the Grand Hyatt Tokyo.

And, I had to laugh. Even in a high-end store, a [blank] Christmas sweater is still a [blank] Christmas sweater. Choose your own adjective. That said,  I wouldn’t kick the black one out of the closet if my Santa’s pockets were that deep. (But I would secretly wish that Santa–who knows naughty from nice, for goodness’ sake–knew me better than that.)

Now that an intense push through classes before the winter recess is over (more on that later), I can focus on the joy that is Christmas: favourite carols playing from the USB drive, the “fireplace” cracking on screen, things to nibble on in the fridge, the tree lit and bubbles rising from a glass. Lunch with friends scheduled for tomorrow, more illuminations and a reservation for brunch set for Christmas Day.

As always, much too soon (like the ikebana arrangement I must pull apart one brief hour after I’ve made it) the season will have passed. Mono no aware. The evanescence of things.

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Sogetsu Level One Book One Complete!

Completion Stamps for Level One Sogetsu School Curriculum

Check! I have now completed Level One of Book One in my Sogetsu Ikebana course. I started the first two lessons of Level Two on Tuesday, and will persist in my attempt to complete Level Two before leaving Japan.

First Lesson Level Two Sogetsu School

I will then be able to apply for certification from the school. I don’t have to do that and it involves a fee; however, certification for Level One was my goal and I am sticking to it. That I can surpass it is a bonus.

Nageire arrangement

The work is still all very elementary on basic variations with set materials: one type of branch and one type of flower in a round, shallow container (moribana) or tall cylindrical container (nageire) with a very occasional “freestyle” thrown in. That’s about as “free” as a timeshare trip. There are conditions.

Freestyle Arrangement Level One

My evaluations are consistently good. Always excellent for choice of colour and material (branch/flower/container) and balance of the same. I also score very high on the emotional sensitivity of the arrangement. Luckily for me, I have so much background in the culture and its codified aesthetic sensibilities that this is something I didn’t need to be taught on arrival. To have it recognized and commended by master teachers is incredibly gratifying.

Dark Beauty

Technique is another matter. However, I am improving significantly by taking 5 classes a week, two of them back to back on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I’m reminded of something Itzhak Perlman said about playing Bach. Once he had mastered the technical elements, he had complete freedom to play the music. Ikebana is like that.


Yesterday when the sensei shifted two blossoms back a little to better emphasize the primary one, she commented on how well the arrangement was “fixed.” Nageire is like playing pick-up-sticks backwards as the branches and blossoms balance on each other and on branches inserted into the container to hold them. Fortunately for me, and a mark of my progress, nothing else shifted or even collapsed (which is not uncommon) when she made that slight change.

Seasonal Arrangement

When (through the interpreter) I joked about beseeching the kami-sama to have it stay in place, she had a quick comeback. That was not the job of the gods or matter for prayer, but mine and my skills. Touché.

Seasonal Arrangement (kurisumasu) using (mandatory) Red, White and Green

I always grade myself on my own arrangements before comparing it to the sensei’s verdict. Usually (as is common with self-evaluations) I underestimate what I have done and can upgrade myself a little afterwards. I can move my B plus to an A minus. Occasionally now, even an A.

View from Sogetsu School Window Tokyo

Standing at my table, working with the flowers (even when they vex me), looking out over the trees of the Akasaka Imperial Property, Tokyo’s towers and the skies beyond is nothing less than pure bliss. Joy!

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Touring Asakusa in Kimono with Friends

Two friends from Toyohashi (near Nagoya) visited me on the weekend. They wanted to have lunch, then dress in rented kimonos to wander around Asakusa and visit Sensoji Temple. After that, they wanted to view the illuminations at Skytree Town.

Tokyo SkyTree

At first that, especially the kimono bit, seemed a somewhat “touristy” plan to me, but then I realized that Toyohashi is a considerable distance away and considered inaka or somewhat countryside.  In spite of its urban appearance it’s not urbane. In addition, the train fare is pricey. Consequently, my friends rarely travel to Tokyo and had never visited the temple or explored that area before; whereas, I’ve stayed in Asakusa for a week at a time more than once.

