Friday, December 25, 2009


Again, this lovely lullaby, mother to child, from Britten's Ceremony of Carols.

"O my deare hert, young Jesu sweit,
Prepare thy creddil in my spreit,
And I sall rock thee to my hert,
And never mair from thee depart.

But I sall praise thee evermoir
With sanges sweit unto thy gloir;
The knees of my heart sall I bow,
And sing that richt Balulalow"

(something's going on around 0.45)

Thursday, December 24, 2009


but more to the point....

"..and He shall speak peace..."

Monday, December 21, 2009


That line in the sand, or vortex, or whatever Christmas has become, is looming. There are a few things I need to make mention of before the veil descends and we slip through that ridiculous divide.

Chapter 1

On Friday the 11th, The Sydney Symphony Orchestra turned out a fine Haydn's Creation (1798), perhaps, in an antipode kind of way, to mark the 200 years since the birth of Charles Darwin, or maybe the 150 years since the publication of 'The Origin of the Species". The Parisians, in Parc de Bagatelle, managed a wonderful indoor-outdoor exhibition about the great man (Mr Darwin), his marriage (to the well-heeled Miss Wedgewood) and the famous voyage, marking the ship's progress across the globe with walk-through plantings of the regions, Australia included, of course.

Anyway, back to Creationism in the Concert Hall, with a hapsichord dressed with two Poinsettias in white pots. Martin Haselbock debuted and led a good, clean (horns excepted) and ultimately quite moving account of this fairly straightforward piece on a fairly straightforward subject, now that Darwin has muddied the waters, so to speak. 'Six days' was much more simple. The flowers were a nice touch, especially as the hall seems to have settled into funereal black acoustic drapes. Now I think about it, what happened to flowers? Soloists used to get flowers, huge awkward bunches of them, and is it that hard to pop a bunch of gladdies around the conductors dais? , or the odd pot of the deepest blue Hydrangeas you can find? Surely not too expensive? It's the little aesthetic that often counts most, and often overlooked. Except in Japan.

Cantillation were/was fantastic, again; after all, they are led by Michael Black, chorus master of Opera Australia, joyous, reverent, hushed, haunting. Maybe I was the only one hearing Steve Davislim's beautiful warm confident expressive and bountiful tenor for the first time. Lyndon Terracini have you heard Steve Davislim? Mozart. Britten. French (v.i.). Bring him back. Funnily enough, December's Gramophone has this review (Marc Rochester) of Melba's release of Chausson ~ Vierne, The Queensland Orchestra/Guillaume Tourniaire:

"These [Vierne] are four brilliantly crafted songs with almost Wagnerian orchestral accompaniments which are dazzlingly reflected in performances of breathtaking intensity".

"Certainly Australian tenor Steve Davislim is every bit as impressive here [Chausson] as in the Vierne - and this is highly distinguished singing by any reckoning - "

"On every count, this is a magnificent release. It is also a truly revelatory one, not least in highlighting the outstnding work being done by this distinguished Australian label"

There he was, with Sarah Macliver, at the little desk down the front after the show, smiling at the crowd, and signing anything that stayed still long enough. 'Rather nice, quite friendly really' I heard an Englishman murmur to his wife. Come back, come back Steve.

Chapter 2

Buoyed by all the oratorio, we then took ourselves off the the ACO end of year show with the god-he-looks-so-young Dejan Lazic on piano, MC'd by Barry Humhpries, with two guests, friends of Mr Humphries. It was very memorable.

After a high spirited The Marriage of Figaro overture, Mr Humphries took the floor, holding everyone captive with story-telling of a style all but lost, and introduced his first choice - Marcel Poot's Jazz Music. It was evocative, I suspect, almost to the year, 1929, of the world as it then was, increasingly uncertain. The grey-bearded man next to me, jeans and slip-on black shoes with a gold chain, hard to miss as they found comfort apparently only on the rail of the front row of the circle, reverted to using his i-phone thingy. Scrolling, lights flashing, sending, receiving, sending, scrolling.

"You must be very important" I suggested during the applause, of which he took no part. "Having to use that - during the performance - you must be important" I prompted.
"Well I didn't like it!" he spat out boldly, head cocked towards the concert platform.
"Do you like Ravel?" I asked and watched him hesitate a tellingly long time, perhaps scrolling through his cerebral thingy - sauce? pasta? watch brand? - before he declared confidently "Yes".
"Good, then we wont be having anymore of that distraction" I said, a bit too archly, nodding at the electronic devil still clutched in his hand.

Humphries sat grandly in the comfortable leather chair as Tognetti led us through more of Humphries early years, almost his birth music, the equally uncertain and darker Ravel Violin Sonata no.2. William Walton's Facade followed. My only memories of it were earlier Australian Ballet days, when alongside Pineapple Poll, the company could camp it up, outrageously and with considerable flair. Flair is what Barry Humphries has lots of. The Sitwell "abstract" poems
were barely intelligible, neither neceesary, nor desirable probably, incomprehensible as they are, as Humphries repeatedly reminded us. But the cadence was lovely, loosely matched with Tognetti and the team, and it felt like a look indeed behind a facade, into a time well past, and then the preserve of just a few. It was an exceptional and rare event.

Enter Sir Les. The vulgarities were much as expected, filthy, funny, and yet even more as he zeroed in on the weak, the different, the unable to respond. And stayed well past his welcome, as important as every other reminder of the worst in us.

