The Muslim East in Mozart’s Opera ‘Abduction From the Seraglio’

In a strange coincidence with current politics, LA Opera’s production of Mozart’s The Abduction From The Seraglio was premiered on January 28. On the same day of the premiere, Donald Trump closed America’s borders to refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries. In the opera, the hero Belmonte travels from Paris to Istanbul to rescue his fiancee from the Ottoman ruler Pasha Selim. When the Christian West meets the Muslim East through the Orient Express, the two cultures collide in a series of comedic episodes. The setting of the opera on a moving train symbolizes the changing interactions between the East and the West.


The Turkish monarch Pasha Selim and his servant Osmin are perhaps the most interesting pair of characters. Somewhat surprisingly, Pasha Selim, the central ‘villain’ of the story, is a spoken role without any singing parts. With Mozart’s genius design, Pasha’s character is developed by the others’ musical response to him, rather than by his own voice. Meanwhile, Bass Morris Robinson’s sonorous and resonant voice suits Osmin’s vulgar personality very well. Morris Robinson is one the most sought after basses performing today, with acclaimed appearance in The Magic Flute, Don Giovanni, Madama Butterfly, Salome, and others. His voice is a highlight of LA Opera’s production of The Abduction From The Seraglio.

Although the opera as a whole is under the influence of 18th-century Orientalism, Pasha and Osmin are far more complex than conventional stereotypes. Despite being in a powerful position, Pasha is determined to win the love of his abducted woman Konstanze (Belmonte’s fiancee) without force by being a gentleman. It is very natural for the audience to sympathize with the soft-hearted Pasha, who perhaps represents Mozart’s humanist vision of the Muslim West. Meanwhile, his servant Osmin is a barbaric terrorist who tortures Belmonte and teases Konstanze’s maid, but a funny terrorist, not a scary one. Mozart presents the conflicts between the East and the West lightheartedly with comedy, sending a message that humor transcends the difference between the two cultures. At the end of the opera, Pasha forgives Belmonte with his genuine benevolence and lets go of the family feud. There is a lesson of Islamic compassion in the happy ending, which might be too good to be true for our current affairs today.


Patching a Hole in Escher’s Artwork with Conformal Geometry

Last December, I happened to be in Milan just in time for a major Escher exhibition at Palazzo Reale. The Metamorphosis series was my all-time favorite, and I really liked his non-mathematical early works of Italian scenery, but I’d like to share something else in this post.

In “Print Gallery” (1956), Escher left a hole in the center of the lithograph because he did not know how to complete the picture consistently. This is a beautifully done paradox of looking at pictures in a print gallery while being in a picture.


In 2002, number theorist Hendrik Lenstra from Universiteit Leiden found a way to describe the geometry in “Print Gallery” by a complex exponential function. Using conformal mappings, the Leiden group generated a new rendition of “Print Gallery” with the hole filled in.

You can play around with the computer program and zoom in at the project website:



Picasso Lithographs: Looking inside the Artist’s Mind

By recording intermediate states of artworks, lithography provides a rare opportunity for the viewer to see inside artists’ minds. To make a lithograph, the artist draws the image on a limestone plate with a special ink, and the image is printed to paper from the stone. It is very convenient for the artist to modify the image by adding or subtracting ink on the same stone. By printing each intermediate state to paper, the artist can easily keep a history of his creative process.

The Norton Simon Museum has a long history of collecting Picasso prints. Norton Simon, the museum’s namesake, purchased 850 Picasso prints in 1977 from the collection of Fernand Mourlot. More than 80 Picasso prints were on view last month at the Norton Simon Museum, including “The Bull” and “Long-Haired Young Girl”.

Not many artists valued the intermediate steps of the artistic creation process as much as Picasso did. He was interested in investigating his own thought process, and consciously wanted to document his “states of mind”. Since he met the French lithographer Mourlot Frères in 1945, Picasso produced 185 lithography plates in the next three years, and more than 400 plates by the end of the 1960s.


“The Bull” is one of the most famous lithographs by Picasso. The full transition from a realistic behemoth to a simple outline demonstrates how the artist searched for the spirit of the bull in the process of abstraction. From the first plate to the second plate, Picasso bulks up the bull to make the image more powerful. Starting from Plate 3, the bull is dissected by muscle and skeleton contours as if in a butcher shop. As the simplification process continued, the image lightens with a more elegant sense of balance. In particular, the head shrinks, the front sharpens, and a tail appears. In Plate 10, the bull is reduced to a line drawing – except that the bull’s reproductive organ remains shaded to indicate its gender. With all the careful consideration in each step, Picasso shows us in the final plate what he considers to be the absolute essence of the bull.