Sensoji Pagoda

Though it’s not the only target, in the West a great deal of tut-tut noise is made (usually around Halloween) about non-Japanese dressing in kimono. The apparel is banned at some costume parties as inappropriate. In some instances, wearers have had to take cultural sensitivity training.

When that controversy comes up, as it does every year; I have often wondered whether those who protest about cultural appropriation can pronounce, or know the difference between a maiko, a geisha or geiko or a Japanese woman simply wearing a kimono. (It’s not an uncommon sight on an ordinary day in Japan.)

I also wonder whether protesters would know it if a Korean or Chinese woman “appropriated” the clothing.

Do   protesters know anything about the history of the apparel? Or the history and numerous skills as artists and entertainers the women called geisha or geiko and their maiko apprentices strive to perfect?

It seems Japanese people don’t give the same consideration to the question of cultural appropriation as some in the West do. Rather, they actively promote wearing of kimono as an activity for visitors to enjoy.

Maybe that’s because they’ve happily been appropriating religions, writing systems, poetry, pottery, painting, technologies, business dress, holidays and whatever else from other countries (and making those their own) for so many centuries that it’s no biggie.

Child in Kimono

That afternoon we were girls having fun, dressing up and wandering around Asakusa. There were many others doing the same and no one gave any of us a second look. It’s simply something visitors enjoy along with the many other ways to dress and types of cosplay in Japan.

Really, how is it different from studios in North American pioneer or gold rush towns which dress the tourists for photo ops in the garb of bygone days?

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Finishing up with Autumn

Winter is settling into Tokyo. But not that many days ago Jingugaien, the ginkgo avenue with its four rows of 146 trees on both sides of the street, was a splendid sight.

On a sunny day a wind came up. What a perfect time to go out and enjoy a golden rain.

Everyone was into it: embracing the leaves, photographing the leaves, tossing the leaves, gathering the leaves.

I walked the entire avenue, and arriving at the junction of Jingugaien and Aoyama-dori I had the thought that I might never do this again.

Really? What nonsense. Forget it. Carpe momentum rursus. Seize the moment again–and yeah, I made that up. (#creativedefiance)

I turned around, meandered back to where I’d started, turned again and dawdled back. Two days later the street was a dusty brown bust. Mono no aware. Transience. The evanescence of things.

Not long after, I spent a day traveling to and walking up Takaosan (Mt. Takao), a knoll about an hour out of the city by train with an elevation of 599.15 meters. It’s a prime spot for koyo or autumn leaf viewing and, with some luck, catching a view of Mt. Fuji.

As it’s almost three times the elevation, I thought that would be tougher than Mt. Douglas in my Victoria neighbourhood.  Before leaving, I had been walking that hill almost daily for several months as conditioning for all the walking I knew I’d be doing in Tokyo.

However, Mt. Douglas starts at sea level. Takaosan which is inland does not. That and the fact that I took the chair lift which cut off another chunk of the vertical distance made for an easy stroll to the summit. In that section, the grade was considerably less than Mt. Douglas’s meter up for every meter in distance.

From the chairlift the views up the mountainside were gorgeous. However, I was surprised that there were no safety measures such as crossbars on the slippery painted seats. Any lurching stop could easily tip a rider out. From various points along the way, even with the hazy view, many of Tokyo’s familiar landmarks could be easily identified.

From the summit I also had the great good luck to be rewarded by a view of Fuji-san. That’s always a dodgy prospect as mountains often hide in clouds. I didn’t get a clear, blue-sky backdrop but that’s no complaint.

Now that the leaf-viewing season has passed, various illuminations across the city take their turn. I’ll be heading out to some of those very soon. Kurisumasu (which really can’t and shouldn’t be confused with Christmas) is around the corner. Fast away the old year passes, / Hail the new… .

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Different Folks Different Strokes

Friends traveled into Tokyo from Toyohashi to visit me yesterday. I met them at Gaienmae Station near my apartment as they wanted to see where I was living. That done, we were about to depart when I remembered my gloves. I quickly unlocked the door and without bothering to remove my boots, took three steps—it’s a small apartment— into the kitchen to grab them from the chair.

My visitors gasped loudly in unison.

Later, one of them asked, “Do you always wear your shoes in the house?” The answer to that should have been self-evident as I took them off and lined them up the proper way (pointing toward the door) when we entered.