After a jazzy, exhilarating Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Dejan Lasic flying high, on came Edna. She was fabulous, and very very funny, and very like old times, that lingering at the door, I expected a hissed " 'scuse I" any moment. I thought the guy behind me would die. And all the while accompanied on the keyboard by the beaming Croatian, who was still beaming, but now with lipstick lips on each cheek, as he waited afterwards at the desk out front to give autographs. 'Which will I buy?'. 'The Rachmaninoff' he said, pointing. Its the Rach 2, live with the LSO, but I especially like the gentler Moments Musicaux, and particularly the warm embracing comfort of the no. 5, Adagio sostenuto

Saturday, December 19, 2009


When this business of blogging started, my blogging that is, it was an impulsive thing which caught even me by surprise. Without much forethought or long sighted purpose, but more with the intent of seeing how it all worked and then letting evolution have its way, it just happened one day. I certainly saw it as some form of record keeping and in the absence of a clear vision, thought anonymity gave a liberty which lack of self confidence and uncertainty of future content otherwise denied me. So with equal unexpectedness and in no longer than it took to ask myself the question, the answer came that I would launch myself into the ether as 'wanderer', without a capital. I thought the latter affectation important.

My little pseudonym just about covered it - a fair enough expression of the average human condition: probably male in my case, from a previous better place and time, surrounded by increasing decay, and blocked from reversing the ever apparent entropy by a false sense of self importance and specialness. None of that is up for debate. And yes, restricted vision, one-eyed, metaphorically speaking of course. If the reader didn't make the connection it was of little consequence. Well, no consequence actually. Nothing is.

Lately, over several weeks, and more likely months, there has been a slow deterioration in how well I can see with my right eye. Oh, nothing sudden and nothing as dramatic as flashing lights, folds of blackness or signals of major concern, but just the incipient awareness that things aren't as good as they used to be (is anything?), followed by the incredulous thought that vertical and horizontal lines were being deformed by some dark matter of considerable density, and finally the realisation that there was a smeared blurry spot virtually at the centre of my visual field in that eye. This alarming revelation came reading the surtitles in the recent L'Ormindo.

So after a series of consultations with experts in the field, to whom I am blessed to have good access, I am now undergoing treatment for something still incompletely diagnosed. It may be the late onset of a benign reversible and unilateral condition usually seen in younger men than I, or the early onset of a possibly more progressive and potentially bilateral process of the older age group. Prognostication is vague but reassuring. Either way, wanderer has been doing some thinking.

Years of reading, thinking, workshops, discussions, meetings and practice sessions have left a willingness, if not eagerness, to meditate regularly and live in the now. And I try. But what has been exposed is that I am quite good at leaving the 'past', appreciating that there is only the 'present', but have made little progress in dealing with my attachment to the 'future', something I assumed would always fall into place when the need arose. Fear was the engine of all wanderings, and I was ready for it. Well, I'm not.

I went to work yesterday. I had thought about skipping out, getting someone to cover me, taking my self-absorption and the dogs down to the forest mountain house to retreat and lick some wounds. K and I talked about it. There was something, I said, which strangely makes me feel compelled to go to work. The order of the day had been rearranged and while I brought some pressure to bear to change the schedule to better suit my interests (an early finish) there remained an unusual addition to be done. This I knew I should and would do.

He turned out to be a young man with cerebral palsy. His disability from this was moderate involving mostly some deformity of the feet. I had a cousin with severe cerebral palsy with extreme choreoathetoid movements, unable to mouth anything but grunts mostly of giving thanks, a life trapped in talking with a toe pointing to an alphabet on the floor and a paint brush strapped to his head. He is dead now and I am much older, if little more advanced. This man had none of these restrictions, except that he was born blind. Totally. He had no eyes.

He was scheduled to have injections into nerves and tendons located with a nerve stimulator with the aim of reducing the spasms and foot deformity in a procedure usually done under mild sedation so as to facilitate finding the correct locus of injection without the blunting of general anaesthesia. We talked, son, father and mother. He didn't miss what he didn't know, said father. He had no craving to see a Picasso or the sparkle of sunlight on water. The only thing to worry him was not knowing who was in a room with him.

He was gentle and said nothing without his mouth widening into a smile. The procedure was going well in a fluctuating reverie of intravenous drugs of sedation and narcosis. "Are you OK"? "Yes", he smiled softly as they probed his legs. "OK"? "Yes". The last nerve to be found was deeper with less defined external landmarks and the efforts to elicit the defining response were more invasive. His face lost its smoothness. "Are you OK"? "Yes" , he smiled. "Sure"? "Yes", he said slowly. I wasn't so certain. I lent down close to his face, mouth to his right ear, and now we were the only two in the room.

"Is it hurting?" I whispered. "Yeesss" he whispered back. "Do you want to go right off to sleep?" "Yeesss" he said softly. And he did.

In recovery, with complete amnesia for what had happened, he asked how things had gone. Very well I reassured him, they are pleased. So everything will be fixed, he smiled.

He had shone a light. I have abundance but none that matters. He had acceptance and was my teacher.

Monday, December 7, 2009


Today is December 7, and it is 34 degrees in the (verandah) shade at 1o o'clock, and today those of you who read The Sydney Morning Herald or The Age should have, and would have, been reading the same editorial as in 56 other newspapers worldwide, in 45 countries. But you aren't. You may read an article about the story, at least The Australian manages that, without any mention that neither it nor any other newspaper in Australia or New Zealand see fit to join in.

Why? or rather why not? - because the leader of the opposition in this country changed from Malcolm Turnbull to Tony Abbott. The lunatic fringe have grabbed the microphone. As the Guardian notes:"Two Australian papers, the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald, pulled out at a late stage after the election of climate change sceptic Tony Abbott as leader of the opposition Liberal party recast the country's debate on green issues."

We should have been the first. So, here's the editorial the appointment of a climate change crapper to the leader of an opposition party (nothing else has changed, god knows the CO2 levels haven't) meant would no longer be fit for editorial status in our major tabloids. Courtesy of the The Hindu: Copenhagen: seize the chance.