Houses Are Art: Kazuo Shinohara

Although I know nothing more of architecture than an average layman, my roommate is an architecture enthusiast. Our visit to the solo exhibition of architect Kazuo Shinohara was a serendipitous experience full of pleasant surprises. In addition to enjoying the simplicity and rationality in his designs, it was very intellectually interesting to see the architect’s highly abstract “philosophical” thoughts quoted next to the designs.

Kazuo Shinohara (1925-2006) is one of the most influential post-war Japanese architect. Different from many other architects in the modern era, Kazuo Shinohara was not involved in public architecture until his later years. Instead of public buildings, he chose houses as his main subjects and designed over thirty houses in his entire career, proposing that “houses are art”.

The houses he designed often reflected a unique taste of traditional Japanese homes. Even though Kazuo Shinohara did value traditions by stating that “Tradition is where creation begins, not where it ends”, he valued changes at the mean time by announcing that “tradition provides a starting point for creation but must not be viewed as its final goal.”

While keeping some of the traditional Japanese elements in his houses, such as minimalism, Kazuo Shinohara abstracted certain elements into geometric objects. As he said, “I love the panoply of primary geometric solids, as their hard edges shimmer weightlessly, in the light. From such an apparition, I expect a brilliant, luminous power to emerge.” In his designs, one can see a lot of squares, triangles, lines, as well as cubes. Perhaps the root of his fascination with geometric objects lies in the fact that he was once an excellent student in mathematics.

For instance, the column in the middle of House in White almost looks abrupt, yet there still exists a subtle balance beyond my words. I suppose that the column might represent some symbolic meaning, which I am currently not yet able to understand.


As another example, the seemingly cold and unemotional triangular structure in House in Itoshima sets up a visual “photo frame” for the ocean view.


In the following project named House under High Voltage Lines, Kazuo Shinohara artfully turned the high voltage lines as part of his design.


Montaigne, Of Quick and Slow Speech

I am the one who speaks slowly, very slowly. My parents, as well as my teachers and classmates, often kindly remind me of this fact. I cannot remember exactly at what age I started to speak slowly, perhaps ever since I learnt to speak. For me, it is time-consuming not only to find the most suitable phrases for a sentence, but also to search my memory for supporting evidences for my accuracy before I speak. Often, as I prefer to think more deeply rather than more quickly, I feel more comfortable to write than to speak.

Since the issue of slow speech has long been my concern, it is especially interesting for me to read Montaigne’s essay Of Quick and Slow Speech. As Montaigne put it, there are people with the gift of promptness and eloquence, as well as people with deliberation and thoroughness. Unfortunately, while I still have a mock trial competition next month, Montaigne remarked that I would be better for the pulpit, instead of for the bar.

Here comes the essay:


‘All graces were never yet given to any one man’ – a verse from one of Le Brebis’s sonnets

Some are very gifted in the art of speaking; they have a quick and easy wit, ready on all occasions and never taken by surprise. Others are heavy and slow, unable to say anything they have not ‘long premeditated and taken great pains to fit and prepare’.

When we teach young women sports and exercises to enhance and showcase their beauty and their character, we should teach them eloquence too. At the moment, it seems to be a skill that belongs principally to the lawyers and preachers of our age. I for one think that the preacher should be a slow speaker and the lawyer quick, because the preacher can allow himself all the time he wants to prepare. After all, ‘his career is performed in an even … line, without stop or interruption.’ The lawyer, on the other hand, has to prepared to defend a number of different cases, and to face all kinds of ‘unexpected objections and replies’, when the opposition attempts to jostle him off course or have him think up new answers and defences.

Still, lawyers are not always quick-witted. Let me share the example of Pope Clement and King Francis, where the Pope was asked to have a speech delivered on his behalf to the King and his subjects. The man chosen to make the speech was Mr. Poyet, a very experienced lawyer, known for his eloquence. Poyet had prepared the speech long in advance, in Paris. On the day of the speech, the Pope, afraid that the prepared speech was not appropriate, told the King of a speech he felt more suiting to the time and place, but very different from the one Poyet had taken so much time in preparing. The King liked it, and Poyet was asked to contrive a new speech. He found himself completely unable to do so, and in the end someone else gave the speech instead.

