BEIJING, CHINA – 1956: Actors perform the opera ‘Dream of the Red Chamber’ in 1956 in Beijing, China. Photo by Tom Hutchins/VCG via Getty Images)

Dream of the Red Chamber, based on Cao Xueqin’s classic 18th century novel, premiered as a commissioned work at the San Francisco opera in 2016. Music by Bright Sheng (wonderful name, yes?) and libretto by David Henry Wang. The novel is apparently widely popular and revered among the literary set in its native land.The reviews of that first production were somewhat mixed. Strong on music, less complimentary on the text. One writer described the effort of distilling such a complex work with more than 40 major characters to trying to do Hamlet with only the characters of Hamlet, Ophelia, and Laertes to work with. Rough stuff. I missed the show the first time around, so I was glad to get a second chance at it when the company rescheduled it for 2022. Now that I’ve experienced it, I’m not sure what to think.

For one thing, it’s a hell of a spectacle. Grand opera in every sense of the word. Sets, costumes, music, superb performances by a sterling cast. I was looking for some hint of Chinese opera in the performance having had a passing acquaintance with the genre with its surprise juicy soprano scoops and dives during live excerpts we saw in China way back when. Another taste of the same sort of thing was in the SFOpera’s adaptation of Amy Tan’s The Bonesetter’s Daughter a few years back. I loved the book (I should make clear that I’m not an Amy Tan devotee.) and I loved the opera. As so often happens, though, most of the rest of the world did not agree with me.

At any rate, none of the elements I anticipated emerged in Red Chamber. Despite the lavish production features, the opera itself is a rather spare work in many ways. Still, I found it entrancing and impressive. A real tour de force in many ways. It’s a simple story of a stone and a flower representing the two lovers who are central to the plot. Surrounding the love story is an intense family drama engineered by the male lover’s mother, who is desperately trying to save her family and its fortunes from the whims of a cruel and devious emperor. Pretty bare-bones stuff. Which is fine. Grapes of Wrath, for example, has a plethora of characters, but the through line is simple: The virtuous poor versus the greedy rich. I don’t know why that book leapt to mind in this context, but the example serves, so I’m going with it. The Red Chamber music is, to my tin ear, quite simple and utterly wonderful in many places. There is one fantastic dance sequence that reminded me of the one in Saint Saens’ Samson and Delilah. Every bit as sensual and exciting. That said, the music is not Verdi-lush and melodic. I wasn’t expecting it to be, but just so you know if you run across a production at some time or another.

The whole show is narrated by a monk, whose dream the story purports to be. At one point he suggests that now that he’s told the story of the dream he will be free. and so will we. All of the story’s events take place inside this chamber, but I’m still not sure what the chamber is supposed to represent. Spirit? Reality? Fantasy? A reference to the Buddhist notion that once we complete our allotted reincarnations we can join nirvana? Lots of possibilities. Maybe they are all true on one level or another. Or maybe I’m hallucinating and have entered another reality myself. I don’t think so. I’m drinking lemonade as I write, for crying out loud.

Whatever you see or don’t see or hear in this production, thought, I can guarantee an emotional and powerful experience. Even with this rudimentary plot, complications ensue and the end is rich in emotion and irony. Buy a ticket. Go.


We were strolling woods and swimming through birdsong that turned somehow into summer thunder and stabbing lightning that tore  a smoldering hole in what used to be a moment ago a whole and beautiful pine or was it an oak I don’t quite remember and it doesn’t matter really what matters or did was its wholeness, its upright beauty bending in the wind and dancing balletic while that  coming again the snapping rumble and the withering downpour that will soak you and dry you out all at once like some sort of holy paradox that one can maybe describe but never understand, and overtake you even when you’re standing still and minding your own business and meaning no harm or even disturbance to anyone or anything and don’t’ you know it can happen like that and not only can but does in nature which doesnt care a dam or a dram about you or what you want or what you intended or doesn’t even know you’re in the way but just slams its way into and around you until its finished and like the magic finger having writ moves on and I say amen and can you say amen once more and even then give me one last until next time aaamen.


searchYou are able to pardon

the greatest of our sins in secret.

We have burned ourselves with our desire and greed,

We come to You in awe

because You taught us to call

and You lit the lamp of supplication in this darkness.

–Rumi (Daquqi’s prayer, Mathnawi III:2212-2224)



Chief Brown, Dallas Police





Try these: In Napa and San Francisco yesterday, mentally ill and substance-uglied people attacked police and begged to be shot and killed. Officers were in both cases able to negotiate and take the “perps” into custody peacefully. (No pictures available that I could find)

Upping the ante on the same subject: In Britain, police on everyday duty carry no firearms. Same in Ireland, New Zealand, Iceland, and Norway.