Today 56 newspapers in 45 countries take the unprecedented step of speaking with one voice through a common editorial. We do so because humanity faces a profound emergency. Unless we combine to take decisive action, climate change will ravage our planet, and with it our prosperity and security. The dangers have been becoming apparent for a generation. Now the facts have started to speak: 11 of the past 14 years have been the warmest on record, the Arctic ice-cap is melting, and last year’s inflamed oil and food prices provide a foretaste of future havoc. In scientific journals the question is no longer whether humans are to blame, but how little time we have got left to limit the damage. Yet so far the world’s response has been feeble and half-hearted.

Climate change has been caused over centuries, has consequences that will endure for all time, and our prospects of taming it will be determined in the next 14 days. We call on the representatives of the 192 countries gathered in Copenhagen not to hesitate, not to fall into dispute, not to blame each other but to seize opportunity from the greatest modern failure of politics. This should not be a fight between the rich world and the poor world, or between east and west. Climate change affects everyone, and must be solved by everyone. The science is complex but the facts are clear. The world needs to take steps to limit temperature rises to 2C, an aim that will require global emissions to peak and begin falling within the next 5-10 years. A bigger rise of 3-4C — the smallest increase we can prudently expect to follow inaction — would parch continents, turning farmland into desert. Half of all species could become extinct, untold millions of people would be displaced, whole nations drowned by the sea.

Few believe that Copenhagen can any longer produce a fully polished treaty; real progress towards one could only begin with the arrival of President Obama in the White House and the reversal of years of US obstructionism. Even now the world finds itself at the mercy of American domestic politics, for the President cannot fully commit to the action required until the US Congress has done so. But the politicians in Copenhagen can and must agree the essential elements of a fair and effective deal and, crucially, a firm timetable for turning it into a treaty. Next June’s UN climate meeting in Bonn should be their deadline. As one negotiator put it: “We can go into extra time but we can’t afford a replay.”

At the deal’s heart must be a settlement between the rich world and the developing world covering how the burden of fighting climate change will be divided — and how we will share a newly precious resource: the trillion or so tonnes of carbon that we can emit before the mercury rises to dangerous levels. Rich nations like to point to the arithmetic truth that there can be no solution until developing giants such as China take more radical steps than they have so far. But the rich world is responsible for most of the accumulated carbon in the atmosphere — three-quarters of all carbon dioxide emitted since 1850. It must now take a lead, and every developed country must commit to deep cuts which will reduce its emissions within a decade to very substantially less than its 1990 level. Developing countries can point out they did not cause the bulk of the problem, and also that the poorest regions of the world will be hardest hit. But they will increasingly contribute to warming, and must thus pledge meaningful and quantifiable action of their own. Though both fell short of what some had hoped for, the recent commitments to emissions targets by the world’s biggest polluters, the United States and China, were important steps in the right direction.

Social justice demands that the industrialised world digs deep into its pockets and pledges cash to help poorer countries adapt to climate change, and clean technologies to enable them to grow economically without growing their emissions. The architecture of a future treaty must also be pinned down – with rigorous multilateral monitoring, fair rewards for protecting forests, and the credible assessment of “exported emissions” so that the burden can eventually be more equitably shared between those who produce polluting products and those who consume them. And fairness requires that the burden placed on individual developed countries should take into account their ability to bear it; for instance newer EU members, often much poorer than “old Europe,” must not suffer more than their richer partners.

The transformation will be costly, but many times less than the bill for bailing out global finance — and far less costly than the consequences of doing nothing. Many of us, particularly in the developed world, will have to change our lifestyles. The era of flights that cost less than the taxi ride to the airport is drawing to a close. We will have to shop, eat, and travel more intelligently. We will have to pay more for our energy, and use less of it. But the shift to a low-carbon society holds out the prospect of more opportunity than sacrifice. Already some countries have recognised that embracing the transformation can bring growth, jobs, and better quality lives. The flow of capital tells its own story: last year for the first time more was invested in renewable forms of energy than producing electricity from fossil fuels. Kicking our carbon habit within a few short decades will require a feat of engineering and innovation to match anything in our history. But whereas putting a man on the moon or splitting the atom were born of conflict and competition, the coming carbon race must be driven by a collaborative effort to achieve collective salvation.

Overcoming climate change will take a triumph of optimism over pessimism, of vision over shortsightedness, of what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” It is in that spirit that 56 newspapers from around the world have united behind this editorial. If we, with such different national and political perspectives, can agree on what must be done then surely our leaders can too. The politicians in Copenhagen have the power to shape history’s judgment on this generation: one that saw a challenge and rose to it, or one so stupid that saw calamity coming but did nothing to avert it. We implore them to make the right choice.

Saturday, December 5, 2009


Pinchgut's 2009 show, Cavalli's L'Ormindo (1644), opened on Wednesday night and as much fun as it is, it is a lot more. It is a delightful look into the past with little shreds of us exposed on the layers as they are peeled back, or appliqued on, if you look at that in reverse, with the resultant spectrum of broad action and variable nuanced detail ending up an eclectic mix of styles from high Capriccios camp, through music hall romp of the phallic pillow variety, to a more studied stand and deliver. That things are quite so mixed could at first glance be a point of criticism, possibly explained by the last minute changes in direction, and directors, together with stage performers of quite mixed solo experience, but nonetheless, it ends up a comedy not taking itself too seriously, except of course for its musical and vocal values, and all's well that laughs well.

More to the point, Alex Ross suggests in a piece in the New Yorker earlier this year, that this (mid-17thC) was a "time of dissolution and self-reinvention", when "melodrama, bawdy humor, and disorienting collisions of high and low permeated the form" or as Erin Helyard (Musical Director) points out in the programme notes, it was the time when "opera went public" and the "formality of private courts" moved to "raucous [public] theatres." L'Ormindo, as such, is a perfect template for what was going on, and for us a rare peep back. It is just a peep; there will be no record of this performance, although Wednesday's opening night will be broadcast on ABC Classic FM this Sunday night.