The lawyer’s job is more difficult than that of the preacher; and yet, in my opinion we see more passable lawyers in France than preachers. ‘It should seem that the nature of wit is to have its operation prompt and sudden, and that of judgment to have it more deliberate and more slow’. But he who stays silent, in order to take his time in deciding what to say, and he who finds that time does not better his speech at all, are equally unhappy.

Severus Cassius, it is said, spoke best when he was unprepared to speak. He was more obliged then, to fortune than to his own diligence, and it was actually an advantage to him to be interrupted whilst speaking. His adversaries were afraid, therefore, to annoy him, ‘lest his anger should redouble his eloquence.’ I’m familiar with this kind of disposition – so impatient of tedious preparation that it can only perform well if it works with a care-free light-heartedness. We say of some paintings that ‘they stink of oil and of the lamp’ because laborious handling can sometimes lend a rough harshness to work. Besides, the over-worrying about doing well can result in a mind ‘too far strained and overbent’, and this mind ‘breaks and hinders itself’ like water that is unable to escape from the neck of a bottle or a narrow path, due to its own force and abundance. Also, this type of laborious and painstaking style of work cannot be disordered or stimulated with the same kinds of ‘passions of fury’ as Cassius in his speeches.

As for me, I always perform worst when prepared. Accident and chance play a larger role in anything that comes from me than I myself play. The situation, the people I am around, even the rising and falling of my own voice, extract more from my mind than I myself could find if I tried to use my mind myself. Thus, ‘the things I say are better than those I write, if either were to be preferred where neither is worth anything’. Also, I’ve noted that ‘I do not find myself where I seek myself’. I discover things more by chance than by reasoning. Sometimes, I hit upon something when I write, and it appears clever and fresh to me, although maybe to others it will seem dull and heavy. But let’s leave these compliments; everyone talks this way of his perceived talent.

When I speak, ‘I am already so lost that I know not what I was about to say’ and sometimes the person I am addressing finds out what I mean before I do. If I were to stop myself every time this happened, I would, in fact, say nothing. Often, the meaning of what I have said is made clear to me long after I’ve actually said it.

Claude Monet Exhibition in Shanghai

Recently, in Shanghai, a Claude Monet exhibition has been enjoying unprecedented popularity for art exhibitions. It has almost become a cultural phenomenon, as everyone has been talking about it, including people who do not usually go to art museums. Honestly, I did not expect to meet such a big crowd when I visited the exhibition during working hours on a typical Monday.

Despite the huge crowd, I had a pleasant afternoon enjoying the aesthetic paintings, especially some of Monet’s later works such as his famous water lilies. My favorite in this exhibition was a painting of the London Houses of Parliament with sunshine breaking through the fog. However, as compared with his works displayed at the British National Gallery, I must admit the paintings in Shanghai might not be the best of his.

The exhibition was worth visiting, but I kept wondering where the disproportionate popularity had stemmed from. Why? Is there a growing demand for art in Shanghai? Or, successful marketing behind the scene?

As families in Shanghai are having an increasing amount of leisure time, I do notice a trend of growing interest in art. Years ago, people in Shanghai might think of visiting art museums as a rare weekend activity, but today, more and more people start to regard it as commonplace. Besides recreational purposes, parents begin to notice the importance of art education as well. Also, look at the crazy art auction markets! These are all positive changes that I am more than happy to see, and I believe such a growing interest must have contribute to Claude Monet’s popularity to some extent.

However, I am not too optimistic, concerning whether the popularity came from well-planned marketing campaign with commercial purposes. The Claude Monet Exhibition charged an entry fee of RMB $100 while most of the other art exhibitions were usually free or required less than RMB $30. Also remarkably, the Claude Monet exhibition did not take place in a traditional museum setting, but in the underground floor of a shopping mall. In comparison, currently, there is simultaneously a Rubens and Van Dyck exhibition, which, in my opinion, is equally good, if not better, and several lovely art exhibitions. Yet, none of them were on par with the current Monet exhibition in terms of popularity. Probably the difference in popularity was resulted from advertisement billboards and soft-selling in news reports.

Either way, at least I felt glad that more people in Shanghai were able to see Monet’s masterpieces. Meanwhile, I hope that commercial campaigns are not taking control over tastes of art, and that all the other enjoyable art exhibitions available in Shanghai would have a chance to be equally appreciated.