But here in the sovereign land of holy amendment number two, it’s been a dark week. As a nation we’re wandering around in a stew of anger, death, and retribution, and grief. There are moments of silence, cries of anguish, calls for love and calls for vengeance. And death follows death follows killing, every one beginning with a finger pulling  a trigger. Or maybe it starts with the idea that it’s a good idea to have a trigger handy for whenever you might have a beef with a neighbor or a cop or a stranger.  “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” says NRA mouthpiece Wayne LaPierre. Well, apparently, Philando Castile was one of those good guys with a gun, exercising his god-given 2nd amendment rights  by securing a permit to carry a pistol for protection. A lot of protection it bought him. Probably got him killed. That and a dose of excess melanin. Oh, and the old broken tail light story. Almost as pervasive as the “you fit the description of . . .” story.

On the other hand, or on the same hand, really, five–count ’em FIVE–Dallas police officers are dead,  each and every one of them leaving a huge space


in the lives of their families. Because some one thought the only good cop (especially if white) was a dead cop and was able to get hold of a long gun to express his hate,  just as some thought in times past (or maybe still) that the only good Indian was a dead Indian, or that (in present times, even) the only good nigger was  a dead one or in present times as well the only good Muslim (or Mexican) is a dead one or the only good (suspected, even) terrorist (read “Muslim”) is dead one (preferably subsequent to some luscious torture). It’s all a matter of labeling someone an “other,” then shooting ’em up, blowing ’em up because if you don’t they’ll do it unto you and you’re a naive fool to inhabit any other reality. And yet, what reality have we created. Not one where we are safer. Quite the opposite. We’re caught in that place that Matthew Arnold described so eloquently. A world which

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.[22][23]

But what if we dared to take that other direction? Could we navigate our way out of this darkness into a room lighted with Rumi’s “lamp of supplication,” a space filled with love and tolerance? What if we just laid down our 300 million guns? Oh, no!. Give up our sword and shield? I say yes. All we’re doing now is shooting blindly into the dark space of an endless cave, laying out corpse after corpse without making ourselves safer in the least. The only way out of the situation is contained in Dostoyevsky’s description of it: search-1

What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.


How about it?



imgresOff to the hinterlands today. Vinales, or vineyards.  Bought some cow-bone earrings along the way. Vinales was a name born in hope and ending in disappointment for those Europeans who thought they’d establish a wine industry. But wait, someone said, how about tobacco? And thus was born probably the most famous of all Cuban industries outside of King Rum, of course. George and Joanna and Susanne grew up in and around tobacco growing, so Ivan’s family farm—4th generation—was a blast from the past for them, from green plants to brown leaves hanging in the drying barn. The whole area reminds one of certain Chinese landscapes with flat valleys interrupted by rocky upthrusts covered with greenery.

Agriculturally, the process goes something like this (writing from notes which may or may not be accurate: You plant in September. A month or so thereafter (might have the timing wrong) you start harvesting, bottom leaves to top leaves. Over the course of some months, you finally harvest the crown (“corona”—remember that brand?), where the most potent tobacco grows. Once the crop is in, the government comes and buys 90% of the crop. I asked Ivan if he thought he got a fair price from the government. He gave a lengthy and equivocal answer which to me added up to “are you kidding”? At any rate, the farmer gets to keep 10% “for personal use.” He takes what’s left (which he’s Not supposed to sell commercially, but you know, and they know, and you both know you both know. . .) and ages and ferments the lot. Whole process takes from about September to May. It didn’t look like a big operation, but Ivan processes about 100,000 plants a year.

He rolled us a couple of cigars, using leaves from all four levels of the plant. The milder gets more bottom leaves, the stronger, more top leaves. He asked who wanted to light up. Surprisingly, it was mild-mannered Doris who pronounced it an excellent cigar. We passed it around and took pictures of ourselves a big tycoons. Great fun.

Out back of the barn, we discovered a colony of fighting cocks staked out in the grass. Also there was an old Ford with, the owner told us, a Toyota motor. He was very proud of it even though it was non-operational. He had a mechanic friend who would be there in a month or so to fix up the engine and transmission and he’d have a vintage vehicle.

Interesting thing a bout Cuban agricultural in general (If you’re getting bored with all this history and economics, I apologize but won’t to stop.) After the wall came down, Cubans no longer had the tools to practice the big agriculture they were used to under the Soviets. Tractors, fertilizer, etc. were in short-to-zero supply. Plus, the land had been severely harmed by the way they’d been using it. Add to that the fact that money become both scarce and useless. No one had anything much to buy or sell. People started growing their own stuff, both in cities and in country. They turned to green practices like chicken shit, etc., because that’s all they had. Techniques of crop rotation and organic this and that are now common, and the great Soviet collapse has created more family farms and subsistence farming. Or so we’re told. To me, it looked like most of the farms we saw had been there more than 20 years or so. But so be it.