Francesco Cavalli was really Pietro Francesco Caletti-Bruni (1602-1676), born in Crema (Lombardy) but took the name of his Venetian patron. A bit like Tony Abbott becoming Tony Pell. He wrote 33 operas, was hugely popular, as one filling music halls always is, and is believed to have written or edited "a good portion of Monteverdi’s last two great stage works – Return of Ulysses and Coronation of Poppea". He was, as Mr Ross points out, the one who "perfected the transition from recitative to aria - the thrilling transformation of musicalized speech into song." That's some mark in the history of song.

We sat again on the third tier, able to look down on the Orchestra of the Antipodes in full flight, with Erin Helyard a fantastic creature of all limbs, no body and wonderfully rounded shining bald head, emerging up from his hapsichord seat like a giant spider, working his players and the singers with much care and attention. The sound up there is interesting, and I should try somewhere else I suppose, but it is like being in a bell (ok, I've never been in a bell), in that at some dynamic point, or resonant point, the sound, and especailly the voice, blooms out into a fullness quite uplifting. I found I was waiting for it, and wasn't disappointed.

I liked the set a lot, and the lighting was simple and effective. I'm not going to do a voice by voice thing, others will do it I'm sure, but I especially liked David Walker's beautiful, just beautiful, sound (the first time I've heard him), Fiona Campbell's strongly etched Erisbe (typo in the programme notes there folks), the basses of Richard Anderson, Ariadeno, and Andrei Laptev, Osmano (he's very good), but most of all Taryn Fribig's Sicle. And the applause-o-meter agreed I think. I'm getting a thing for her. I found in the Peter Grimes I was increasingly watching her. I keep thinking back to Marilyn Richardson (perhaps it is the eyes), vocally as well as stage presence, and wonder what is front of her. She sounded glorious on Wednesday.

Special thanks to Pinchgut for a particularly good programme, not riddled with gaudy advertising, with good explanatory notes, and a full libretto!

Go and make a night of it. Relax, enjoy the city, get into the time machine. You only have a few more chances.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


Butterfly! ......... Butterfly! .......... Butterfly!

We don't see many down here - too many birds I expect. There was a point of closeness which I breached, and he took off onto the pebbles, wings tucked up, so from above all you could see was a think black line. But it meant, as I lay on the ground, I did get to see the under surface of those wings, like looking at the back of a tapestry

Sunday, November 22, 2009


Lisa Gasteen at home with Ziggy (yes, Ziggy); picture: Lyndon Mechielsen via the Australian

You may have missed it tucked away on page something-or-other in the Australian. It is the first time I've heard anything recent about Lisa Gasteen's career and it is hinting at, if not pointing to, the end of it. Pretty worrying, pretty sad, but she's being pretty sensible about it, as well you'd imagine if she's as grounded as her reputation has it.

She is 52, and admits; ""I have not practised for a long time now.."

"There is a plus side to it," she says. "I am having a very ordinary life and there is a lot to be said for that. I see my husband every day and I see my children every day, and I have never had that.

"Now that the dust has settled, it is not all bad."

There's a lot to be said but my heart really is a bit heavy. Later.


An early 7.30 appointment took me into Hunter Street near Pitt first thing last Thursday. I rarely go to town in the day, and then usually it is a rushed visit, but this was a pleasant, unhurried time where I felt casually disconnected from the arriving workers. I felt like a tourist. The early morning light of what was to be a hot day was even more Sydney flattering, if that's possible. The streets were spotless; it took some restraint to not pick up a solitary ugly cigarette butt alone on the footpath.

With business finished quickly, I headed up to the hill to Macquarie Street, planning to go through the Gardens across to the pool. It was heart-stoppingly beautiful, everything falling into place, the time, the light, the warmth, the familiarity, the pride. I love the topography, the way everything runs to the harbour, the water, the light, your heart.

From the high point entry to the gardens, my favorite gate, the Morshead Fountain Gate, the cove is in front of you, dropping away before rising again to the ridge of Mrs Macquarie's Road. I just stopped and looked and it didn't matter how long, I could have looked longer. I really felt like a tourist. And I did have a little camera in my dilly bag and tourist does as tourist whatever.

Moreshead Fountain

I'm not sure when I last saw it working but with the morning light behind beading the slightly arching drops it stopped me in my tracks. Lieutenant-General Sir Leslie Morshead, 'Ming the Merciless', was knighted for his defence of Tobruk in World War II and the fountain was erected in 1966 in his memory and the men who served with him.

There weren't many people around, only one tourist tourist under those bat trees, head bent back dangerously, the bats at their morning toilet. What did especially catch my eye, I must have seen it before but can't recall, was the handsome old(ish - they can live to 1500 years; maybe it is just a baby or middle-aged) Boab Tree (Adansonia gregorii).

If Utzon had seen only a cockatoo in flight there would have been inspiration enough.

There was a man under a broad tree, his head wrapped up somehow, with a large bag and an umbrella of sorts. He looked like a man who knew where he wanted to be. He looked Turkish.

"That's a good spot"
"Yes" he beamed.
"It's going to be hot. Will you stay long?"
'Till 2 o'clock"
"And then?" I presumed.
"I'm going home to do some things", smiling eyes and mouth.

K was waiting at the pool. Luckily, he knows I like to talk to water, and trees, and strangers.

Monday, November 16, 2009


You may have noticed (as you were meant to) that great Australian symbol, the Grass Tree, in the scorching heat outside the Adelaide Festival Theatre. They used to be called Bl-ck B-ys.