No, I explained, I simply couldn’t be bothered to pull my boots off and put them back on for a few steps. For the distance traveled the hassle wasn’t worth it. My socks would pull off. I’d have to fix those, then work the tight boots back on, and arrange the pants over them. It would take too much time and effort and I didn’t want to keep them waiting. Forget it.

I don’t know whether they found it a reasonable explanation, but it’s one of those things where I feel free to take some license with certain Japanese rules. Sometimes–when it’s more sensible to be flexible–but not always. In certain instances like offering my train seat to someone older or holding a door or saying thank you for a service I never take liberties.

Speaking of flexibility, I fail to understand Tokyo’s citizens who seem to think it’s perfectly acceptable to keep using the crosswalk as an ambulance with its lights flashing and sirens yowling slows down to make way for them. Meanwhile, the ambulance personnel on loudspeakers urge people–in polite language onegaishimasu–to clear the path.

Manner Reminder 09: Don’t talk loudly in the train

The other day between Ikebana classes two Americans and I went out for lunch. On the way back we were chatting amicably and animatedly, laughing and enjoying ourselves in the afternoon sunshine.  As we crossed the street I became acutely aware of the sepulchral atmosphere around us. Though we were anything but loud (in the sense that anyone else could hear the conversation we enjoyed), we were not behaving like anyone else.

Did I suggest that we take a cue from the crowd? Nope. It was too joyful a moment to dampen with norms not our own. How far should you go to try to be polite? Besides (I can rationalize anything) that would be applying a train rule to the street, a street on which emergency vehicles are routinely ignored. Overkill.

However, I do have to be careful not to blow my nose into a tissue when there’s a chance that someone might see. That’s the height of grossness and rudeness in Japan. My poor sinuses. I owe them a deep apology. They’re working so hard to maintain the right nasal environment and hastily move the mucus out. However, unless I am in a private space, hot soup notwithstanding, I must constantly sniff and attempt to suck it back in—something many of us in the West find more than repugnant.

Christmas Cards Ready to Post

Although I can’t be sure, perhaps cultural norms explain why the envelopes for the Christmas cards have no glue on them. Is it considered too gross to send something you’ve licked? Or perhaps card envelopes are still tucked closed in this country and only letters and parcels sealed. My research is incomplete on the question; however, if licking is not favoured, there’s always a sponge. Thank goodness I traveled with basic office supplies, including several types of tape.

Toilet Seat Cleaner Dispenser

Then there are the receptacles in women’s washroom stalls with cleaner for the toilet seats. I’m curious. Are these also standard in men’s? Or are only the women of Tokyo keeping their Toto seats sanitized? And are you supposed to do this before or after you sit?

Confession: This is one woman who will clean her own bathroom. Period. You’d have to pay her to clean others. Even then, my Tourist Visa valid for 90 days does not allow me to work. I’m covered. As I said, I can rationalize anything.

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Tokyo Opera’s Der Rosenkavalier

Last Sunday I attended Tokyo Opera’s Der Rosenkavalier. It’s a tale of the Marschallin Princess Marie Thérèse, an aristocrat in a bittersweet dalliance with young Count Octavian. This, as all things do, must end. The inevitable is the inevitable; however, it comes so much sooner than expected after a petty quarrel and without a proper goodbye.

Der Rosenkavalier Photo Credit New National Theater Tokyo website

To make a very long (4 hours) opera short, Octavian is smitten by someone younger and that’s the end of that. The Marschallin has to give him up—which probably goes down as the most elegant and wrenching heartbreak in all of opera.

In contrast, the Marschallin’s cousin, Baron Ochs (meaning Ox), a vulgar and lecherous buffoon well past his prime, imagines he still has what young women want. His endless drunken antics are often cited as the reason this opera drags on. However, bass Jürgen Linn gave that role an endearing comedic touch that made every minute of his stage presence a joy. By the opera’s end I said forget the romantic hero, give me Ochs. Please.

Composer Richard Strauss managed to capture in music both the bawdy and the holy thing that love is. Having once loved someone, the memory of it is rather like a comet’s passing. Every once in a while the stardust and the exquisite anguish of it all circle back to mind.

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