We were treated to lunch at an organic farm where everything on the plate was grown right there, except the rum. And it was tasty from the squash soup (our second or third serving of this, but not complaining. It’s good.) to the rice and beans to the lamb to the pork and on and on.

Back after a rather long bus ride which included a roadside stop where there was an all-female band in fetching costumes playing more and more salsa music. Nice sound. We bought the CD. Should mention the Brahma toro which was available to ride. Gentle as he looked, we didn’t partake.

Back home to a Palladar—these are restaurants supposedly operated in private homes. That was the original intent. You could have only 12 chairs and you had to live in the house. Now (creeping capitalism again), they are full scale restaurants. Not that we needed or deserved more food, but we dove into grilled mahi-mahi and other delights anyhow. We ended the day with a stroll along the Malecon (remember that seawall?) through light tropical breezes under a stunning sunset.

Want to come along? We’d love to see you.



Previous participants in this occasional travelogue know that I usually include pictures along with the text. In this case? Not possible due to dodgy internet connections. So all I have to offer are words and this image of the Cuban flag. Enjoy anyhow. Don’t know if I’ll be able to send more than this and one more.



Started the day with music, a “lecture” by a performer/professor covering 500 years of Cuban music in less than an hour. Like the art, hard to describe, but merging of European and African styles and that evolution. We heard nothing from Cuban indigenous peoples. They were exterminated. They live on only in the names “Havana” and a few other places.

On to the Fine Arts Museum for another learned tour and another collection of visuals very hard to describe, but showing a spectrum of Cuban painters’ styles from post-impressionist through cubism and beyond, integrating native and European themes with Cuban history. Powerful stuff.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, our heads were turned toward Europe, wondering what was going to happen to the communist block countries. We (speaking for folks in our group) were not really looking toward Cuba and its disaster. When the U.S. refused to recognize or support Cuba after 1959, the Soviet Union took on the job, and virtually every part of the economy became dependent on the Russians.

Without Soviet support, the country lost 70% of its imports and plunged into a state of privation from which they still have not recovered. Despite that and the blockade, they have  maintained their stability by creating a hybrid economy which allows for some private enterprise, and there are investments from Europe, Africa, and other areas. It’s in its infancy. Maybe you’d call it creeping capitalism.

Many of the paintings and sculptures in the museum hit that theme hard. None more powerful, perhaps, than a work called “The Survivors”, a sculpture of a giant (maybe 10-12 feet long or longer) cockroach with a human head, face turned toward the wall he is climbing. Originally, there was an installation with several of the “bugs” but they are now exhibited elsewhere except for the one we saw.

Finally, an amazing evening at a Community Arts Center for a look at community activism at its finest. In a very poor neighborhood, there was an abandoned water tank, once used to collect rain water and distribute it to surrounding houses via gravity. Modern pumps rendered it useless, so there it sat. Around it grew mountains of garbage as the area became an unofficial dump. A couple of leaders had enough of the stinking ugliness, formed an association, and asked the government to give them the tank. Mystified at why anyone would want it, and having no use for it themselves, the officials said okay, and folks went to work. In a few weeks, they had cleared the garbage, then they set about beautifying the place. Painting, tiles and sculpture surround the tank. They mucked out the inside, finding not only unholy slime but a human skeleton. Now, the tank has become inside a place for artists to exhibit and sell. The top is a kitchen/eating/entertainment facility. The hillside leading up to the top is a sculpture/botanical garden.

We began with a tour by one of the founders named Victor, who showed us some of the sculptures—the ultimate in found art. A statue of an eagle made of old car parts—springs, valves. “We love our old American cars. They are part of our history. We take better care of them than you have.” We applauded.

From there it was to what we thought was an opportunity to listen to a community band, but turned out to be a group-participation in Cuban dancing. It’s been 74 years since anyone got me to attempt the Cha-cha-cha, but the two little girls, Barbara and Angelique, 9 and 10, I would guess, shamed us all into it. Soon everyone was way into their rhythm, such as it was.

From there to dinner, where we sat with each other and with community people who had helped build the center and who used its services. At our table was a small family which included a criminal defense attorney, Janice (looked like a regular, somewhat overweight housewife), a dentist, Adrian (looks like a hip-hop artist) and her daughter, Laura, a Downs Syndrome child. They showed a video of the girl performing a dance on stage, and later we bought one of her paintings. She’s done many of them, and they are every one worth framing.

The food was plentiful and tasty, followed by another band and quite a lot of dancing. The girls proved to be good jitterbuggers, and I had a great time hopping around with them to “Rock Around the Clock” and other old timey favorites. We ended the evening with a rousing rendition of, can you believe it? “I can’t get no Satisfaction.” You may have read that the Stones had recently filled a Havana soccer stadium for a free concert (we drove by), but no one there enjoyed that music more than we loved what went on at that place where community action transformed their barrio from a garbage dump into a center where people, their education and their arts thrive.