Well, you don't necessarily have to rush to Adelaide, the desert, the Stirling ranges, or your local national park. While these are rightly famous (anyone who can live for 600 years, that's two Emilys for starters, and flower best after a nasty bushfire deserves all the fame it gets), another member of the Xanthorrhoeaceae (greek: yellow-flow) family is the less flashy and shorter lived member Lomandra longifolia, skirting a freeway near you.

Don't undestimate them. I love them especially as they grow wild here, and use them in mass plantings for driveways, in clumps and near windows, bedroom windows where the evening air is heavy and honeyed from the creamy early summer flowers clustered on sharp spiky stems in a cruel combination of unapproachable sweetness.

Lomandra longifolia

But also growing wild here, impossibly wild in a world of their own, beyond intervention and cultivation, is the real thing. They are all around, close by and scattered through the bush, the whorl of blue-green leaves deceptively plain most of the time until one spring, one in goodness knows how many years, a flower spike appears.

Week by week it grows, a phallus emerging from a leaf skirt, and when fully thrust high above the understorey, held on a rigid scape, the flowers emerge, thousands of them, pearly white, open and fertile.

2 months later

In an ascending spectacle, each tiny flower appears till the whole spike is a starry array of invitation.

Nature obliges of course, who could resist.

After fruiting, the pods burst releasing several small black seeds to the earth and the cycle continues.

We are fools to time.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


There was great excitement here today. You may not notice at first without that slightly scary rustle that stops you in your tracks and turns your head.

Take a closer look...

Goanna. This tree was quite close to the house and happily he was still there after the camera dash. The last time I only managed a fast moving tail tip. Not entirely unexpectedly, it was the about the same time of year.

They are arresting in more ways than one and probably the most astounding thing is they just look so ancient, so prehistoric, so big, so incredibly handsome and dare I say, so Australian.

I moved in closer which sent him (or maybe her, not for checking) clambering up the tree, the claws as effective as they looked dangerous.

(Follow that tail down, all the way. It is about twice a long as the rest of it.)

Goannas are reptiles, giant lizards, monitor (as in warning) lizards, arriving in Australia somewhere around the middle of the Miocene period, about 13 million years ago. They are carniverous (live or carrion) predators but also prized by aborigines as food and medicine.

Here are some (segmented) close ups of this one, a Lace monitor, (Varanus varius). It's worth noticing the loose saggy skin of the neck which is puffed up when needed in defence, the beautiful markings, those claws, and the length of that widely striped tail - follow it down.

For all the drama, not everyone was quite so fixated. Sometimes, it is just the little things that matter, and this, this little bit of mutual hypnosis, was what was going on at my feet:

Monday, November 9, 2009


Today, November 9, is the 167th anniversary of the premier of Wagner's "Der Fliegende Hollander" (1842) and the curtain came down 2 days ago on the State Opera of South Australia's new production, and a quite nice one too. The curtain that is.

Just kidding. Any Wagner is good Wagner here (and this was more than just any Wagner) where we are starved of him, and scrimp and save and trawl the world in endless search, like Flying Dutchpeople, trapped in attachment seeking redemption. Why, at lunch before the opening, L was heard to declaim she hadn't heard a Ring Cycle since August. Forks dropped. And this the very continent where the last sighting of the cursed ship was, in 1880, by our (well, some of our) monarch's grandfather, the then Prince George of Wales, and sailing between Melbourne and Sydney no less.

"At 4 a.m. the Flying Dutchman crossed our bows. A strange red light as of a phantom ship all aglow, in the midst of which light the masts, spars, and sails of a brig 200 yards distant stood out in strong relief as she came up on the port bow, where also the officer of the watch from the bridge clearly saw her, as did the quarterdeck midshipman, who was sent forward at once to the forecastle; but on arriving there was no vestige nor any sign whatever of any material ship was to be seen either near or right away to the horizon, the night being clear and the sea calm. Thirteen persons altogether saw her...At 10.45 a.m. the ordinary seaman who had this morning reported the Flying Dutchman fell from the foretopmast crosstrees on to the topgallant forecastle and was smashed to atoms."

Continuing a now established tradition of staging excellent Wagner, the South Australians had prepared a Flying Dutchman (production photos inside the link) for lean times, relying on minimalist staging and special lighting effects, sourcing costumes from Opera Australia, but holding onto the highest musical standards with their own wonderful orchestra and chorus, to be led by Geoffrey Braithwaite, supporting a fine line up of Wagnerians with local Chris Drummond directing his first opera.

Conductor: Nicholas Braithwaite
Director: Chris Drummond
Designs (Set, Lighting): Geoff Cobham
Chorusmaster: Timothy Sexton
Dutchman: John Wegner
Senta: Margaret Medlyn
Erik: Stuart Skelton
Daland: Daniel Sumegi
Mary: Katharine Tier
Steersman: Angus Wood

I had forgotten what a joy the Adelaide Festival Theatre is, with comfortable seating, spacious legroom, fantastic sightlines, big take-all-the-musicians-the-master-wanted pit, and a succesful, if slightly strange, acoustic enhanced by the Lares acoustic technology which doesn't alter the sound leaving the performance space but rather augments the reverb with microphones and speakers around the auditorium. The sound is clear yet full and warm, perhaps questionably louder than one would expect although directionality seemed less distinct , and also this time, as we were slightly off centre, K (he of the electronic ears) wondered if he could actually detect an artificiality. But, no doubt, the shrieks of the opening storm were a welcome reminder that we were in a good theatre with a good orchestra.

The set was a simple moderate incline with virtually no furniture, except a steel skeletal bow for Daland's ship, a rather sloppy ropey rigging affair for the Dutchman's boat, and a wooden stool for the odd bottom and for Senta to stand on once for a bit of a sing and nearly fall off. See what happens when girls can't say no. Light and dark, night and day, pain and release, entrapment and redemption, were all up to the lighting. Well they weren't really, they were up to the music, and just as well, because for all its special effects, lasers, lights, stars, shadows and twirly bits (the women wove twirly bits) it seemed to me all a bit of a muddle, and I suspect that was because the music was doing its job and the lighting wasn't really that well married to it. One was inspired, one was not. Dutchman is seen as Wagner's first work where he let the inspiration come through, where his consciousness is submissive to intuition, where, to use Schopenhauer's terminology (and he was yet to be exposed the Schopenhauer's philosophy) the phenomenal (material space and time) gave way to the noumenal (the true reality of timeless undifferentiated unity). Yes, rather hard to light, and especially rather hard to direct, as anyone who has tried doing just that with the increasingly philosophically complex Wagnerian output which commenced with Dutchman and ended with Parsifal. It's enough to make a director risk a Dutchman's curse.

I'm afraid I couldn't put my finger on a concept. It all seemed a matter on getting everyone on and off stage, move around a lot and mostly avoid getting too close to anyone else. I wondered when the Dutchman, just after his angry entry, breathed out onto his close held open palm if he was seeing how cold it was, or if he was breathing at all, or if maybe he had halitosis. I think they all had halitosis. The only time there was any real contact (save for our Erik, more later) was when Senta, after her penultimate declaration of 'fidelity for eternity' was run upon by the Wanderer and delivered a deep passionate and quite prolonged, fully frenched kiss. It was fairly carnal for what was to be the launch of some serious spiritual redemption, but nevermind.

It was, in the end, something which could easily be done in the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall. And I'd like to know why it isn't. Mr Collette was there and I hope he's having the same thoughts. Big orchestra, conductors who know (Simone come and have a drink with Lyndon, and Mrs Danvers has gone), ample simple stage, lights. singers, thank you very much, that's all we need.

The orchestra played well for Mr Braithwaite, who held it all together if not with anything revelatory, then with precision.

John Wegner always manages to outsing his size, and after a wobbly start (something he shared with Daniel Sumegi's Daland), this was no exception. Dark, angry, frustrated, determined, jilted, he did it all, German as good as, and received the first 'aria' applause I've ever heard in Wagner, as a few overexcited members couldn't keep their hands apart after a booming Day of Judgement Day of Doom.

Margaret Medlyn's Senta was more of a struggle, hampered by a very nervous start, one of those mouth-open-nothing-coming-out scary few moments, but she settled in, and apart from one worrying pitch derailing, she made it through the killer role. Her voice has neither the colour nor cut that a great redeeming Senta needs, a voice to break curses and court death and extinction for love.

Daland was in good hands with big Daniel Dumegi and Erik in the very capable hands of Peter Grimes. No, sorry, that's Stuart Skelton. Revisiting the theatre of his wonderful Siegmund, Stuart Skelton sang a beautiful warm yet passionate Erik, pouring out that voice we know so well and blow me down if Senta doesn't take the little man.

Rounding it off were the fine sweet voiced Steersman of Angus Wood and the very impressive Mary by Katherine Tier, known to those who know but not to me, with a choice rich textured mezzo of considerable size. The chorus excelled themselves as usual and we were treated to some athletic extras of the look-at-me-I'm-dancing kind.

John Wegner (Dutchman), Stuart Skelton (Erik), Angus Wood (Steersman)

Katherine Tier (Mary), Daniel Sumegi (Daland), Margaret Medlyn (Senta), John Wegner (Dutchman), Stuart Skelton (Erik), Angus Wood (Steersman)

Saturday, November 7, 2009


On the edge of the desert, so it seems, Adelaide always feels to me to be not quite sure why it is here. So do a lot of the residents, if alcohol is any indication.

But there's much under the surface, including a great orchestra and a developing tradition for good Wagner. And lots of waiting empty laneways

a fine bookshop

and a new Flying Dutchman a few hours from now.

And what is it about women and shoes. During lunch my friend A spotted, three tables away, a woman with green shoes. I must know where she bought them she declared and whisked herself over (probably Paris, she thought out loud) ..... Noosa! Who would have guessed.

Outside the restaurant, A and L compare... yes,



Here's three decades worth, starting with a recent find, a beautifully clean record from 1960 with a young Sutherland flooding the Royal Albert Hall with the kind of silver magic that, if you ever wondered what the fuss was about, will leave you in little doubt. I would love to know who's conducting.

1960 BBC Proms Royal Albert Hall (Sargent, see comment below)

The fabulous middle years. 1972 The Met, New York (Bonynge)

Back on home turf, 1981 Sydney Opera House Concert Hall (Cillario)

Another clip, the sound less clean but the perspective more real with some impression of how big the voice was, and the stage movements as unmistakeable as the voice. The Concert Hall, where she sang Lucia, Desdemona, Lucrezia Borgia, and Anna Glawari (all staged) as well as recitals, was the only venue in Sydney able to do her justice.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

PETER GRIMES last night

Some of us are lucky to now have something very special. Heavens knows how many performances come and go and fade and change with time or disappear completely. Sometimes, rarely, something magic and transcendental stamps itself so deep in the psyche that it is there forever, embedded. They make a change, make you change, make you different. I'm different because of this Peter Grimes.

Thinking about Stuart Skelton's Peter Grimes I am left with how completely he wasn't for a fraction anyone but Peter Grimes. I didn't once think about watching Stuart Skelton. Even for his solo curtain call it took a while to shed the character. The assumption of the role was absolutely complete, dramatically and vocally. I couldn't imagine this character communicating any other way. The spoken word would never have been enough. And Skelton's big beautiful voice was so married to the word that it wasn't his natural way of dealing with his world wasn't ever in question. He was, and is, fearless - he spoke without the slightest arrogance about this in the broadcast interview. And put his vocal resources into a fearless player and you have a definitive Peter Grimes. I talked with a man before the performance who had heard both Pears and Vickers live. Now he can say he's heard Pears and Vickers and Skelton.

I keep coming back to the moment on opening night when, in the panic of the beating mob arriving at the door of his hut, he startled, let the rope slip, realising instantly what now lay before him as he spun around helplessly, tragically but never pathetically. The mob had killed the apprentice; Peter would receive the death sentence. I'll never forget that look on his face.

It's all been said

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

PETER GRIMES even more

Tonight's (Wednesday) Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes was running hot, on fire, going OFF.

Act 1 ended with a roar from the house and the sort of genuine emotional applause that can only be stopped by the house lights. People were crying. Lots of them.

Stuart Skelton was no bewildered innocent tonight. In magnificent control of his voice and the stage, he was big and masculine and proud and "I don't like interferers". The strength of his first Act set up an even more harrowing descent into tender madness.

Even more detail:

Balstrode stayed at the end of the court scene, just a few moments, the mob dispersing, lingering close behind Ellen, she unaware, and with just one look toward her we were invited into another level of complexity by Neil Armfield. That Ellen and Balstrode would later come as 'we', to take him Home, emerged in a different light. The ambiguity now includes questions about the relationship between Ellen and Balstrode - did they have a common purpose and agree just where home was; who decided what, and when.

I hadn't noticed Stuart Skelton's face as the storm approached, the crowd baying fear and begging salvation, while he beamed with excitement, anticipation, relish.

The pit is blacked out for the mad scene. The use of the spoken word by Balstrode is even more apparent as an extension of Peter's unaccompanied monologue. Without orchestration we had been taken onto another level altogether, that of Peter's madness and psychotic imaging. (I don't hear the voices of the crowd as the continuance of the hunt, but as the echos of persecution in his head.) Balstrode breaks into Peter's crazed reverie, into that altered space, and the spoken word delivers a jarring earth-bound impact, on us if not Peter, whose delivery to his death is as natural to him as it is unnatural to us.

Susan Gritton was even more radiant.

Nicholas Bakopoulos-Cooke's boy was even more heartbreaking.

Everyone was even more.

The orchestra was even more even more.

Mark Wigglesworth should be the new music director. Create the position. Even more so under the circumstances.

There was no foot stamping - you can't stamp your feet when you're standing. There was a standing ovation of clapping whooping red eyes.

Stuart Skelton hugged Nicholas Bakopoulos-Cooke.

I am even more fixated on Britten.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


Economic statement from the House of Jensen outlining how to make a small fortune:

start out with a large fortune.

1. Gamble in speculative stocks but not in tobacco and gambling
2. Ban tenants to whom you lease space (on your land that you got for nothing and don't pay tax on) from gambling related activities like selling Lotto tickets to reinforce your aversion to gambling
3. React slowly with disbelief when thing start to go bad
4. Keep reacting slowly for months
5. Sell at the bottom of the market so you end up with 44M not the 200M you started with
6. Feel bad about it, especially about the funds in which you have a special interest
7. Argue with yourself as to whether you've been ethically dubious and decide you haven't
8. Blame someone else, like God
9. Try to read God's mind, the one that twirls up hurricanes and triggers earthquakes and tsunamis
11. Tell the people who gave you the money why God might have taken all their money - they are sinners, they are arrogant, they indulged in unethical behaviour (unlike their leader), they let their elected reps go to a meeting to talk about another elected rep who thinks homosexuals may just be able to share in the divine love cake
13. Tell the people who gave you the money that if God is punishing them then that means He loves them.
14. Tell the people who gave you all the money that everything you said might be wrong anyway.
15. Resolve to reorganise things so you end up with, at the very least, a small but wealthy cult.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

PETER GRIMES more notes

Now the buzz has eased, and before I see it again, and again, there are some little niggling things in my head to let out.

The production concept, that the church hall set would be the place of story telling and the scenes would be carried on the music and the drama, seems to be an evolution from the rehearsal process. At the symposium, everyone referred to the loss that was the audience's not being involved in the development and rehearsal progression. It is as if they brought it to us just completed. Or rather took us to them, there, in this case the OA rehearsal space, the Marrickville Town Hall.

Britten, like Wagner, needs little help from the stage, and risks negative inhibition from insenstive ego centric directors, the music is so perfectly explicit. So the concept is good and the concept worked well, really well, except to the point where it breached of its own philosophy and slipped into the over demonstrative. I am not saying Armfield is insenstive or ego centric, nothing is farther from the truth. He has clearly defined his role as not getting in the way of the music, with an impeccable pedigree.

This was always going to be a fine line, just where to leave the imagination behind and display literality. The most obvious example for me, jarring to the point that it broke the 'spell', was Peter dragging the boat through the hall, which of course he wasn't, he was dragging it ashore. I wonder if these moments, another was the boys pulling the ropes across stage, wouldn't have been better mimed.

Where it worked, and that was virtually always, it was sublime and magical and inspired.

Closely associated with all this is the use of Dr Crabbe, a silent presence in the work as written, and here expanded to omnipresence (in Peter Carroll's exquisitely delicate hands) of varying degrees of dramatic penetration. Again I think the concept is wonderful, but lessened perhaps by going just, if not too far, then maybe a little too often. More viewing will help me. There were times when it was just so right - the presentation, for want of a better expression, to the court, the audience, the world, of his Peter, and his final consolation, as if now guardian angel. But there were moments in between where his presence seemed to break the dramatic pulse and pull me back out of the story making me feel a watcher where I had been a participant. I resented that a little at the time.

My other reservation, and I am loathe to mention it before going back, first night issues and all that, was Catherine Carby's Auntie. She is the foil for Balstrode. She too has an ear to both sides. Up against such tremendously powerful performances as the others were, Carby seemed not completely into the role, perhaps too young, neither worldly enough nor mother enough. But that is all pencilled in.

The male support cast was fine. Noone should be left out of praise in the production. It is exceptionally excellent throughout.


Friday, October 16, 2009

PETER GRIMES performance

Tonight we're finding comfort again in Sibelius' 7th (Vanska) - a haunting stream of consciousness on the mystery of existence, his final affirmation infused with necessary threads of doubt, in defence of doubt.

In the absence of doubt, there is festering certainty and the arrogance of fundamentalism, and never were they better exposed than in last night's Peter Grimes. Benjamin Britten's Grimes is a bleak and shocking expose of the malignancy of fear and its manifestation as judgement. In the hands of Mark Wigglesworth, Neil Armfield and the team that Richard Hickox had chosen, it is as magnificent as it is frightening.

The spectre of two ghosts haunt this production. First is that of the late Richard Hickox. This was as far forward as he had shone his light, I think, and 'now at last is gossip put to rest' in this (Hickox/Grimes) tragic story. And his ghost is heard mostly in his choice of Susan Gritton for Ellen Orford, a role debut as far as I can see (I didn't even manage to buy a programme, let alone anything else). All the other elements could have been pulled together one way or another without him (accepting Mark Wigglesworth as his worthy proxy) but Susan Gritton, risking the (already seeded) slur of outsider from our own village, comes as his final voice. And what a voice. And thank you.

The other is Dr Crabbe, written into the opera as a silent part by Britten and Slater, and enlarged by Armfield into the haunting presence of Grimes' creator, an almost transparency in Peter Carroll's exceptionally delicate nuanced portrayal, half otherworld, creator, father, guardian, angel. Nothing was more piercing than the heartbreaking moment of comfort for the deranged Peter and there I at least found the redemption I hoped for, if not from Britten, then from Peter Carroll and Neil Armfield. That was the moment we were told Peter was alright, if not the only one alright, the one to escape hell for his other place.

The curtain lifts and instantly we are there, inside the church community hall (Ralph Myers), the refuge from fear and the place of assembly for the weak seeking self reassurance. The scale of it, the immediacy and accuracy and detail is breathtaking and transporting. From the harrowing moment of Peter's first delivery to the mob, to his final delivery to his fate, it is this immediacy and detail and the clear reality of it all that is totally consuming. And overarching this, carried on the urgent musical direction of Wigglesworth of equal clarity and revelation, is the great moral tale, whose grinding inevitability was never lost for a second in the minutiae of its many segments; on the contrary, if ever something was greater than the sum of its parts, this is it. Like every stitch in Tess Schofield's costumes and the finished cloth. You are overwhelmed by the whole while stunned by the detail.

The lighting (Damien Cooper) was stunning, and beautiful, and frightening.

It is hard to describe Stuart Skelton's Peter, coming here after so much praise, a Peter less angry than I imagined from his London run, a Peter of aching sadness, a bewildered innocent. Sympathy, if not empathy, and empathy is what Skelton asks from us, is engaged from his first faltering guided entry. It is a towering total performance brilliantly nurtured by Armfield. The moment of the boy's fatal fall is one of the most inspired moments I've seen on stage. If you miss this, may God have mercy on your soul.

Susan Gritton came silently. No fanfare, little publicity, a virtual unknown down here to many. She is small, quite delicate, especially next to big Stuart, and hesitant and reserved, almost as shy as Peter, in fact another innocent I think. They are beautifully matched these innocents, outsiders together. Her declaration of failure, with its precipitous violent response and death sentence self declared, is far more understandable than that from the more arch somewhat older matronly more determined Ellens. Her pacing was magnificent, and her final meditative was of beauty and power unequalled. It is that most of all I need again, the fix, the rush, the endorphins, the beauty, the power, the unexpectedness of it.

Linking Peter and Ellen to the mob is the Captain, a wonderful character really, able to see enough into each thought system to be mediator and final decision maker, a terribly difficult role to straddle, beautifully handled by Peter Coleman-Wright, in for me a defining role, perfect for his voice and style. He is in someways the other angel on stage, the voice of each side.

I'll talk more later about the brilliant Elizabeth Campbell and her tense contained Mrs Sedley, never sliding into caricature, the unbelievably beautifully realised nieces/twins of Lorina Gore and Tarin Feibig, vocally perfect, that's perfect, dressed and lit to perfection, almost to transparency, they too now I think about it are more innocents abroad, despite whatever else they do upstairs, and who join the mob in condemnation as children do, these giggly sweet girls. Did I mention the quartet?

And the mighty chorus. As Mark Wigglesworth said, Britten could have called this The Village People. I don't pretend for a minute to understand what has gone into getting this choral masterpiece so right, so explosively powerful, balanced, with a downstage force and dynamic control to curl your hair. Thank you, thank you. And was ever a chorus better lit, or choreographed?

More, much more later. There are many more.

(It is Saturday morning now - the fabulous alto of Johnny Somerville is belting out 'Coming - at last I am free' - from Orlando. No, we don't have neighbours. Things are settling down, at least till next Wednesday.)

Sarah has already uploaded this videocast. Here it is again just to reinforce why words fail.

I am reminded of reading recently of a tattooed barely literate Texan man who was executed, a 1 minute to midnight plea of stay in view of evidence refused by the State after 10 minutes perusal, for the murder of his 2 children who were burnt to death in their house. There was an electrical fault.

Britten is looking at many things here and capital punishment is not the least of them. Sanctioned murder by those decrying murder, Mrs Sedley.